The accounts of both sides converged only at the end: the death of Dantwan Betts, who was shot and killed by Chicago Police Officer Richard Doroniuk.

Before that point, much differed.

The story told in the complaint filed in the Betts family’s lawsuit was a brief one. Early on the morning of April 30, 2006, Doroniuk and two other officers approached Betts’ car near the intersection of 110th Street and Wallace Avenue. They then tried, without either a reason or a search warrant, to arrest Betts, the complaint said.

Doroniuk and his partner, Mahmoud Shamah, drew their weapons, and Doroniuk fired his gun multiple times at Betts. Betts died after suffering “great pain, emotional distress, mental anguish and permanent injury,” the complaint said.

After the shooting, though, Monique Bond, director of news affairs for the Chicago Police Department, told a dramatically different story.

In Bond’s version, Betts was a suspect in a carjacking. The officers parked their unmarked car in front of Betts’ car. Doroniuk approached the driver’s side of the car, identified himself as a police officer and asked Betts to step out of the car.

Betts refused. Instead, he backed his car into another officer, Bond said. “The officer [near the driver’s side] feared for his life and his fellow officer’s life,” she was quoted as saying in media accounts the day after the shooting.

Every time a police shooting occurs in Chicago, a roundtable meeting consisting of high-ranking police officers is convened shortly after the event to preliminarily assess the circumstances and determine accountability. In the Betts shooting, the roundtable found Doroniuk to have complied with “department guidelines.”

In media accounts, Bond also noted that Doroniuk had had no history of disciplinary actions against him.

But he had been the subject of many lawsuits–”including six suits for incidents before the Betts shooting.

In 2003, for instance, Doroniuk allegedly pointed his weapon at off-duty police officer Chauncey Moore while Moore’s daughter Essence was in the car. Doroniuk was also accused of lying under oath about Moore’s having identified himself as an officer, according to court documents.

In 2005, Doroniuk was accused of illegally entering Corbin Johnson’s home in the Washington Heights neighborhood.

According to court documents, Doroniuk cursed and threatened Johnson before falsely stating that Johnson was in possession of narcotics. Charges against Johnson were later dismissed, and the City of Chicago agreed to pay him $46,000 in a settlement.

And, in 2006, Doroniuk was accused by Larry Ballentine of having committed an illegal search of his car and arresting him before filing drugs charges that were later dismissed. The city settled for $30,000.

Doroniuk’s extensive record in court is not unique.

The Chicago Reporter examined 85 fatal police shootings since 2000 and identified 17 wrongful death suits filed in federal court using the victims’ names. Though the Chicago Police Department does not disclose the names of officers who shoot civilians, the Reporter found the names of 20 officers who were identified in the lawsuits as a shooter. The Reporter’s investigation into the officers’ previous litigation history found that nine – or 45 percent – of them had been sued previously in either federal or circuit court.

Many people interviewed for this story acknowledged that many officers work under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Questioned about the Reporter’s finding during a press conference in September, Mayor Richard M. Daley also pointed out that being sued does not constitute a proof of guilt. “Anybody can sue anybody in America, and it does happen,” he said.

Still, some wondered if some of the fatal shootings could have been prevented had the police department paid closer attention to the legal action taken against its officers, suggesting that an officer being the subject of multiple lawsuits should be a signal to the department to investigate his or her behavior.

“There are 13,000 officers in the Chicago Police Department, and the proportion who violate rights in proportion to those who generate a lawsuit is very small,” said Jon Loevy, founding attorney at civil rights law firm Loevy and Loevy. “Getting sued, particularly more than once, is really crossing the line in a way that could put the city on notice that extra scrutiny is merited.”

Alderman Freddrenna Lyle of the 6th Ward concurred. “Clearly, it is indicative of a problem we have with an ability to … weed out officers with a propensity to shoot,” she said.

And others say that police behavior will escalate if it is not scrutinized.

“There’s a progression,” said Howard Saffold, a former Chicago police officer who now serves as chief executive officer of Positive Anti-Crime Thrust, the educational branch of the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League, an organization dedicated to improving police service to the black community. “If you don’t check the disrespect at verbal, the next thing is physical contact, [and on it goes.]”

These police officers’ actions, which have cost the city more than $7 million, resulted in lawsuits that were filed at the same time when most fatal police shootings appear to be declared justified. According to the Reporter’s examination of media accounts, officers involved in all but one fatal police shooting were found by the roundtable to have acted appropriately.

Bond of the police department said that the figure was too low but could not say how many shootings had been determined to have been outside the guidelines.

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This issue took on even more relevancy this summer as fatal police shootings dominated Chicago news headlines.

Neighborhoods such as North Lawndale were the site of weeks of protests by residents wracked with grief and outraged by the declaration of the shootings as justified.

