Deadly Force Policies Ignored In Suburban Chicago
Like many small Chicago suburbs, Franklin Park bought its police department’s boilerplate shooting policy online with standard provisions declaring officers shouldn’t open fire in the direction of colleagues or shoot at moving cars.
But both those policies were ignored the night of Jan. 11, 2010 when Sgt. Fred Dede’s finger was blown off in blaze of police gunfire intended to stop a mentally ill former music teacher from using his car as a weapon.
It was not the first or the last time those or similar policies were disregarded in police work in Cook County suburbs, according to a review of 113 police shootings there since 2005.
An investigation by the Better Government Association and WBEZ found more than a third of those cases involved decisions that raise new questions about how well those policies are written and enforced in small suburban departments.
Those questionable shootings include at least 20 in which officers fired at moving cars, 30 where suspects were not armed and a half-dozen where police either shot each other or innocent bystanders, the BGA/WBEZ investigation found.
In addition, seven suburban police officers stymied investigators by invoking their right not to speak about shootings they were involved in for fear of incriminating themselves, records show.
“Isn’t that amazing?” said Peter Moskos, a policing science instructor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a former Baltimore officer. “If there is shady stuff going on, it’s much more likely to happen both intentionally and unintentionally in small towns and counties where there is no oversight, everyone knows each other, and there’s a natural inclination to prove a shooting justified.”
As a national spotlight falls on what critics have described as a poorly trained and sometimes reckless Chicago police force, a BGA/WBEZ examination reveals a broader — and potentially more perilous — problem lurking just outside the city limits where smaller departments haphazardly adopt, and rarely enforce, required policies on use of deadly force.
The review included an examination of 44 policies used by police departments in Cook County suburbs, police records in shooting cases provided as part of records requests, as well as dozens of interviews with police experts, chiefs and training professionals. It found a lack of direction about how suburban officers are supposed to react under potentially deadly circumstances and an almost complete absence of any procedural investigations or post-shooting remediation.
This story is part of a joint project of WBEZ and the Better Government Association. See the stories here.
Suburban police chiefs and experts said a lack of resources and a fervent desire for community policing drives a system where departments — as well as the police officers they employ — are often asked to do too much with too little.
“If you ask any chief, it’s very rare that they’ll say that ‘I have enough officers,’” said Robert Collins Jr., police chief in south suburban Dolton. “For the level of activity that we see here, we don’t have enough officers. And when you hire officers, it takes money to do that. Unfortunately, sometimes there’s not a lot of money to hire what you need, you have to make due with what you have.”
Most police agencies have policies on the use of deadly force that mirror longstanding national legal standards and Illinois law in allowing officers to resort to it only when “necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or another, or the commission of a forcible felony.”
That fear of imminent death typically serves as the basis for how police justify shootings.
But there are also long-established police science, guidelines and training designed to mitigate tragedy. Academy training programs and police procedure textbooks are filled with methods to help officers cope with the stress of such decisions, to quickly survey surroundings, to de-escalate emotional confrontations, and to keep up with an ever-evolving police science that helps dictate when it is appropriate to draw a weapon, let alone pull the trigger.
“Officers are taught that they are responsible for every round that goes down range,” said Raymond Cordell, a former director of the Suburban Law Enforcement Academy where many suburban police officers are trained.
“They need to know what their target is and what’s beyond. The bad guys don’t really care. What’s behind them? Is there a brick wall behind them, is there a playground beyond them?”
Of the 44 use of force policies examined by the BGA and WBEZ, many had boilerplate language downloaded from companies that act as a sort of cop version of LegalZoom, offering plug-and-play best practices for police departments. More than half of policies analyzed do not address the nuances of how to interact with people who are mentally ill, drunk or on drugs.
“When you are dealing with someone who is mentally ill, because they are scared or whatever, they pick up a rock or a knife or a hammer or whatever it is, and they are scared,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “You point a gun at them, you raise their anxiety level, it’s the exact opposite of what psychologists and hostage negotiators will tell you.”
Use of force policies also vary from police department to police department.
