By Jeremy Gorner and Gregory Pratt Chicago Tribune

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s new deputy mayor for public safety is a former No. 2 for the U.S. Marshals Service in Chicago, whose time on the city’s police disciplinary panel included siding with officers accused of misconduct in some high-profile cases, including one involved in the alleged cover-up of Laquan McDonald’s murder.

Lightfoot announced her hire of John O’Malley to be deputy mayor for public safety on Wednesday. Aside from being a member of the Chicago Police Board and a former U.S. marshal, O’Malley most recently was director of corporate security for the brokerage firm William Blair & Company until Lightfoot hired him as her public safety czar.

Civilian Office of Police Accountability Chief Administrator Sydney Roberts talks with then-Chicago Police Board member John O’Malley at a meeting at Chicago police headquarters on July 18, 2019. The Chicago Police Board voted to fire four police officers on allegations of falsifying police reports pertaining to the Laquan McDonald shooting investigation. In the 8-1 decision to fire one of the four cops, Daphne Sebastian, O’Malley was the lone vote against her dismissal.
Civilian Office of Police Accountability Chief Administrator Sydney Roberts talks with then-Chicago Police Board member John O’Malley at a meeting at Chicago police headquarters on July 18, 2019. The Chicago Police Board voted to fire four police officers on allegations of falsifying police reports pertaining to the Laquan McDonald shooting investigation. In the 8-1 decision to fire one of the four cops, Daphne Sebastian, O’Malley was the lone vote against her dismissal. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

“In a time marked by uncertainty and unpredictability, fully ensuring the safety of our residents is my top priority and a goal that will be made all the more obtainable with John on my team,” Lightfoot said in a news release announcing the hire. “John’s experience, extensive institutional knowledge and incredible leadership skills will be invaluable to my administration and our city as a whole.”

The pick, however, could raise eyebrows among Chicago political circles, not just because of how he voted on some police board cases, but due to his relative lack of experience with local police forces. While the U.S. Marshals Service is a law enforcement agency, it generally focuses on managing federal prisoners, protecting government witnesses in federal criminal cases and catching fugitives, not coming up with strategies to combat the sort of street violence that’s endemic in Chicago.

Lightfoot’s office did not answer questions about O’Malley’s police board record and did not make him available for an interview for this story.

One former police board member who served on the panel with O’Malley touted him as a “terrific choice” by Lightfoot.

“John O’Malley is very thoughtful, completely independent and possesses deep subject matter expertise,” former board member John Simpson said. “I don’t know very many people who call balls and strikes better than John.”

Others, however, said the move was a setback for police accountability reforms. Prominent local civil rights attorney Sheila Bedi criticized the hire on Twitter, noting O’Malley voted against firing one of the cops involved with the alleged McDonald cover-up, calling it “a loud & clear message to racist CPD officers who kill & harm w impunity: They’re safe. We’re not.”

Lightfoot touted the creation of a Mayor’s Office of Public Safety as a key piece of her anti-crime strategy, noting the deputy mayor would be in charge of violence reduction. Her first choice, Susan Lee, left in October and the position had remained unfilled even as shootings skyrocketed.

The move also comes at a time when Lightfoot is being pressed on the issue of police accountability, particularly after recent high-profile police shootings in Little Village and Portage Park. Lightfoot has a long, complicated history in the local police reform movement. She’s a former federal prosecutor who headed the board that oversees police discipline and chaired the Police Accountability Task Force formed after white police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot and killed McDonald, a Black teenager. But she is often criticized by activists as being pro-police and has not yet fulfilled a key campaign promise to create civilian oversight for police, which she called a 100-day priority.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed O’Malley in January 2017 to the Chicago Police Board, a panel that decides whether city cops should be punished for the most serious allegations of officer misconduct. O’Malley served on the board with Lightfoot when she was head of the disciplinary panel, which she left to run for mayor.

The police board decided on more than 35 cases during O’Malley’s four years on the panel. O’Malley agreed with the majority of the board on about 30 of them in determining whether officers violated Police Department policy or should be cleared of wrongdoing. But O’Malley also sided with accused cops in some of the board’s most high-profile cases during his four years on the panel.

