The city government of Waukegan, Illinois, tried to bury an internal report revealing misconduct and evasion of discipline in the Waukegan Police Department. Waukegan is a city 30 miles north of Chicago with a multinational, working-class population of just under 90,000. On March 21, 2022, Waukegan City Council approved $60,000 for a private review of the WPD’s botched investigation of a February 2021 shooting. The case sparked national outrage after police extracted a false confession from and charged a Black 15-year-old Waukegan student, Martell Williams, with the crime despite Williams’ very public and airtight alibi: He was playing in a school basketball game at the time of the shooting. Responding to community anger, Waukegan Mayor Ann B. Taylor promised to share the report with the community saying, “Expediency and transparency are of the utmost importance to me.”
Despite such assurances, Taylor refused to release the report while citing it as the reason there would be no disciplinary investigation of the officers implicated. The public only gained access to the report after WBEZ, Chicagoland’s local NPR affiliate, published the document after suing the city in Lake County Circuit Court. The report, created by consulting firm Jensen Hughes, claimed it did not identify any “specific violation” of WPD policy. Rather, the report serves to maintain the impunity of WPD officers after the commission of repressive practices and helps the mayor and other leadership avoid any real reckoning with the myriad abuses of the Waukegan Police Department.
The project manager for the Hughes review was Sydney Roberts, who less than one year earlier had resigned as Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability chief after an audit revealed that COPA violated Chicago law by not releasing use-of-force recordings in the required timeframe. When Roberts resigned, COPA was still attempting to investigate the killings of Anthony Alvarez and Adam Toledo by the Chicago Police Department.
The details in the Hughes report contradict its attempted vindication of the WPD, revealing an investigation riddled with errors and officers behaving contrary to department policy and Illinois state law. Its findings include WPD’s use of leading questions while interrogating the student which “contributed to his eventual false admissions.” In the interview, WPD Detective Sean Aines delayed reading Williams his Miranda Rights and misled the student by suggesting that he could go home if he told them that he was acting in self-defense, ultimately inducing his false confession.
The report bafflingly finds that Aines’ comments regarding leniency and self-defense did not violate the Juvenile Court Act. The act, which went into effect over a month before the interrogation, bans the use of deception when interrogating juveniles, including “unauthorized statements about leniency.” The report confirms that Aines made such unfounded statements about leniency to the 15-year-old during the interrogation, but Aines has faced no consequences for his misconduct.
WPD’s extensive history of abuse
This incident is far from the only scandal that has plagued the WPD in recent years. A strikingly similar case of a coerced confession from a Black teenager is currently being litigated in federal court. Corinthian “Corey” Burns faced a grueling interrogation in 2018, during which WPD denied him access to an attorney, fabricated witness statements and lied about video evidence that supposedly proved Burns’ involvement in the crime. Burns, then aged 15, gave a false confession and served over 16 months in custody before the charges were dropped.
These cases are part of a longer history of wrongful convictions and police misconduct in Waukegan. While in the midst of a psychotic episode, Juan Rivera falsely confessed to murder to WPD officers. He was exonerated by DNA evidence and in 2012 won a then-record-setting $20 million settlement — $1 million for every year he was wrongfully incarcerated. Alejandro Dominguez and Angel Gonzalez each served time for crimes they didn’t commit and later won large judgments against WPD. No Waukegan police officers faced any disciplinary actions as a result of these wrongful convictions.
WPD budget soars as public support plummets
While Waukegan often refuses to disclose the costs of its police liability settlements, the Chicago Tribune estimates that the city and its insurers paid $26.1 million from 2006 to 2015 as a result of police misconduct. Liability insurance for the WPD is set to increase to $1,960,000 in 2024 — up 42.5% from 2023. Despite its repeated civil rights violations and accumulation of liability claims, the WPD’s budget has been increased by over 4% for the next fiscal year. This additional funding comes as other departments, like the fire department and public works, have had heir budgets reduced for 2024. The police budget represents 19.5% of the city’s total annual budget.
WPD’s budget surges even though it currently has more funding than it can spend. The city has funded positions for 158 officers, but the department has only been able to fill 148 of those spots. Alderman Keith E. Turner explained at the Dec. 5, 2022, city council meeting that the number of applicants for police openings had dropped from several hundred to just 18 people in the last several years, citing anti-police movements as the cause. The WPD are also anxious about shifting public perception and identified “negative image on news outlets of police,” and “national support of ‘defunding of the police’” as threats to their department in the coming year.
Marcellis Stinnette and Tafara Williams
A major catalyst for community resistance to the abuses of the WPD was the killing of Marcellis Stinnette on October 20, 2020. Marcellis Stinnette, then age 19, and his partner Tafara Williams, then age 20 (no relation to Martell Williams), were pulled over by WPD deputies James Keating and Dante Salinas on a “suspicious vehicle” stop. Moments later, Officer Salinas fired into the vehicle, killing Stinnette and seriously injuring Williams. Both Stinnette and Williams were unarmed.
The people of Waukegan held large protests and demanded justice for Stinnette and Williams. These efforts gained national media attention within the widespread uprisings against police terror that began in the summer of 2020. Due to the pressure brought to bear by activists and family members, Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart charged Salinas with second degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.
Salinas was also charged for a previous instance of police brutality: aggravated battery and official misconduct stemming from his 2019 attack on Angel Salgado. Salinas had tased and assaulted Salgado as he celebrated a baptism with his family, breaking Salgado’s nose and eye socket. However, the city of Waukegan did not discipline Salinas and kept him on the force, enabling the killing of Stinnette and assault on Williams the following year. Only after the public outcry for justice was Salinas charged with the battery of Salgado and the murder of Stinnette. The City of Waukegan settled with Salgado in July 2022 for $300,000.
While calling Salinas’ actions illegal and unnecessary, Rinehart also charged Tafara Williams with “aggravated fleeing,” a felony that carries up to 10 years, because she sought to survive Salinas’ illegal assault. Williams, a mother of three, faces charges in the same courtroom as the man who shot her and killed her partner. Organizers and Tafara Williams’ family have been pushing for these unjust charges to be dropped. On April 29, the Party for Socialism and Liberation held a public forum highlighting the history of police brutality in the United States and the struggles to resist racist police terror in Waukegan. Local organizers now circulating a petition demanding Rinehart drop the charges against Tafara Williams.
Feature photo: The Waukegan, Illinois, Court House. Liberation photo