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Chicago police officer under investigation for striking 8th grader while off duty

JaQuwaun Williams, shown with his grandmother Lynida Williams-Saddler at their Gresham home, was struck by an off-duty police officer outside his former school earlier this year. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

A Chicago police officer is under investigation for striking an eighth grade boy earlier this year as at least one school employee and the teen’s classmates looked on, the Tribune has learned.

The Cook County state’s attorney’s office began looking into Officer Craig Lancaster’s off-duty conduct after a surveillance recording emerged showing him hitting a 14-year-old student near his throat as the boy walked into school. The video does not show the teen interacting with Lancaster before the physical contact or doing anything obvious to provoke it.

The incident lasted less than 30 seconds, but Chicago Police Department critics have long argued that these types of small, untold occurrences erode trust between CPD and the community. The case — which has been under investigation for the past five months — has grown even more confounding as the officer’s defense attempts to paint the student as a menacing teenager who needed to be subdued because he posed a threat to others, which is not apparent in the video.

The Tribune obtained a copy of the video, which does not have sound, as captured on a school security camera. The footage serves as the cornerstone of the criminal investigation and a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by the student’s family against the officer and the city of Chicago.

The incident occurred May 18 at Gresham Elementary on the city’s South Side, where students were lining up outside the building’s entrance on a chilly spring morning.

As he did most days, JaQuwaun Williams, then 14, played pickup basketball with a friend on the playground before school and waited until the last possible moment to head to class. On the game’s final shot, the teen said, his layup was blocked and he landed hard on his back.

He thought he was fouled. His friend insisted it was a clean stuff.

The boys took their disagreement with them as they headed toward the school with just two minutes before the first bell. JaQuwaun — a lanky shooting guard with dreams of playing ball for the legendary Simeon high school team — told the Tribune he muttered under his breath about the supposed foul the entire way.

Around the same time, according to the family’s lawsuit, Lancaster pulled up to the school to visit Yana Cruz, an upper-level math teacher described as the officer’s “personal companion” in a school incident report. The off-duty officer, wearing civilian clothes, hugs Cruz, the video shows. She, in turn, kisses his cheek and continues directing students inside the building.

The recording shows the couple chatting as JaQuwaun, wearing a bright green backpack, and his friend come around the corner and head toward the entrance. They also are talking, the final play still a topic of discussion, according to JaQuwaun.

As the two boys head toward the door, Cruz appears to say something to JaQuwaun and redirect him toward an area where other eighth grade students are waiting for their turn to come inside the building. JaQuwaun continues walking, his hands at his side, making no obvious sign to indicate he heard the teacher.

The video shows Lancaster then stepping into JaQuwaun’s path and forcefully striking him in the throat area, sending the teen reeling several feet backward. His friend, who is in the sixth grade, enters the building without any obstruction.

“I saw my math teacher and that’s when I blinked and opened my eyes and he was just right there,” JaQuwaun said of Lancaster. “I just felt a lot of force in my neck. I was just shocked.”

The eighth grader did not try to fight back, despite being a half-foot taller than Lancaster. Instead, the video shows JaQuwaun with a confused look on his face as he makes a questioning gesture with his hands. Lancaster, meanwhile, keeps walking toward JaQuwaun.

“My mom always told me if somebody puts their hands on you, don’t hit them. Just go tell somebody,” the teen told the Tribune.

In the video, Cruz steps in between JaQuwaun and Lancaster, then directs the student to go stand near a wall. He obeys the order with seemingly no pushback while his classmates watch.

Around this time, a school security guard appears on the recording and watches from a parking lot several yards away.

Cruz speaks with Lancaster for a few seconds, and Lancaster heads toward his car. The video shows him staring down JaQuwaun as he goes, stopping in front of the student at one point.

According to the lawsuit filed by the teen’s family, the officer yelled that he was going to “beat the (expletive)” out of JaQuwaun.

In the video, the teen looks away from the officer and stands rigidly against the wall.