Members of the Chicago Police Board raise their hands in discharging Chicago police Officer Robert Rialmo at Chicago Police Headquarters in 2019.
Members of the Chicago Police Board raise their hands in discharging Chicago police Officer Robert Rialmo at Chicago Police Headquarters in 2019. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

In July 2019, the board voted almost unanimously to fire four cops over the alleged cover-up in the McDonald murder case, for which a fifth officer, Van Dyke, was convicted. But in the 8-1 decision to fire one of the four other cops, Daphne Sebastian, O’Malley was the lone vote against her dismissal.

Sebastian had told at least one investigator that she saw McDonald advance on officers while waving a knife before he was shot 16 times by Van Dyke, according to a 55-page written decision from the board. But the majority of the nine board members determined that Sebastian’s account was “demonstrably false,” partly due to video squad car dashcam that instead showed the 17-year-old walking away from officers.

Van Dyke is serving a nearly seven-year prison sentence after being convicted of second-degree murder and aggravated battery in McDonald’s killing.

In a written dissent, O’Malley argued that Sebastian’s statements “reflected what she knew at the time of the event and how she, and she alone, perceived those events.”

“In the Board’s decision, the majority states her statements were ‘intentionally misleading to benefit her fellow officer.’ That reasoning is partially based on her statements that Mr. McDonald ‘continued to advance on the officers waving the knife.’ I find that statement can be construed as accurate and does not automatically translate into her believing or stating that McDonald was an imminent threat to her fellow officers requiring or condoning deadly force,” O’Malley wrote. “The Board states that her statement made it appear as though Van Dyke appropriately used deadly force. I do not agree with that assertion whatsoever.”

O’Malley also was the only board member in January 2018 who voted not to discipline Officers Jaime Gaeta and Harry Matheos for shooting and wounding a man in 2015 as he tried to flee a traffic stop on the Far South Side. In the 5-1 decision, the board determined that Gaeta and Matheos violated the department’s use-of-deadly-force policy by shooting Antwon Golatte while he tried to flee from officers in a moving car that posed no immediate threat to the officers.

In its 27-page decision, the police board said the officers never had the authority to make the traffic stop. The two officers said they witnessed Golatte make a hand-to-hand drug deal, but while testifying at a police board hearing in 2017, both admitted they were 250 to 275 yards away and didn’t use binoculars.

But in his written dissent, O’Malley cited expert testimony from the hearing as well as his own experience in his 25 years in law enforcement for determining that Gaeta and Matheos did not violate any Police Department rules in the case. O’Malley also contended the officers were not accused in the disciplinary charges of making an “unwarranted” traffic stop, even if the majority of the board members questioned the stop’s legality. O’Malley also felt the events that unfolded after the traffic stop resulted from Golatte’s decision not to obey officers’ orders.

“Mr. Golatte should bear some responsibility in this case,” O’Malley wrote. “He could have complied with the verbal commands of the officers as bound to do so by law, and complained later if he felt he was not being treated fairly or legally.

“These two officers have a combined 41 years on the Chicago Police Department and are highly-decorated officers with over 250 awards and commendations for various activities in law enforcement. They are both obviously extremely experienced,” O’Malley also wrote. “They made a decision to use deadly force when they feared for their lives and could have reasonably believed a forcible felony had just occurred when Mr. Golatte placed his car into reverse and smashed violently into the police vehicle.”

While Gaeta and Matheos faced firing in the case, the police board instead ruled they should each be suspended for a year. Earlier this year, city officials settled a lawsuit filed in the case by Golatte for $525,000.

Later in 2018, O’Malley was one of the board members who voted to clear Officer Brandon Ternand of wrongdoing in the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Dakota Bright nearly six years earlier.

In a 5-3 decision, the board credited Ternand’s testimony as “credible and persuasive” and praised him as “highly decorated” and respected with five years of experience as a tactical officer, even though the now-defunct Independent Police Review Authority, which investigated the case for disciplinary infractions, found inconsistencies with Ternand’s account of the November 2012 shooting. The 15-year-old was unarmed when he was shot, but officers recovered a .22-caliber revolver in a front yard near where the chase began, authorities said.

In clearing Ternand of wrongdoing, five of the board members, including O’Malley, found the officer justified in shooting Bright from about 50 feet away. At his police board evidentiary hearing, Ternand testified he opened fire when he saw Bright turn his head to the right — in the officer’s direction — and reach his hand toward his left side as if he were going to pull a gun.

