Following a seven-day civil trial in federal court, a jury today found one Chicago police officer guilty of "excessive force" and another guilty of failing to intervene in the July 23, 2000 beating of a gay Chicago man, Kentin Waits.
The attack occurred in an interrogation room of the 19th District police headquarters at Belmont and Western and was a focal point for activism by the Chicago Anti-Bashing Network, a gay direct-action group, and the subject of a May 2001 report by the human rights organization Amnesty International.
Waits was awarded $15,000 in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages, as the jury sent a clear message to the Chicago Police Department as well as the two defendants that cop violence against civilians ought not be tolerated. One of the defendants, Officer Daniel Durst, was sentenced to $500,000 for beating Waits. The other defendant, Sergeant Michael Prusank, a more than 20 year veteran of the force, was fined $1,500,000 for failing to intervene to halt the assault on Waits. Waits was represented by Jon Loevy and Michael Kanovitz of the law firm Loevy and Loevy.
When asked about the settlement tonight, Waits said "I think it sends a clear message to the city, and to Chicago police officers. I am sure justice was served today."
The incident which precipitated the gay-bashing began on Saturday, July 22, 2000 when Waits was driving in the vicinity of the Chicago Cubs' Wrigley Field near game time. Waits asked an officer directing traffic if he could make a right turn, but the officer yelled obscenities at him and waved him on. Shortly thereafter, in what Waits readily admitted was "a stupid mistake," he drove back to the intersection and squirted water on the officer from a water bottle. For this incident, Waits pled guilty to misdemeanor simple battery on August 30, 2000 and was placed on supervision.
The brutal arrest and incarceration of Waits the following morning, Sunday, July 23, is what precipitated the civil lawsuit which ended yesterday in a $2 million verdict against the police. Throughout the trial several police witnesses perjured themselves by claiming that Waits' arrest and processing was "routine" and that if someone had squirted a civilian with water, they would have reacted in the same manner. Yet of the more than 100 outstanding warrants on Sergeant Prusank's desk that Sunday morning for crimes committed over the previous few days, he decided to make the arrest of Kentin Waits his tactical team's top priority. Prusank then made the rare move of requesting authorization to move his team out of their district to make the arrest, then issued an "all call" for additional officers throughout the city to join the arrest.
According to other police testimony, the tactical team travels outside of the 19th district only about once a year, and city-wide "all calls" are made only about once a week. When asked why he made the offense of squirting an officer with water his top arrest priority of the day, Officer Prusank testified that "I would have taken heat from above if I hadn't."
As Waits was being led from his home to a waiting police car, Officer Durst told him that he was "sorry about the damage to your truck." Only later did Waits learn what Durst meant by these remarks. Waits' vehicle was towed to a Police pound, "ransacked" according to the city tow record, and the transmission damaged, in an apparent act of retaliation for the previous day's altercation with the traffic cop. On the way to the station, Waits testified that he repeatedly apologized for squirting the officer the previous day, but Officer Durst threatened, "We're a big family here. If you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us. Don't mess with the Chicago Police Department."
When they arrived at the station, a crowd of officers in the lobby applauded when Durst and Prusank led Waits inside. They led Waits to a 10' x 10' interrogation room which had its one window covered with newspaper, where Durst handcuffed Waits by both wrists to a railing on the wall. While a hate crime charge was the one charge for which the jury did not return a guilty verdict, Wait testified that Durst shouted "f---ing faggot" and "cocksucker" as he repeatedly slapped Waits in the face and kneed him in the groin. As Durst was taking Waits to the lock-up area, he said Waits might be raped there while he was being held over night.
"The main thing that was going through my mind was fear," said Waits. "I didn't know if the assault that had just happened was the start of something that would be going on all night. I didn't know if I'd be getting out anytime soon. I didn't know if it would escalate."
After the beating, 23 hour incarceration and damaging his truck all for simply squirting an officer with water, Waits filed a complaint with the city's Office of Professional Standards (OPS), the body charged with investigating police misconduct and making recommendations for employment-related punishments. Eight months and many unreturned phone calls later, the OPS did what it does in 95% of its cases, according to its own statistics, and found in favor of the police. Criminal charges against the police were never sought by Cook County States Attorney Dick Devine, whose office has criminally prosecuted only one Chicago police officer for physical brutality against a civilian since Devine was elected in 1996.
"As long as Mayor Richard Daley fails to fire cops who beat up gays, African Americans, Latinos and others, people like Kentin will be forced to seek redress in the courts, with occasional big settlements like this," said Andy Thayer, co-founder of the Chicago Anti-Bashing Network (CABN). "As long as States Attorney Dick Devine, the mayor's close ally, refuses to criminally prosecute brutal police, it sends a dangerous message to the rank and file that anti-gay violence is okay." Both Durst and Prusank remain employed by the Chicago Police Department, and no disciplinary action has been taken against them.
"Kentin Waits courageously stood his ground for more than two years through an investigation and trial where the defense revictimized him by attempting to put Kentin's personal life on trial," said CABN's Bob Schwartz. "By standing his ground, Kentin Waits has sent a powerful message that at least some gay people will not sit back when our community is victimized. All of us should be proud of the example he has set."
Waits' case is one of three police gay-bashing cases championed by the Chicago Anti-Bashing Network that became the basis of the first-ever Amnesty International reports about gay-bashing by police in the United States. More information about Kentin Waits' case and other survivors of gay-bashing by police can be found in the archives section.