(Chicago Tribune) The first time Chicago police Officer Marco Proano shot someone, he was given a department commendation.
Less than a year later, when Proano fatally shot a teen outside an overcrowded dance party, he was rewarded with the superintendent’s award for valor.
But Proano’s third on-duty shooting in a three-year span earned him a much more dubious distinction on Monday: Five years in prison.
Proano, 42, who was convicted of excessive force for firing 16 times into a moving vehicle filled with teens in December 2013, became the first Chicago police officer in decades, if not ever, to be sentenced to federal prison for an on-duty shooting.
In handing down the sentence, U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman said that Proano’s actions that night — caught on police dashboard camera video — were “exceptionally unjustified” and an insult to hardworking officers who serve and protect. Two of the teens were wounded, but all five in the vehicle were lucky they weren’t killed, the judge said.
“Mr. Proano was not maintaining the ‘thin blue line’ that separates us from anarchy, and chaos and violence,” Feinerman said. “He was bringing the chaos and violence. He was the source of it.”
Proano’s case became a public flashpoint amid the Laquan McDonald shooting scandal in 2015 after a Cook County judge released to the Chicago Reporter the shocking dashcam video of Proano aiming his gun sideways and firing as the Toyota containing the teens backed away from him.
Adding to the controversy was Proano’s attempt to justify the shooting by claiming he was trying to protect one of the teens who was hanging out of the car’s passenger window as it backed away. At trial, prosecutors showed jurors how the Toyota was sprayed haphazardly with bullets, including one that struck just inches from the teen Proano was supposedly defending.
After the incident, the Police Department changed its policy on the use of deadly force to prohibit officers from shooting at or into a moving vehicle when it “is the only force used” against the officer or another person.
As he argued at trial, Proano’s attorney, Daniel Herbert, said Monday that Proano did exactly as he was trained to stop a deadly threat. In asking for probation, Herbert also said Proano had been made a scapegoat in the wake of the McDonald video and ensuing U.S. Department of Justice probe that found Chicago officers routinely violated the constitutional rights of citizens.
Herbert said Proano was “extremely remorseful” for his actions but hinted that his client did not wish to address the court before he was sentenced. Proano, however, had an apparent change of heart, telling the judge he was trying “to protect human life” that night and still feels strongly he did nothing wrong.
“The night in question I didn’t go out there hunting for somebody or trying to kill somebody,” said Proano, speaking quickly and occasionally stumbling over his words. “I had a minimal amount of time to put it all together — a matter of seconds.”
Proano said he initially was “baffled” over being charged, asking himself, “Why am I even here?” He said he believes the anti-police “climate” contributed to the decision to charge him.
In his remarks, Feinerman said he found Proano’s lack of acceptance that he committed a crime “troubling.”
“This was not a close call,” the judge said. “Mr Proano engaged in criminal armed violence.”
Proano showed no reaction to the sentence when it was handed down, leaving the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse without comment.
After the hearing, Herbert said he planned to appeal the verdict and sentence, calling his client a good man who had “no malice in his heart.”
Acting U.S. Attorney Joel Levin said it was “nonsense” to argue that Proano was charged because of an anti-police climate.
“This case is not about Officer Proano being a scapegoat at all,” Levin told reporters in the courthouse lobby . “In this case, Officer Proano was investigated for the conduct that he committed. … It was about him. It was about conduct that he committed. And ultimately today he was sentenced for his crimes, no one else’s crimes.”
Proano, an 11-year department veteran, has been relieved of his police powers since he was charged and will soon be off the force entirely because of his felony conviction, Herbert said. He must report to prison by Jan. 23.
Proano’s weeklong trial in August focused on the dashcam video of the shooting that unfolded at 95th and LaSalle streets on Dec. 22, 2013, after Proano responded to a call of a stolen vehicle being pursued by police.
The video, played several times for jurors, showed Proano walking quickly toward the stolen Toyota within seconds of arriving at the scene while he held his gun pointed sideways in his left hand. Proano can be seen backing away briefly as the car went in reverse, away from the officer. He then raised his gun with both hands and opened fire as he walked toward the car, continuing to fire even after the car had rolled into a light pole and stopped.
In all, Proano unloaded all 16 bullets in his gun in just under nine seconds. Prosecutors argued his actions violated all the training he received at the police academy, including to never fire into a crowd, only fire if you can clearly see your target and stop shooting once the threat has been eliminated.
In a recent court filing, prosecutors said Proano has shown no remorse for his actions. In fact, the officer told court officials in a pre-sentence interview that he sees himself as the victim, saying he felt “a sense of ‘betrayal’ ” because he’d served the community for many years and “is now ‘left out in the cold,’ ” prosecutors wrote.
In his arguments Monday, Herbert, who also represents Officer Jason Van Dyke on murder charges in the Laquan McDonald shooting, said Proano’s indictment for the shooting has “resonated throughout the Chicago Police Department” and sent a “loud and clear” message to police rank-and-file that their actions are being scrutinized like never before.
Herbert also hinted that Proano’s case has had a chilling effect on other officers who aren’t policing as aggressively as before for fear of being slapped with charges.
In rebuttal, Assistant U.S. Attorney Georgia Alexakis said it was “offensive to say, “Give (Proano) a light sentence because otherwise police officers might not do their jobs.’”
Records show the 2013 incident was Proano’s third on-duty shooting in three years. In 2010, he was one of five officers who opened fire on a car after a chase and crash in the 700 block of West 91st Street. The driver — 32-year-old Garfield King, a convicted felon — was killed, according to a database of police-involved shootings compiled by the Chicago Tribune. Proano, meanwhile, fired five rounds into the vehicle, wounding a 19-year old woman riding in the passenger seat of King’s car.
Less than a year later, in July 2011, Proano fatally shot 19-year-old Niko Husband at close range during a struggle as police tried to break up an unruly dance party on the South Side. Proano said Husband had tried to pull a gun.
Proano was cleared in both shootings by the now-defunct Independent Police Review Authority, records show. For Husband’s shooting, he was also given a superintendent’s award of valor — bestowed for acts of “outstanding bravery or heroism,” Herbert said.
A Cook County jury later ruled the shooting of Husband was unjustified and awarded his mother $3.5 million in damages. But the judge overseeing the case set aside the jury’s verdict, a ruling that’s being appealed.
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