However, in a written dissent, the three board members who voted for Ternand’s firing questioned how Bright could have turned his head in the moment before he was shot because his autopsy found the bullet struck him “in the midline of the back of his head.”

Ternand was reinstated to full duty in the case, but in a lawsuit filed in the shooting, the city settled with Bright’s mother for more than $900,000.

This past December, the board in an 8-1 decision fired Officer Jason Burg over decade-old allegations that he allowed a fellow cop who was suspected of assaulting two people while off duty to leave the crime scene. But O’Malley was the only board member who voted against dismissing Burg, arguing there was insufficient evidence to conclude the officer did anything wrong, let alone fire him, and called it “unconscionable” that city officials took so many years to bring disciplinary charges in the case.

Despite voting to fire Burg, police board President Ghian Foreman issued a statement to the Tribune echoing O’Malley’s sentiment about the yearslong delay to bring disciplinary charges against an officer. Such lengthy delays were also noted by the U.S. Justice Department in a 2017 report about Chicago’s lackluster policing practices.

In January, O’Malley also spared two officers of punishment after investigators recommended they be suspended for how they handcuffed a 10-year-old boy on the West Side a few years earlier and questioned him about a gun.

Cellphone video captured the May 31, 2018, incident. The boy was near his grandmother’s home when police approached and told him they were looking for a young Black male with a gun and that he fit the description, according to WMAQ-Ch. 5, which reported the story exclusively.

No weapon was found on the boy, according to the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which investigated the responding officers, Anthony Spicuzza and Roberto Garduno. According to the TV report, citing police, officers got calls of a 10-to-12-year-old in the area with a gun. Police had also said the boy briefly ran from the police when they approached him.

Per city policy, O’Malley had been randomly chosen to decide whether the officers should face a disciplinary hearing before the board after COPA and police Superintendent David Brown disagreed on how the case should proceed. COPA’s then-chief administrator, Sydney Roberts, who announced her resignation Wednesday, determined the officers handcuffed the boy for an “excessive amount of time” and recommended the officers each be given 30-day suspensions, according to police board paperwork. Brown, however, felt Spicuzza and Garduno should be exonerated but be required to attend training for “interacting positively with youth,” the paperwork stated.

O’Malley sided with Brown, based in part on a review of the video and said it wasn’t clear to him from the evidence how long the boy was handcuffed.

“Even if it were as long as 10 to 17 minutes, as COPA suggests (in its investigative findings), it is my opinion that the evidence is not sufficient to show that the officers handcuffed the child for an excessive amount of time based on the totality of the situation, including the seriousness of the call and the need to investigate the matter fully,” O’Malley said in the paperwork. But he also noted that additional training regarding “the care, custody, and control of juveniles” should be required for the officers “as quickly as possible.”

In 2017, O’Malley helped clear Officer Daniel Smith of wrongdoing in a 3-2 decision after Smith was accused of unjustifiably fatally shooting 27-year-old Ryan Rogers who was behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Trailblazer while Smith was on surveillance in south suburban East Hazel Crest in 2013. O’Malley and the two other board members who cleared Smith argued that it wasn’t unreasonable for the officer to fire at the vehicle because Smith felt Rogers was trying to run him over to escape police.

“The majority concludes that the testimony and evidence presented support Officer Smith’s contention that following Officer Smith’s exit from his van Rogers drove the Trailblazer at a high rate of speed into a narrow opening between Officer Smith’s van and (a) red car parked in front of the Trailblazer in an attempt to escape,” the board wrote. “It is undisputed that Officer Smith was positioned within this narrow opening.”

Lightfoot, meanwhile, was one of two board members who contended that Smith “engaged in a series of tactical errors” that led to an unjustified shooting.

“These mistakes were avoidable and unfortunately led to the loss of a man’s life,” according to a written dissent from Lightfoot and another board member, Michael Eaddy, a pastor at a West Side church. “We simply cannot validate this shooting as justified under these circumstances, particularly because in our view of the evidence, Officer Smith created the exigent circumstances.”

Also in 2017, O’Malley was among the four board members who cleared of wrongdoing Officer Michael Mette, now a top official for Chicago’s largest police union, in a 4-2 decision after he was accused of using excessive force on a juvenile on the West Side a few years earlier. One of the two board members who dissented in that case was Lightfoot.

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