The spate of shootings came at a time when the city was under pressure to find a right replacement for former Superintendent Phil Cline, who resigned after a number of well-publicized incidents of police abuse, and when a new body to oversee police behavior received unanimous approval by the Chicago City Council.

And even as the number of homicides in the city has been dropping since 2000, the average number of fatal police shootings per year increased more than 30 percent between January 2004 to September 2007, compared with the number during January 2000 to December 2003.

The Rev. Robin Hood, pastor of Redeemed Outreach Ministries in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, said the combination of police behavior that has led to repeated lawsuits but minimal internal discipline has had many negative consequences.

Among the most important: heightened distrust of police by residents in communities most affected by the shootings; diminished credibility of those people in the community advocating for peace; and a greater likelihood of community members and police having hostile interactions, which often happen shortly before a fatal police shooting.

“It’s a cycle that perpetuates more police versus civilian violence – that’s the part that scares me,” Hood said. “There could have been some [preventable] escalating violence by police toward civilians if there were steps followed by the Chicago Police Department after discovering that there were problems with [a particular officer].”

Throughout the reporting for this story, officials from the police department remained tight-lipped. It was back in June 2006 when the Reporter filed the first of four Freedom of Information Act requests to the department for the details on fatal police shootings –including the names of victims, the locations of the shootings, as well as identities of the officers involved. Since then, the department has responded by supplying only the number of shootings between 2004 and May 2007, as well as redacted detectives’ reports for nine 2004 shootings.

Officials from the police department repeatedly declined the Reporter’s requests for comment on the details of the shootings mentioned in this story or on critics’ assessments of how the department has handled police shootings. Mark Donahue, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Chicago Lodge No. 7, also declined to comment. The Reporter also tried through the department to contact each of the officers mentioned in this article, but none of them were willing to talk, according to Pat Camden, deputy director of news affairs at the department.

But Ilana Rosenzweig, newly appointed chief administrator of the body monitoring the police department, said the kind of data reported in this story “can be a useful tool to identify trends and patterns – not just in individual officers but in the collective behavior of the Chicago Police Department as a whole.”

“As the Chicago Police Department looks at designing anearly intervention system, … tracking litigation against officers should be incorporated in a system,” she said.

* * *

Doroniuk’s legal problems did not end with the Betts shooting. He was the subject of seven suits after the incident, costing the city about $270,000 in settlements.

In 2006, Doroniuk was also named in a federal indictment for allegedly conspiring with alleged drug dealer Larry “Peanut” Cross to steal money and drugs from drug dealers.

Though Doroniuk had the most lawsuits filed against him before a fatal shooting, a number of other officers also were the subject of multiple suits.

Rick Caballero, who was named in a 2005 wrongful death suit by Patricia Romaine for the fatal shooting of her son, Benjamin, was named in two separate suits.

In 2002, he was part of a group of eight officers who were accused of breaking into Kesha Adams’s apartment in the North Lawndale neighborhood. One officer punched Adams in the face with a closed fist that was holding handcuffs, while another officer ground the heel of his shoe on her right hand, the documents said. The city settled the case for $16,000.

And, in March 2005, one month before he shot and killed Romaine, Caballero was part of a group of officers who allegedly committed excessive force, stole money and ransacked an apartment without a search warrant, court documents show.

Caballero declined to comment for the story.

Duane Blackman nearly killed Arthur Brown in 2001, a year and a half before he was involved in the fatal shooting of Michael Walker.

According to court documents, Blackman shot at Brown – who had his back toward the officer – five times, hitting him in the back of the head, the back, left calf and the back of the right arm.

Blackman then planted on Brown a Beretta Centurion 9 mm handgun that belonged to Chicago police officer Rickey Fobbs, the documents said.

In critical condition, Brown was arrested and rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital.

That evening a roundtable was convened, but before that meeting, Capt. James Collier, watch commander of the 11th District, reviewed statements from Blackman that Brown was facing Blackman even though Brown was shot in the back of the head, the documents said.

The shooting was declared justified.

Through his lawyer, Blackman denied any wrongdoing. The case remains in litigation.

* * *

Some critics charge that the police department has long had a culture where the actions of problem officers are rarely questioned, no matter how strong the allegations that face them. This culture, they say, results in tension between civilians and police officers that limits communication and can even lead to violence between them.

“The Chicago Police Department chooses not to know things within its power to know about patterns of abuse,” said Craig Futterman, founder of the Civil Rights Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago Law School.

As an example, Futterman points to the police department’s “early warning system,” which was created to address burgeoning examples of police misconduct at the recommendation of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s blue-ribbon Commission on Police Integrity. “The premise is simple,” the commission observed in its November 1997 report. “Small problems become big ones if left unattended.”

In June, before members of the City Council, Futterman testified that the early warning system identified only 89 of 662 – fewer than one in seven – Chicago police officers who had more than 10 complaints lodged against them between May 2001 and May 2006. And the system failed to identify some officers who had more than 50 complaints during the five years.

