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By Stacy St. Clair and Christy Gutowski
(The Chicago Tribune) Chicago — A Chicago police officer has been charged with aggravated battery for allegedly striking an eighth grade boy while making an off-duty visit to a South Side elementary school earlier this year, according to court records. online news
The felony charge against Craig Lancaster, 55, comes less than two weeks after the Chicago Tribune published a video of the altercation, which shows the veteran officer hitting 14-year-old JaQuwaun Williams near his throat as the boy walked into Gresham Elementary School on May 18. The video, which has no sound, 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.
“I have no idea why it took so many months to get to this point when the evidence is so clear,” said attorney Jordan Marsh, who is representing the teen in a lawsuit stemming from the incident. “But at least now there is a process where Officer Lancaster can be held to account criminally for what he’s done not only to JaQuwaun but all the other kids who witnessed and formed opinions about police officers. When something like this happens, there’s not just one victim. Once something like this happens in a community, it enters into their calculus about whether to trust police, whether to believe police. There’s a real loss on the part of everyone.”
A Chicago Police Department spokesperson said the department could not comment on the charge while the matter was also under investigation by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which reviews allegations of officer misconduct. The spokesperson confirmed Lancaster remains on active duty and is assigned to protect the city’s transit stations.
A spokesperson for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx declined to comment. Lancaster is expected to make his first court appearance next week, records show.
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Battery is typically a misdemeanor charge in Illinois, though it may be upgraded to a felony if the incident takes place on public property. Courts have previously ruled that schools qualify as public property because they are taxpayer funded and accessible to some members of the public.
Lancaster’s attorney declined to comment following the charges, but he previously stated the officer intervened because the teen was a threat to those around him. A school incident report indicates that the officer was on school grounds that day to visit his “personal companion,” a teacher who was directing students into the building before classes began.
“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,” prominent Chicago attorney Tim Grace told the Tribune in October. “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.”
The threat is not apparent on the video, which shows neither Lancaster nor school employees doing anything to indicate immediate danger after the officer makes contact with JaQuwaun.
A teacher 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, who is wearing civilian clothes, leaves the schoolyard less than a minute after the incident, and JaQuwaun is allowed inside the school without further scrutiny.
JaQuwaun, meanwhile, continues to process what happened that day in the schoolyard.
He previously 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.
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“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.”
The teen’s family is suing Lancaster and the city of Chicago, accusing the latter of instilling a sense of impunity among the police ranks by failing to investigate and punish misconduct. In documents filed in the lawsuit, the city acknowledged Lancaster was under criminal investigation in connection with the incident and requested the legal proceedings be postponed until law enforcement officials can finish their work.
Lancaster 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 of those cases — the latter of which also occurred on Chicago school property, according to records obtained by the Tribune.
Under the CPD’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.
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