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City Council Finance Committee Signs Off On $10.7 Million In Settlements For Lawsuits Against Police Officers

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Chicago taxpayers will soon be on the hook for nearly $11 million more to settle lawsuits accusing police officers of misconduct, including a $10 million payout to a man left a paraplegic when police officers shot him during a foot chase in 2012.

Tarance Etheredge sued the city and five officers after he was left paralyzed from the waist down when Officer Mark Heinzel shot him in the back yard of a home in the South Shore neighborhood on Dec. 17, 2012.

By a 20-7 vote on Tuesday, the City Council Finance Committee signed off on a $10 million settlement of his lawsuit.

First Assistant Corporation Counsel Renai Rodney said two plainclothes tactical officers driving an unmarked police car claimed they saw Etheredge "acting suspiciously" near 75th and Stony Island, and decided to perform a stop and call him over to the car.

"According to the officers, Etheredge kept looking at the police car, and was seen fidgeting with and holding his side," she said.

However, Etheredge has claimed they did not identify themselves as officers when they yelled "come here," and he ran away in fear of his safety.

One of the officers began chasing him on foot, while the other chased him in the unmarked squad car. After chasing Etheredge through nearby alleys, Heinzel caught up to him in the back yard of a home near 77th and Harper.

According to Rodney, Heinzel claimed when he saw Etheredge near the garage, he was holding a gun, and pointing it at a gangway. Fearing his partner might be coming through that gangway, Heinzel said he ordered Etheredge to drop the weapon, and shot him when he turned his head.

While Etheredge has admitted he was carrying a gun for protection, he has said he was not holding it when he was shot.

"There was no legal justification to point, threaten, or fire a firearm at or utilize deadly force," his lawsuit claimed.

Rodney said another officer chasing Etheredge that night reported he didn't see a gun in Etheredge's hand, and a witness who saw Etheredge on the ground immediately after the shooting didn't see a gun near him.

With no video evidence to back up either Heinzel's account or Etheredge's account of the shooting, Rodney said the city would be at risk of a verdict much larger than $10 million if the case were to go to trial. She said there were also no suitable fingerprints on the gun for analysis, and Etheredge had no prior criminal convictions.

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said, because of the conflicting accounts and lack of video evidence, he supported settling the case, but he said the evidence suggests police were justified to fear for their safety given that there's no dispute Etheredge had a gun.

"The presence of a gun in this armed confrontation with police, I think, suggests that the validity of their fear is valid," he said. "There's reason to fear for your life anytime you're a police officer and you're confronted with an armed offender who is not complying with your requests to drop the weapon."

The Finance Committee also voted in favor of two other settlements involving allegations of police misconduct.

Refugio Ruiz-Cortez would receive a $400,000 settlement from the city after spending more than a decade behind bars on a drug conviction tainted by testimony from corrupt former Officer Greg Lewellen, who later was convicted of a lengthy drug trafficking conspiracy.

Ruiz-Cortez was convicted of drug charges in 1999 and was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison, but federal prosecutors later moved to dismiss the indictment and set him free in May 2010. Ruiz-Cortez claimed Lewellen, an informant, and others framed him on the drug charges.

According to published reports, Ruiz-Cortez took his lawsuit against Lewellen and the city to trial in 2016, but a jury balked at an $11 million payout.

The other settlement approved in committee on Tuesday was a $270,000 payout Cruz and Aurea Rodriguez, over injuries they suffered when police raided their home in May 2014.

The couple said police broke down the door to their home without a warrant or probable cause, knocked Aurea to the ground, and placed Cruz in a chokehold and slammed him to the ground.

However, Rodney said officers were responding to reports of a fight in the family's front yard, and their son hit an officer in the face, then ran inside the house.

The settlement in the Rodriguez case was approved by a 14-11 vote by the Finance Committee.

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th), one of the aldermen who voted against the payout, said the entire ordeal could have been avoided had the Rodriguez's son not hit a police officer.

"There's never an excuse to swing at an officer, and for us to once again be asked to reward bad behavior is not something I'm comfortable with," he said.

The settlements now go to the full City Council for a vote on Wednesday.

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