Bond of the police department disagreed. She said the department adopted a personnel performance system in 2006 to enhance the early warning system. The new system allows supervisors to identify patterns of negative behavior and take corrective action, as well as to acknowledge and commend good performance.

Still, questions about the department’s early warning system come within a larger context of police impunity, argues Futterman, who found that the odds that a Chicago police officer who abuses a citizen would be held accountable were less than two in 1,000.

And almost all fatal police shootings appear to be declared justified.

But a jury in one case found that a gun was planted on an unarmed paraplegic shooting victim, Cornelius Ware, in 2003.

And ballistics evidence from the Illinois State Police found that officer Brian Rovano’s bullet hit Emmanuel Lopez in the back of his shoulder blade – something that would have been impossible if, as Rovano claimed, he had been pinned on the ground under the front of Lopez’s car. In a report about the September 2005 shooting, a forensics expert said that tire marks on Rovano’s pants appeared to have been made after the incident.

Both of these shootings were declared justified.

Some maintain that the lack of punishment in fatal shootings encourages police shootings.

“Because the city’s training and discipline system is broken, cops are more likely to put their finger on the trigger,” said Loevy.”Because they know that nobody is going to review their action, no matter how bad the shooting, there’s never going to be a consequence.”

For his part, Saffold of Positive Anti-Crime Thrust said the combination of constantly justified shootings and a very small number of sustained complaints of alleged abuse makes it harder for those advocating for peace to be seen as credible.

“There’s only so much appeasing that these voices of reason are going to be able to impact,” Saffold said. “There’s little credibility of these voices left that say everybody needs to be [calm].”

This issue is particularly stark in black communities like Auburn Gresham, South Shore, Austin and North Lawndale, according to the Rev. Steve Greer, pastor of Christian Valley Baptist Church in the North Lawndale neighborhood. Along with Humboldt Park, these neighborhoods represented just 11 percent of the city’s population in 2000 but were the site of 33 percent of the fatal police shootings during the last seven years.

“When the residents have police intimidation, it’s hard for me to say, ‘You’ve got to go out and tell,'” said Greer, who has led the church for seven years.”They say, ‘Come on, Reverend. We don’t know if the cop is in on this.'”As a minister, I need the community to trust me. If I give you advice to snitch and come clean, and the powers-that-be don’t deliver, I look like a sell-out preacher,” Greer said.

And others said that there is a cycle at work in which high levels of distrust in those communities most affected by shootings make tense interactions with police more likely.

These confrontations often occur before fatal shootings, according to Michael W. Quinn, retired Minneapolis police officer and author of “Walking with the Devil: The Police Code of Silence.” If people don’t trust the police and become afraid of them, they are going to do things that provoke the police,” Quinn said.

* * *

The unanimous passage by the City Council in July of an ordinance creating a new body to monitor police behavior was heralded by some as a significant step toward reform and building community trust. The ordinance transferred control of the new agency from the police superintendent to the mayor.

The new system could use a lawsuit to investigate police conduct if a civilian complaint had been filed prior to the suit, according to Harold Winston, a Cook County public defender and a contributor in crafting the language of the ordinance.

But Denise Dixon, executive director of Working Families Illinois, an organization affiliated with SEIU Local 880 that tries to bring together unions, communities and churches to empower citizens, also said the ordinance should have included provisions for officers to speak out against, rather than stay silent in the face of, bad behavior by their colleagues.

“I think they should have some cover so that they are not then retaliated against and lose their jobs,” Dixon said. “They should be commended but not reprimanded.”

The fear of job loss for denouncing bad behavior is a very real one, according to Quinn of Minneapolis. He noted that, across the country, officers who break the code of silence are often ostracized and driven out of the force by other officers.

And a number of people expressed skepticism that the new body would do anything to increase trust in communities most affected by shootings.

Greer of Christian Valley Baptist Church predicted that Rosenzweig, Daley’s pick to head the new organization, would eventually become conditioned to the system here.

“This is nothing but a smoke screen,” Greer said, adding that community members he speaks with are not looking for an officer or two to be sacrificed in the name of building good will with the public.

For his part, the Rev. Hood said community members could be open to hearing police acknowledge unjustified shootings and the actions that preceded them but noted that police have to be willing to wait and listen, too.

“But dialogue means you have to … listen to what’s actually happened in the community,” he said. “Until that happens, you are not going to get good dialogue with the community. It will always been strained relations.”

Aliza Appelbaum, Erin Dostal, Marine Olivesi, Brittany Peterson, Alena Scarver and Shelley Zeiger helped research this article.

Jeff is the founder and executive director of the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) and the Padnos/Sarosik Endowed Professor of Civil Discourse at Grand Valley State University....