At the same time, the school security guard, David McDaniel, hops over the parking lot fence and confronts Lancaster. According to a redacted incident report written on school letterhead, Lancaster lifted his shirt when McDaniel approached and “revealed a badge and gun holster.”

It’s unclear whether the holster held a weapon, according to the report.

As the two men talk, Cruz motions for JaQuwaun and the other students to go inside, the video shows. The teen walks past his math teacher and again holds his hands up as if to ask what happened. The teacher points him inside.

Seconds later, Lancaster gets in his car and drives away.

McDaniel was interviewed for the incident report, which describes the altercation as an “assault-physical.” The document also refers to JaQuwaun as the “victim.”

Lancaster’s attorney gave a statement to the Tribune saying that the officer intervened in the situation because the teen posed a threat to both students and staff.

“Officer Lancaster is a decorated Chicago police officer who was legally at the school when the minor child became a danger to the students and the staff,” wrote Tim Grace, a prominent Chicago attorney who frequently handles police misconduct cases. “He acted in a manner to protect the children and staff from a student who clearly was a threat to all present. He was acting within the scope of his duties as a law enforcement officer and acted in a manner that is consistent with the rules of the Chicago Police Department and laws of the state of Illinois.”

Grace did not respond to a follow-up question from a Tribune reporter asking what alleged threat the teen posed. After Lancaster strikes JaQuwaun, neither the officer nor school employees do anything to indicate immediate danger.

To the contrary, Cruz moves closer to the teen, casually touches him on the arms and instructs him to stand near more than a dozen other students. The video shows Lancaster leaves the schoolyard less than a minute after the incident, and JaQuwaun is allowed inside the school without further scrutiny.

“It’s the typical CPD playbook,” said Jordan Marsh, JaQuwaun’s attorney. “It’s not an original defense. CPD officers often blame victims for their misconduct, and it often bears no relation to the facts.”

The officer’s defense also may feed into the community’s distrust of the department, Marsh said, because at least a dozen students witnessed an officer strike their classmate. The incident — though brief and without permanent physical injury — will stay in their memories and be repeated to others, the attorney said.

“JaQuwaun and the rest of these kids are going to be skeptical for the rest of their lives about whether the police are there to actually protect them or just hurt them,” Marsh said. “If they weren’t already cynical, they definitely are now.”

Lancaster, 54, is a 30-year Chicago police veteran who began his career with the department as a civilian employee.

His supervisors have recognized him over the years through various department commendations, including when he and fellow officers on the department’s mass transit team nabbed a suspect accused of sexually abusing and battering teenage girls on the CTA.

But, according to city records, Lancaster also has faced nearly 30 allegations of misconduct during a 20-year span. The majority were use-of-force complaints, including in 2004 and 2006 when suspects in separate incidents accused him of grabbing them by their neck or throat.

Police review agencies cleared the officer in both cases — the latter of which also occurred on Chicago public school property, according to records obtained by the Tribune.

Under the Police Department’s accountability system, only three of the nearly 30 allegations against him were sustained. Two of the more serious sustained complaints — both while Lancaster was off duty and accused of discharging a weapon — resulted in unpaid 30-day suspensions, according to personnel documents.

In one of those suspensions, prosecutors also charged Lancaster in 2009 with two felony counts of reckless discharge of a firearm. He was accused of shooting his gun into the air while intoxicated and working an off-duty security job at a South Side bowling alley.

That incident was also partially captured on surveillance video. Documents obtained by the Tribune state Lancaster was observed having “an apparent intense discussion” with a bowling alley employee that involved “occasionally grabbing and pushing.”

“At one point Officer Lancaster kicks over a bar stool and walks through the exit door,” according to a report written by an investigator from the Civilian Office of Police Accountability. “The door is left open as Officer Lancaster is observed pulling his weapon and extending his arm upward. They then walk back to the bar.”

A Cook County judge acquitted Lancaster of all charges in May 2010 after another officer said he saw someone fitting a different description fire the shots into the air, according to court records.