“I think the biggest problem we have in this country is that we have 18,000 police departments with 18,000 sets of policies and 18,000 ways of doing business,” said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, in a 2012 report on de-escalation and minimizing use of force from the Police Executive Research Forum. At the time Acevedo was chief in Austin, Texas.
In Cook County suburbs, many departments that have use-of-force policies nonetheless may not always enforce them, the BGA/WBEZ examination found.
'Oh my God, he just shot me'
In response to an open records request, Franklin Park police provided its shooting investigation policy for 2017 that contained references to crimes occurring in “Name your jurisdiction” and numerous mentions of “Department acronym” and “[DistrictCountyAttorney]’s Office” that were never filled out.
Franklin Park’s use of force policy — which lacks any mention of dealing with the mentally ill — came into play the night of Jan. 11, 2010, when officers said they spotted Daniel Mojziszek, a 52-year-old former music teacher, driving erratically on Mannheim Road.
After a low-speed chase that traveled into the neighboring suburb of Northlake, rookie officer Joseph Gulino used his patrol car to run Mojziszek off the road and then wedged the car against a snowbank, records show.
Gulino was soon joined by several officers, including Franklin Park Sgt. Fred Dede, who approached Mojziszek’s car on foot, according to police reports.
As Dede stood on the driver's side of Mojziszek’s car and Gulino remained behind the wheel of his vehicle, Mojziszek once again tried to get away by hitting the gas pedal, reports say.
Reports say Mojziszek’s car began to rock back and forth and was stuck in the snow. Gulino told investigators he was afraid the car might break loose and injure other officers, so he fired at Mojziszek through the squad car’s passenger window and into Mojziszek’s car.
Gulino later said in a lawsuit deposition that Mojziszek had an “uncontrollable look of outrage on his face,” gave him an obscene gesture with his middle finger and then hit the accelerator. Mojziszek’s ex-wife told police she believed he was bipolar.
Although three officers opened fire at Mojziszek that night from different directions, police reports describe how Gulino’s passenger door window was blown out, how the suspect’s car was riddled with bullets, and how Mojziszek was shot in the head.
In the chaos, one of the police bullets took off Dede’s right index finger, reports say, and Gulino was the only officer firing in Dede’s direction.
Dede later said in a deposition that glass from the suspect’s car window exploded in his face in the blaze of gunfire.
“I turned to the left thinking that my face was sheared off ... because the impact was so strong,” Dede said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, he just shot me.’
“And I can’t say who shot or where they were or what was going on, but I can tell you that I saw … the weapons open up or the flash come out,” Dede said. “I heard bullets whiz by or projectiles whiz by my head.”
Dede had no idea at the time that he was shot by a fellow officer. According to police reports, two other officers were also firing in his direction.
Mojziszek suffered gunshot wounds to the head, thigh and hand, and later died in a hospital emergency room.
Dede now wears a prosthetic for his missing finger, and was later granted a $55,000 annual disability pension in addition to his roughly $43,000 annual pay as a civilian evidence technician, records show. It was a job created specifically for Dede because of his injury.
Two other Franklin Park officers, James Figueroa and Sgt. Joseph O’Connor, also fired their weapons. Figueroa said he shot at the car’s “passenger side tire and engine,” a practice widely criticized by police experts as ineffective.
O’Connor said he fired one round into the front passenger side window as the car began moving toward the officers.
Mojziszek’s brother, John, said he hopes Gulino “feels some guilt.”
“He’s going through, to the best of my knowledge, and leading his life with his family as if nothing happened,” John Mojziszek said. “He’s still on the payroll, getting his annual raises and his health insurance and his 401(k), and my brother’s gone.”
Franklin Park’s deadly force policy advises officers not to shoot at occupied vehicles, or when other officers are in the line of fire.
Neither Gulino nor the other officers were disciplined or charged, records show. Mojziszek’s son’s lawsuit against Gulino and the village of Franklin Park is still being litigated.
“Of course there’s no discipline because they didn’t investigate,” said Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and an expert on police accountability. “Why did you not find the Easter eggs? Well, you didn’t go look for them.”
