Thursday, February 5, 2015

Judge had to decide if law enforcement guideline was enough to warrant crime

I have to admit to being somewhat surprised when I learned Wednesday of a Cook County judge’s ruling that acquitted a suburban Park Forest police officer of a reckless conduct charge in the death of an elderly man.

Prosecutors emphasized during the criminal case of Craig Taylor that his use of a shotgun loaded with beanbag rounds did not strictly comply with the guidelines for using such a weapon – which is supposed to be a non-deadly way of subduing a potentially violent person.

SPECIFICALLY, THEY POINTED out that the officer was about six feet away from his target when he fired five rounds into the man’s torso – causing injuries with internal bleeding that ultimately caused his death the following day, although it should be noted he refused medical treatment that could have saved him from the injuries.

As investigators with the state’s attorney’s office pointed out at the time of Taylor’s indictment, such a weapon is not supposed to be used any closer than 15 feet from its target; because such a blow could be so hard that it would be deadly at such close range.

My point is that I expected the bench trial for Taylor at the courthouse in suburban Markham would have focused heavily on that technicality. When combined with the fact that the victim’s family was heavily emphasizing his age (95) and his military service record (he was in the Army Air Corps during World War II), I expected the outcome to be some sort of technical ruling that would say he had to be found guilty of a crime, any crime.

But that didn’t happen!

JUDGE LUCIANO PANICI wound up issuing a ruling that said Taylor’s use of force during a 2013 incident at a Park Forest nursing home “was not excessive.”

Which then allowed the criminal case for which a trial was held last month to focus heavily on the fact that the deceased man had been abrasive to the nursing home staff (which is why police were called in the first place) AND had pulled a knife that he used to threaten police officers.

In my own experience of covering cops, crime and courts during the past quarter of a century, it usually comes out that any sense of an officer feeling threatened by someone with a weapon justifies the use of deadly force.

As in Taylor and the other officers who were with him back in July 2013 would have been justified reaching for their pistols and trying to shoot the man dead!

IT MAY HAVE gone in Taylor’s favor that he said he took his target’s age and physical condition (he was living in a nursing home because he wasn’t physically capable of living on his own any longer) in not reaching for his pistol, but instead trying to use the beanbag-loaded shotgun instead.

During Taylor’s trial, some said he should have tried to show even more restraint – such as using the shield he was equipped with to merely knock the man down.

Although I suspect if he had, we’d still be hearing intense complaints from the man’s family about how their elderly, war hero relative was brutalized by a police officer.

Which means there was no way this incident was going to turn out in a way that would have satisfied the man’s family.

I UNDERSTAND THEIR feelings of loss. Nobody wants to lose a relative. But this case had devolved to the point where it seemed like they were more interested in taking down a police officer who had no prior record of criminal behavior or improper incidents on the job.

That is why I can’t help but feel a bit of relief for the ruling that Panici made on Wednesday. He didn’t let a technicality (the six-foot distance versus 15-foot guideline) pressure him into deciding on a “guilty” verdict.

Not that I expect the elderly man’s family to be content. They still have a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court – one that will seek to break this police officer financially, possibly for the rest of his life. His legal troubles are far from over.

But the judge wound up keeping this unfortunate incident of two years ago into a completely illogical legal catastrophe; which is what a “guilty” verdict and prison time for Taylor would have created.


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