Until the incident at Gresham School, he had not faced a public complaint in several years. JaQuwaun’s grandmother Lynida Williams-Saddler, who is his legal guardian, has filed complaints against the officer with the Police Department and with the COPA, the independent agency that investigates misconduct allegations.

She also is suing Lancaster and the city of Chicago, accusing the latter of instilling a sense of impunity among police ranks by failing to investigate and punish misconduct.

In documents filed earlier this year in the lawsuit, the city acknowledged Lancaster is under criminal investigation in connection with the incident and requested that the legal proceedings be postponed until law enforcement officials finish their work.

A spokesperson for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx confirmed the matter is “under review” but declined further comment.

Spokespeople for the Police Department and the COPA declined to comment for this story, citing an ongoing investigation. Chicago Public Schools officials and Gresham employees did not answer Tribune questions about the incident.

Lancaster remains on active duty and is assigned to protect transit stations in the city.

JaQuwaun, meanwhile, continues to process what happened to him that day in the schoolyard.

He told the Tribune he repeatedly asked to call his grandmother — whom he calls “Mom” and who has raised him since he was young — as soon as he got inside the building, but school officials denied his requests.

“I was shocked, embarrassed, and quiet,” he said, remembering the hours immediately after the incident. “First, I was shocked that he (hit) me; then I’m embarrassed because I got (hit) in front of my friends. And then I was just quiet because I didn’t want to talk to anybody.”

He said the school principal came to see him during his first class to apologize and assure him she was looking into the situation. The teen said he sat in the hallway during his math class that day because he was too emotional to enter Cruz’s classroom.

JaQuwaun said he always considered her an ally, a teacher whom he could go to when he was upset and Cruz would calm him down. He could no longer turn to her, however, when classmates began teasing him because her companion hit him on the playground.

“Other kids were just like, ‘If it was me, I would have punched him,’” JaQuwaun recalled. “And I was like, ‘That’s you.’”

Williams-Saddler said school officials didn’t notify her about the incident until the end of the day. They met in person the following morning, when Williams-Saddler said the staff told her what happened, expressed concern about JaQuwaun’s well-being and informed her Lancaster was a police officer. The grandmother said she also was encouraged to file a police report.

Williams-Saddler said she went to two police stations in an effort to make a complaint, but she said her requests were denied and she was instructed to deal with the Civilian Office of Police Accountability instead. Worried that she was being given the runaround, she hired Marsh to help navigate the system.

A few months later, she was able to see video of the incident for the first time.

“I was so shocked,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that he (the officer) did that. I could see if JaQuwaun was trying to fight or acting crazy, you try to calm him down, restrain him or something. But he wasn’t really doing anything. That’s what shocked me. He was just walking. And you’re just going to put your hands on somebody else’s child?”

JaQuwaun said he did not learn Lancaster was a police officer until after the encounter. The student said he tried to put the incident out of his mind for his last few weeks of eighth grade, but his classmates’ teasing weighed too heavily on him. He said he received permission to stay home his final week of eighth grade, but attended his June 5 graduation.

To him, it didn’t matter that both his grandmother and, according to JaQuwaun, the school’s security guard told him how proud they were that he maintained his composure.

“It’s hard because everybody knows what happened to you,” the teen said. “Real hard because you think everybody is going to use it as a joke all the time.”

JaQuwaun is now a freshman at Simeon Career Academy, where he hopes to try out for the school’s basketball team after growing an inch over the summer. Williams-Saddler said JaQuwaun has struggled with sleep since the physical altercation and is in therapy to help him cope.

He turned 15 last week and received a highly prized cellphone from his grandparents. The teen also asked to go to a haunted house to celebrate his late-October birthday. He dreams of playing college basketball but also is considering enlisting in the Army or, if he has enough money, opening his own shoe business after high school.

JaQuwaun told the Tribune earlier this month that he had not seen the video of the incident but was shown still photographs during a recent interview with COPA and state’s attorney investigators. The pictures gave him “flashbacks,” he said.

He said he wants Lancaster to face criminal charges. He also hopes something good comes from speaking out about what happened to him.

“I just don’t want it to happen to someone else,” JaQuwaun said.


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