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What Does Officer Proano’s Rare Guilty Verdict Mean for Police Accountability?

As the Chicago cop faces sentencing today, we ask law professor Sheila Bedi what this case can tell us about the ongoing police reform movement.

Chicago police officer Marco Proano will be sentenced today after he was found guilty of violating civil rights when he shot at a fleeing car full of teenagers.   Photo: Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune

A veteran Chicago police officer was sentenced today to five years in prison after he was convicted earlier this year for excessive use of force.

In August, a federal jury found Marco Proano guilty of violating civil rights when he shot into a moving vehicle in December 2013 and wounded two teenagers. The rare verdict is the first time a Chicago police officer has faced federal criminal charges for an on-duty shooting in the last 15 years.

Sheila Bedi, Northwestern law professor and attorney at the school’s MacArthur Justice Center, spoke with Chicago about Proano’s case and what it means for other police shooting trials, including Jason Van Dyke’s upcoming trial for killing Laquan McDonald.

What’s the difference between Officer Proano’s case and other cases that haven’t resulted in a conviction of a police officer?

First, this case was tried in a federal court as opposed to state court. I think the video, in this case, was particularly troubling. Also, the victims, who were shotwho could have died—lived and were able to provide their testimonies. Often in other cases, the officer kills the victim and they aren’t able to tell their side of the story.

Another thing that I think is critically important: juries are educated about police, in general, these days. What is happening, the culture of violence, the culture of racism, and the lack of accountability is something that is well known to anybody who reads the papers. In many instances, it’s not difficult for the public to believe that an officer would behave in this manner, given what we have seen play out over and over and over again, both here in Chicago and across the nation.

Why was this tried in a federal court versus a state court?

The U.S. Attorney essentially decided to act in this case. The question really iswhy hasn’t the U.S. Attorney been more aggressive about seeking these types of prosecution, given the documentation that we have of Chicago police officers engaging in excessive use of force and violating people’s civil rights? I can’t speculate on the U.S. attorney’s case selection process. But I can say there are a number of similar cases, and it’s not exactly clear why this one was chosen, except for some of the reasons I mentionedthe video being clear, and the victims being able to give really powerful testimony.

What does the Proano verdict mean for the Jason Van Dyke’s case?

We don’t want to speculate. There are differences in the cases, one of them being that unfortunately, Laquan McDonald is not alive to tell his version of what happened. I don’t want to make assumptions of what a jury would do, but it does seem like juries and members of the public understand the concept of police misconduct, understand the code of silence, and are willing to believe that officers are capable of committing brutal crimes while executing their duties.

How will this case set a precedent for future officer-involved shooting lawsuits?

It makes it clear that juries are willing to convict. Juries are willing to take seriously their responsibilities to weigh the evidence, and the fact that the defendant has worn a badge is not a shield to criminal prosecution.

What does this case mean for the movement toward police accountability and transparency?

These are individual prosecutions. They are not getting at the larger systemic issues of the culture of violence, the culture of racism, and the persistent lack of accountability. These officers existed inside a system that fostered the brutal acts that were caught on videotape, and I think the question for the community, for the mayor, and Superintendent Eddie Johnson, is what is going to be put into place to stop these crimes committed by police officers once and for all? My answer is it’s not more criminal prosecution of officers. It is completely overhauling the Chicago Police Department.

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