All of the officers and Franklin Park’s police chief declined to be interviewed for this story.
Experts in police tactics cite a variety of reasons why shooting at vehicles is ill-advised. Bullets can ricochet, endangering bystanders. Hitting the window glass often changes a bullet’s path. In the unlikely event the driver is hit, a car could then careen out of control with a wounded driver.
“Our policy approach on shooting at fleeing vehicles is that first off, recognize that it generally does not work, and it’s dangerous,’’ said Ken Wallentine, senior legal advisor to Lexipol, a national police training and policy firm that provided use of force policies to more than one-third of the Cook County suburban departments included in the BGA/WBEZ review.
“A one-ounce piece of lead is typically not going to stop a 2,500-pound motor vehicle,” Wallentine said. “That said, there are circumstances where perhaps that is the most reasonable of a number of very unhappy alternatives.”
Lexipol’s boilerplate policies on shooting at moving cars reads like this one from Franklin Park: “Shots fired at or from a moving vehicle are rarely effective.”
Walker, the police tactics expert from the University of Nebraska, agreed.
“Going back to the ’70s and early ’80s, police departments across the country for the first time emphasized not shooting at moving vehicles,” Walker said. “I think, just given the news accounts I’ve seen, there’s been a lot of slippage on that, and going back to permitting it. I think that’s been a really bad trend.”
Shootings by New York City police officers dropped 90 percent after that department curtailed police shooting toward moving cars back in the early 1970s, according to a 2015 report from the Police Executive Research Forum. In 2017, Chicago police updated a use of force policy to limit when officers should fire at moving vehicles.
In November, Chicago officer Marco Proano was sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted on excessive force charges when he fired his service weapon into a moving car with several teenagers inside.
In the Cook County suburbs, policies on shooting at moving cars vary from department to department. Most advise against it. Some don’t address it at all.
The shooting in Franklin Park was among 20 cases reviewed by the BGA and WBEZ in which officers fired at or from moving cars. In Dolton, one officer in a squad car leaned out the passenger window to fire at a suspect during a high-speed chase that crossed Interstate 94. A Forest Park officer chasing a suspect fired through his passenger window during a chase that ended in Chicago.
Some suburban police chiefs defended the practice, arguing it should be up to an officer's discretion.
“There’s instances where you can shoot at a moving vehicle,” Hillside Police Chief Joseph Lukaszek said. “It depends on the circumstances surrounding every incident.”
Cordell, the former academy director, said officers are trained in critical decision making techniques under stress — including obvious tactics such as avoiding crossfire scenarios, endangering bystanders and getting out of the way of a moving car rather than shooting at it.
Shooting from moving cars also is not taught because it “only works in the movies” and shooting out the tires of moving cars is “Hollywood stuff,” Cordell said.
Recruits also learn other basic principles like de-escalation techniques so they can act as a calming influence during confrontations.
“If you are at a higher level of use of force when a person is compliant, you will de-escalate it down, you don’t keep ramping it up afterwards,” Cordell said. “It’s not a static type of a thing, it moves up and it moves down.”
Officers invoke right not to talk
Mental illness training, including how to talk to suspects and what to say, has recently been prioritized in the latest curriculum, according to Michael Schlosser, director of the University of Illinois Police Training Institute.
“We’re thinking to ourselves that this really isn’t a criminal situation as much as it is a medical situation,” Schlosser said of the police training regarding encounters with emotionally disturbed people.
Jim O’Grady, the senior policy advisor for the Illinois State Police, said during a November meeting of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority that mental illness training for street cops is among his top priorities.
The BGA and WBEZ examined at least three dozen cases in which police officers fired weapons at suspects who were under the influence of drugs or alcohol or showed signs of mental illness or disability, according to police records.
The review also found several cases in which internal policies may help contribute to a culture of tolerance when it comes to questionable shootings.
For instance, few suburban departments have yet to comply with a 2017 state law that requires all police agencies to develop a drug-testing policy for officers involved in shootings. The BGA found about 25 percent of the suburban departments surveyed already had drug-testing policies in place.
