This Photo Of Chicago Police Holding Antlers Over An African-American Man Has Exactly The Kind Of Awful Backstory You're Imagining
A photo of two Chicago PD officers posing with rifles over a black man dressed in antlers was released to the public by the Chicago Sun-Times and other news outlets Wednesday, despite the fact that the police department allegedly fought to keep it sealed in court documents. One officer, Timothy McDermott, was fired last year for discrediting the department, disrespecting a citizen, and unnecessarily displaying a gun, according to the department. McDermott is now appealing his dismissal from the department in court.
The photo is believed to have been taken in a West Side police station between 1999 and 2003. The Polaroid was then given to the city by federal investigators in 2013, and McDermott was fired by the police board on a 5-4 vote. The four members who dissented said McDermott should have been suspended. The majority who dismissed him wrote that “appearing to treat an African-American man not as a human being but as a hunted animal is disgraceful and shocks the conscience," according to the Sun-Times.
The other officer in the photo, Jerome Finnigan, had already been fired and sentenced to 12 years in prison for leading a group of cops in robberies, home invasions, and other crimes about two years before federal prosecutors gave the photo to Chicago police investigators, according to the Sun-Times. He and McDermott worked in the Special Operations Section of the force together. When federal prosecutors questioned Finnigan about the photo, he told them he and McDermott had arrested the black man for having “20 bags of weed” and the man provided them with the rifles, according to court records cited by the Sun-Times.
But Finnegan and McDermott didn't file an arrest report involving the man, according to court records cited by the Sun-Times. Finnigan told the FBI that the man didn't have a serious criminal record, so they let him go without officially arresting him. The department's Bureau of Internal Affairs was unable to identify the man.
In interview transcripts between Sgt. Michael Barz of internal affairs and McDermott, McDermott said Finnigan called him over and told him to get in the picture, but that he doesn't remember anything about the black man in the photo, according to the Sun-Times:
The photo was taken, and I went back to the business I was doing that day. ... I am embarrassed by my participation in this photograph. I made a mistake as a young, impressionable police officer who was trying to fit in.
After Garry McCarthy, the department's superintendent, moved to fire McDermott, attorneys for the department and McDermott both asked Judge Thomas Allen to keep the photo under seal earlier this year. They said they wanted to protect the privacy of the African-American man in the photo, but Allen denied their request in March.
The photo has become another point of tension for growing, national allegations of police brutality and racism in predominantly white police departments. Even McCarthy started a listening tour in Chicago to improve the poor relationship between police and the black and Hispanic communities there. The Sun-Times also published an editorial saying they published the photo so it could be "a tool to raise the level of constructive discourse to make our city better," and they praised McCarthy's actions to better the department's community relations. McCarthy released a statement to the Sun-Times:
[The photo] is disgusting, and the despicable actions of these two former officers have no place in our police department or in our society. As the superintendent of this department, and as a resident of our city, I will not tolerate this kind of behavior, and that is why neither of these officers works for CPD today. I fired one of the officers and would have fired the other if he hadn’t already been fired by the time I found out about the picture. Our residents deserve better than this, as do the thousands of good men and women in this department.
McDermott was also previously a defendant in four federal lawsuits accusing him of misconduct, according to Slate. The city paid settlements in three of the cases and a jury awarded damages in a fourth case, which came to a total payout of $162,000, according to the Sun-Times. The cases cost the city hundreds' of thousands of dollars in fees to the plaintiffs' attorneys, according to court records. These lawsuits haven't come up during McDermott's appeal. Rather, McDermott's attorney, Daniel Herbert, is emphasizing the lack of information known about the photograph, according to the Sun-Times:
What’s to say this individual wasn’t performing at a Christmas pageant in the district and was dressed as a reindeer and had taken the reindeer suit off? Again, I don’t mean to make preposterous arguments, but the charges in this case, they warrant that.
Herbert argued that there is strong evidence that the man in the photo was a "willing participant," and he even questioned whether the guns were broomsticks carved to look like weapons. Two former department superintendents spoke on McDermott's behalf about the various awards he had earned during his career, while Patrick Polk, an attorney for the city called his actions in the photo "degrading and humiliating," according to the Sun-Times. The judge is expected to issue a ruling on McDermott's appeal at the next court hearing, which is scheduled for June 10.
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