CHICAGO - Testimony in a Chicago police whistleblower lawsuit opened Tuesday, with Officer Isaac Lambert recounting the first hours of the investigation into the 2017 shooting of an unarmed, autistic teenager by an off-duty cop.
Lambert claims he was demoted for refusing to alter reports to clear fellow Officer Khalid Muhammad of wrongdoing for firing his weapon at 18-year-old Ricardo Hayes, a shooting that would eventually earn Muhammad a six-month suspension and lead to a $2.25 million payout to settle Hayes’ lawsuit against the city.
"When I arrived to the scene there was a shell casing near [Muhammad’s] vehicle, that led me to believe he shot from the car," Lambert said, saying he grew more concerned when a detective gave him Muhammad’s version of events.
Muhammad said he had spotted Hayes acting suspiciously — surveillance camera footage would show the teen running and skipping along the 10900 block of South Hermosa Ave.— as Muhammad drove home from his shift. Muhammad, who spoke only briefly to detectives before saying he intended to wait for a union representative, said he called to Hayes from his SUV, and shot at the teen as Hayes approached because Hayes had an object in his hand. Hayes was struck twice and was able to run away.
"He initiated the contact with this kid, and then he shot him," Lambert said.
Lambert spent two hours on the witness stand Tuesday, describing a long career in CPD which, according to his lawsuit, took a turn for the worse after he refused to alter reports to list Muhammad as the victim of an aggravated assault by Hayes. He will return to the stand Wednesday.
In opening statements, Lambert’s attorney, Thomas Needham, said Lambert was punished for not giving in when his supervisors pressured him to steer the investigation to clear Muhammad, a probe that went into "hibernation" just days after the shooting. The final report was not issued until some 18 months later, and Lambert was demoted to the patrol division just days after it was filed.
"He took the side of Ricardo Hayes against his supervisors and his colleagues, but it was the side of the truth," Needham said.
In opening statements, attorneys for the city said Lambert was demoted for botching the investigation and blamed the sergeant for assigning the case to rookie detectives and letting it languish for more than 500 days before signing off on final reports.
The shooting was thoroughly investigated by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, the city’s independent police watchdog, and Muhammad was disciplined by the department, city attorney Michelle Rakestraw said.
Ricardo "Ricky" Hayes was shot by CPD Officer Khalid Muhammad in 2017.
"Officer Muhammad was investigated for his conduct. It is Sgt. Lambert who refuses to accept the reasonable discipline he was assessed for all of his failures," Rakestraw told jurors.
Lambert’s attorneys played video from the deposition of one of the detectives Lambert assigned to the case, Sonia French, who said she felt pressured by her peers to back Muhammad’s version of events. She was moved from the midnight shift to a day shift, placing her under supervision of another sergeant. French said she tried to avoid other officers.
"I was uncomfortable with the other detectives seeing me," she said. "I could sneak in the back door without people seeing me or asking me questions or making comments."
Lambert said he thought something was wrong with Muhammad’s accounting of why he fired at Hayes as soon as he arrived at the Morgan Park scene where the teen was shot in the early morning hours of August 13.
Lambert said he was picking up overtime when he opted to cover the third watch supervising detectives in Area South that night. The shift began with only five or six detectives — after he had asked three from the previous shift to stay over. A few hours in, he dispatched three to investigate the death of a CPD captain who had had a heart attack while driving on the Bishop Ford Expressway. That left only French and another rookie detective available when he got the report a few hours later that Muhammad had shot Hayes.
Lambert learned from another sergeant that Hayes had been reported missing and had schizophrenia and autism, so he recalled his detectives from questioning Hayes at the hospital. He then learned that other detectives had brought Hayes from the hospital to Area South headquarters and were preparing to interrogate the teen.
Lambert found Hayes in an interview room, still wearing a hospital gown over his clothes, with a bloody bandage on his arm, and halted the questioning.
"At the time, the information I had, I believed he had not committed a crime," Lambert said.