The investigation also found a dozen departments — among them Harvey, North Riverside and Hillside — that had no requirement for post-shooting counseling to deal with the psychological toll a shooting might take on an officer.
The analysis also found cases where shooting probes were stymied by officers who refused to speak with investigators about shootings they were involved in, a practice not allowed in Chicago.
Consider the March 19, 2016 fatal shooting of 21-year-old Thurman Reynolds by four different Park Forest officers who riddled the suspected burglar’s body with as many as nine bullets, records show.
According to police reports, Reynolds was confronted by officer Tim Jones as he crawled out of a house window holding a handgun. The official account suggests Reynolds shot at Jones, hitting him twice in the head. Four other officers then shot and killed Reynolds in a torrent of gunfire.
But the full story of what happened that night may never be known to investigators, because the four officers who opened fire declined to speak with state police on the advice of their police union counsel, records show.
Police reports say investigators found three spent shells from Reynold’s gun that night, but never recovered those bullets. Though shot through the brain, Jones survived. Park Forest Deputy Police Chief Paul Winfrey said the officers’ decision not to talk may have been influenced by another Park Forest incident in 2013 in which an officer faced criminal charges.
In that case, officer Craig Taylor was acquitted of reckless conduct charges in the death of a 95-year-old man he shot with a bean-bag gun, which is designed to be a less-lethal police alternative to guns. Park Forest settled a civil lawsuit filed by the man’s family for $1.1 million.
The police union that represents Park Forest officers did not return telephone messages.
Another case in which officers declined to speak with investigators happened in Harvey, a department long criticized for its handling of police shootings. Since 2005, the southern suburb has experienced nine police involved shootings. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice found Harvey’s internal process for investigating its officers’ use of force “grossly deficient.”
On April 13, 2014, Harvey officers Anthony Steel and Jose Gomez went to a Motel 6 on South Halsted Avenue around 10:30 a.m. on an armed robbery call, reports say.
By the time they arrived, 20-year-old Charles Brown was already in his car leaving the parking lot after robbing motel guests. He had falsely claimed to be an undercover police officer in a prostitution sting.
What happened next is contradicted even within the state police investigative file.
According to an eyewitness statement to state police, two officers on foot confronted Brown outside his car, which the witness said was not moving. She said one of the officers opened fire into the stopped car, which only then began moving in reverse as the fatally wounded Brown slumped in the driver’s seat.
The witness told investigators she saw Brown’s head “go back and then forward” as he was being shot by one of the two officers.
But the state police’s final summary of its investigation appears to differ from the witness account, suggesting that the witness told investigators Brown was driving his car at one of the officers — a fact contradicted by the witness statement itself.
Both Steel and Gomez refused to speak with investigators.
State police officials declined to be interviewed about the apparent contradiction.
This story is a joint project of WBEZ and the Better Government Association.
How we did this
To compile this report, the Better Government Association and WBEZ examined tens of thousands of pages of documents obtained through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act for every time a police officer fired a gun in a Cook County suburb since January 1, 2005 in which at least one person was wounded.
Among the agencies that provided documents were the Illinois State Police Public Integrity Task Force, which conducts an investigation in every such shooting to determine whether the police officers involved are criminally liable, states attorney’s offices, medical examiners and municipal police departments. In addition, the BGA and WBEZ analyzed lawsuit files, arrest records, police use-of-force policies and officer disciplinary records for each of the officers involved.
The result is the first-ever comprehensive and searchable database of suburban Cook County police shootings that provides details of the officers involved and demographic information for those who were shot.
From these documents — as well as interviews with officers, their supervisors and numerous police experts — profiles of each shooting were developed in order to determine which of the shootings raise questions about training, policies or police decisions.
Because this examination raises questions about a shooting, that does not necessarily mean the shooting was unjustified. It simply means an examination of the data available suggests the potential exists that policies were not followed, mistakes may have been made, or that police decisions — before, during, or after a shooting — may have contributed in some way to the tragic events that unfolded.
Criminal justice reporting and investigative journalism at WBEZ is supported in part by Doris and Howard Conant and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.