Chicago Police Officer Gildardo Sierra will not face any criminal charges for the killing of an unarmed man, Cook County prosecutors announced Tuesday, despite video footage that showed Sierra standing over the victim, Flint Farmer, and shooting him multiple times. Prosecutors concluded that Sierra may have reasonably mistaken Farmer’s cell phone for a gun, and therefore was justified in firing off all 16 rounds in his gun at the unarmed man.
Farmer was Sierra’s third shooting in six months, yet the officer remained on the job. The video showed Farmer lying on the ground bleeding as Sierra shot three bullets into his back. An autopsy later determined those three shots in his back were the fatal wounds.
Sierra eventually admitted that he drank “multiple” beers before he went to work that night. However, the city waited more than five hours after the shooting to give him a breath test, so there was no way to tell if he was impaired during the shooting.
The CPD also ruled Farmer’s shooting justified, though Superintendent Garry McCarthy later told the Chicago Tribune that Sierra should not have been allowed back on the street after the two previous shootings. McCarthy said the department had no way of tracking officers’ shooting records.
In the prosecutors’ defense, putting a cop in prison is remarkably difficult. Police officers are allowed to shoot if they fear for their lives, and proving that use of force was “unreasonable” sets a very high bar. Few police who have used force under suspicious circumstances ever face a judge. A 2007 study by UChicago law professor Craig Futterman found that just 19 of 10,149 complains of excessive force, illegal searches, racial abuse, sexual abuse, and false arrests led to a police suspension of a week or more. Individual police officers are also largely protected from damages claims in civil court through “qualified immunity.”
Though Sierra has gotten off essentially scot-free for his actions, Chicago taxpayers are not so lucky. The city settled a lawsuit over Farmer’s death for $4.1 million in December. Chicago has already paid out about $50 million to settle lawsuits from decades of police torture, and recently paid $8.5 million on behalf of an officer who shot a teenager in the back. Other cities plagued by police misconduct have had to shell out similarly large sums; New York taxpayers paid $185.6 million for one fiscal year of lawsuits against officers, and police misconduct cost Oakland, CA more than $13 million in fiscal year 2011.