Earlier this year, the city of Chicago settled with the family of Flint Farmer, who was shot by Officer Gildardo Sierra in June 2011, for $4.1 million but made no admission of guilt. Sierra fired 16 rounds, hitting the unarmed Farmer seven times. It was Sierra's third shooting, and second fatal shooting, in six months. The officer admitted to having been drinking before coming into work. A dashboard cam caught video of a part of the shooting, which appeared to show Sierra shooting Farmer in the back as Farmer lay on the ground. At the time the city's police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, said the shooting was a "big problem" and that the department shouldn't have sent Sierra back on the streets after the first two shootings.
Nevertheless, prosecutors cleared Sierra in the Farmer shooting, accepting the officer's claim that he feared for his life and insisting the situation was more complicated than the video suggested. Via the Chicago Tribune:
The prosecutors said although the videotape of the shooting was damning, showing muzzle flashes and suggesting Sierra stood over Farmer as he shot him in the back, the continued investigation yielded forensic and other evidence that led the prosecutors to conclude that the incident was more complex.
"The video is actually somewhat maddening," [Assistant State's Attorney] Trutenko said. "It's why we run out every ground ball."
Proscutors said the fact Sierra admitted to drinking "multiple" beers before coming to work, after lying about it, wasn't crucial; police didn't test Sierra for alcohol until at least 5 hours later, and say he got a zero. Sierra says he mistook a burgundy cellphone he says Farmer, who fled from police after a domestic disturbance call, pointed at him. Prosecutors s ay they found evidence to back Sierra's story. Via the Tribune again:
Prosecutors pointed to several key pieces of evidence in deciding against charging the officer. One was a wound to Farmer's right hand that suggested he was pointing his arm at Sierra when he was shot. Prosecutors believe that was one of the first shots, if not the first, to hit him. In addition, DNA tests showed that blood on Farmer's phone was his, suggesting he was holding the phone when shot. The other shots followed, with the last three hitting Farmer in the back.
Prosecutors said their investigation showed that all 16 shots — all that Sierra's Sig Sauer semi-automatic handgun could hold — were fired within 4.2 seconds as Sierra moved laterally from the street to the sidewalk, the gun ejecting the spent shells as he moved. That allowed prosecutors to chart a probable sequence of events and also to understand that Sierra was reacting rapidly under dark and difficult conditions.
Sierra told investigators he feared for his life because he believed Farmer had a gun. Under state law, police officers can continue firing at a suspect until they believe the threat has ended.
Illinois has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country, yet its rules of engagement for police aren't. It's a tacit admission that its gun control laws don't work, allowing cops to keep shooting based merely on their belief of a threat.
Coupled with the job security provided by generous public union contracts (Sierra will likely remain on the job, if not in the streets), the permissiveness toward police shootings can breed a highly aggressive attitude among police officers, as witnessed with Sierra. The city of Chicago set aside a whopping $27 million in taxpayer money to settle police brutality claims in 2013, and blew through that money by March. At the same time, the police union was demanding a 12 percent pay raise and bonuses for having to live in the city of Chicago, while the police department said it couldn't afford to respond to every 911 call.
The justice system, then, defers to police officers in cases of deadly force, while the police union restricts the department from taking the kind of severe disciplinary measures that might increase the perceived cost to the police officer of doing something like firing 16 rounds in 4 seconds. As it stands, the costs are shouldered by the victims, and in the case of settlements, by the taxpayers too.