by Todd Feurer, CBS Chicago web producer
CHICAGO (CBS) — Aldermen have given preliminary approval to a total of $950,000 in settlements for three lawsuits over claims of police misconduct, but have rejected a proposed $125,000 deal with a woman who witnessed the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald in 2014 and accused investigators of pressuring her to change her story.
Alma Benitez says detectives accused her of lying about what she saw, and tried to convince her to change her account of the shooting, claiming dashboard camera video contradicted her assertion McDonald was not a threat to police when Officer Jason Van Dyke shot him 16 times.
Three years after Benitez sued the city over her treatment that night, the city’s Law Department negotiated a $125,000 settlement of her lawsuit late last year, but a December vote in the City Council Finance Committee was delayed when several aldermen raised objections to the sum that would be paid to Benitez.
First Assistant Corporation Counsel Renai Rodney said the Finance Committee’s decision to reject the proposed settlement does not necessarily mean Benitez’s lawsuit against the city will go to trial.
“The parties continue to negotiate the settlement. We haven’t walked away from that,” she said. “Negotiations are ongoing. We’re not automatically going back to court, but the amount that was initially proposed, we recognize City Council would not approve, so we’re exploring alternative options.”
Rodney said it’s possible the city could reach a new settlement agreement that does not require City Council approval, if the payment is $100,000 or less.
Meantime, the Finance Committee approved three other settlements in lawsuits accusing police of misconduct.
The largest is a $500,000 payment to Andy Jardinas, who accused a police officer of shoving him to the ground while handcuffed, in a police lockup in 2016, causing a skull fracture and bleeding on the brain.
Rodney said Jardinas had been handcuffed behind his back in a cell in the lockup at the 9th District police station on Nov. 5, 2016, but managed to manipulate the cuffs to get his arms in front of him, and start banging on the glass of the lockup.
Jardinas’ lawsuit accused Officer Rodrigo Corona of returning to the cell, and shoving him with both hands, causing severe head injuries when his head hit the floor.
Rodney said Corona claimed Jardinas lunged at him when he went into the cell, but an investigation by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability determined surveillance video footage could not prove or disprove whether Jardinas lunged at the officer.
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said it’s “disturbing” that the city is still defending against such excessive force lawsuits nearly two years after the city agreed to enter into a consent decree to oversee sweeping changes in the department, largely in response to the Laquan McDonald shooting.
Hairston and other aldermen were particularly upset Corona has been allowed to remain on the force, never faced any disciplinary action, and was even allowed to remain a field training officer until July 2019, despite what happened with Jardinas.
“The Police Department still has not gotten the message about brutality and their conduct,” she said. “What’s troubling, again, is that we have a consent decree that the Police Department still refuses — and I will use the word refuses — to change their ways. There should have been no way on God’s green Earth this man should have been a field training officer.”
Another settlement approved by the Finance Committee on Monday is a $300,000 payment to Police Officer Kelly Hespe, who accused a supervisor, Sgt. Gerald Breimon, of a “pattern of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse” while the two were dating for three years.
Hespe has said the entire relationship was non-consensual, and that Breimon forced her to begin having sex with her in 2009, after he was assigned to the district where she was stationed. She has said she went along with his demands, out of fear of retaliation.
In a federal lawsuit, Hespe claimed Breimon forced her to have sex multiple times over three years while they were assigned to the 14th District, and becoming abusive and retaliating against her when she tried to end the relationship.
After repeatedly sending her lewd sexual messages on Facebook while on and off duty, and telling her no one would believe her if she complained, Hespe said Breimon started forcing her to have sex with her in his squad car, in his office, and in a police station storage room.
Hespe said Breimon also forced her to carpool with him from December 2010 through November 2012, so he could have sex with her in the parking lot before and after work.
She said she gave in to his demands for sex out of fear of retaliation. She claimed Breimon told her his mother was a former high-ranking police official who still had powerful connections, and would “get rid” of her if Hespe ever complained about his harassment.
Hespe also said Breimon threatened to kill himself when she would refuse his demands for sex.
Breimon was a sergeant at the time, and has since been promoted to the rank of lieutenant.
Hespe went on medical leave in March 2013, and when that expired in April 2014, she went on unpaid leave, but still remains a member of the force.
Some aldermen questioned why the city should pay the $300,000 settlement in the case, and not Breimon himself, arguing his actions were outside the scope of his employment as a police officer.
“That’s not a part of his duty to force her to have sex with him,” Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) said.
However, Ald. Michele Smith (18th) said it has been long established that employers can be held financially liable for sexual harassment of their employees.
“The only way to avoid that is to find that a company has taken reasonable steps to make sure that these things don’t happen,” she said. “It is not uncommon in a sexual harassment or quid pro quo case where a woman believed, in order to protect or advance her career, she has to engage in sex. Now, let’s discuss the state of the world today. I think that’s the basis of the ‘Me Too’ movement.”
Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), a former police officer, said Hespe bears some responsibility herself for willingly having sex with someone while on duty in a police station and in police vehicles.
“I find that kind of outrageous that we’re not looking to fire her, and she wasn’t fired,” Taliaferro said. “I can’t support a settlement on her behalf after conducting herself in this manner as well. I’m not condoning anything that [Breimon] may or may not have done, but I can’t condone her actions either, being a police officer on duty, conducting herself like that.”
Smith said she was “frankly, very disturbed” by any argument that Hespe’s behavior somehow excuses the city from any financial liability.
“That just is not the law, and many of us, and many of our foremothers fought for that not to be the law, going back to the 70s,” she said. “Whether or not she engaged in activities that might titillate some people, or that people believe looking at it from far think are consensual … that’s not good public policy. That’s what women have been fighting for for a very long time in order to be judged as equals in the workplace.”
The final settlement approved Monday was a $150,000 payment to Travon Gardner and his sister, Treonia Gardner, who say two police officers choked and beat Travon after pulling him over in 2016. The Gardners also have said officers snatched away Treonia’s phone and smashed it against their car when she recorded the incident, injuring her hand.
Rodney said Officers James Haworth and Zachary Gammonley were looking for a shooting suspect when they pulled Travon over while he was driving near 77th and Central Park on Aug. 14, 2016, after seeing him using a cell phone while driving. The Gardner’s lawsuit accused the officers of forcing him out of his car, even though there was no reason to believe he had committed a crime.
The Gardners claimed, after the officers arrested Travon, they choked him and hit him in the head and neck, and when Tereonia recorded them with her phone, they took her phone away and repeatedly slammed it against the back of Travon’s car.
After handcuffing Travon and putting him in the back seat of their squad car, the lawsuit claims the officers repeatedly and intentionally sped up and braked, slamming his face and head into the divider of the patrol car.
Austin called the officers’ behavior “absolutely ridiculous,” accusing police of stopping the Gardners for “frivolous reasons” and then berating them for their behavior afterward.
All three settlements approved by the Finance Committee on Monday now go to the full City Council for a vote on Wednesday.