Martinez Sutton flipped on the TV after a morning bike ride. He was drawn to breaking news about a double shooting near Chicago’s Douglas Park. One of the victims was a 22-year-old woman, the same age as his younger sister.
He dialed her cell phone and, when she didn’t pick up, left a message: “Hey, baby girl, hit me up. Let me know you’re OK, all right? Love you, bye.”
Rekia Boyd never returned the call.
About 90 minutes later, two detectives knocked on the front door of the family’s modest brick home in south suburban Dolton and handed Sutton the phone number of Mt. Sinai Hospital’s emergency room. Boyd—the born jokester, life of the party, self-described godmother to everybody’s children—was the female shooting victim in the news reports blaring from the family’s TV. She had been shot once in the back of her head.
Sutton waited a few minutes to call his mother’s cell phone, knowing she was driving in rush-hour traffic. When he reached her, he blurted out the horrific news: Rekia had been shot in the head and was hospitalized at Mt. Sinai. He would call back when he got to the hospital. Angela Helton rushed to the ER not knowing if her daughter was alive.
When Helton was allowed to approach Rekia’s bed, she could see it was hopeless.
“I just turned and walked out of the room,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “She was gone.” The next day, Helton felt compelled to visit the shooting scene—an alley near the shooter’s home. She saw her daughter’s brain tissue splattered on the ground next to her lip gloss.
The shooter was Dante Servin, an off-duty police detective. Servin fatally shot Boyd when he fired into a crowd five times over his left shoulder from inside his Mercedes sedan. Almost four years later, he still is employed by the Chicago Police Department.
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Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez is the elected official responsible for prosecuting police-misconduct cases. Alvarez came under fire for waiting almost two years to charge Servin, the first Chicago cop in almost 20 years to be prosecuted for the fatal shooting of a civilian. And when she did, a judge threw the case out, saying she’d mishandled it. More recently, Alvarez was criticized for waiting 13 months to charge the police officer who killed teenager Laquan McDonald.
These cases haunt her reelection campaign as she tries for a third term as head of the second-largest prosecutor’s office in the country.
Since the release of a dashcam video in November showing an officer pumping 16 bullets into McDonald, protests against police violence have rocked Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired the police chief; the head of the agency that investigates the worst cases of police misconduct has resigned; and a federal civil-rights investigation of the Chicago PD has been launched. Activists are calling on Emanuel to resign, but a special anger is reserved for Alvarez, who alone has the power to prosecute police officers.
On March 15, the public will decide her fate: Alvarez is being challenged by former prosecutors Kimberly Foxx and Donna More in the Democratic primary.
A defeat for Alvarez, the incumbent, could be a warning to prosecutors across the country that they too will be held accountable for police violence.
“It really goes back to the amount of power this office holds over all of our lives,” said Charlene Carruthers, national director of the Black Youth Project 100, which has pressed for police accountability in the deaths of Boyd and McDonald. “We have a very clear self-interest to hold whoever takes on the state’s attorney role accountable to all of us.”
Many young African-American activists see the police shootings of black youth as their generation’s lynchings—another form of state-sanctioned violence. Tensions between African Americans and the police go back decades. The shootings occur almost exclusively in Chicago’s poor neighborhoods and communities of color.
According to an unpublished study of 259 officer-involved shootings in Chicago between 2006 and 2014, 95 percent of the victims were people of color. While less than a third of Chicago’s population is black, 81 percent of victims were African Americans, according to the study by Georgia State University law professor Nirej Sekhon, based on data from the Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates police shootings. The study found that almost 90 percent of the shootings took place in census tracts where minorities outnumbered whites. Of those, 73 percent occurred in tracts where blacks made up at least 90 percent of the population. The tracts in which the shootings took place are among the poorest in the city.
Last year, Chicago became the first city in the United States to establish a $5.5 million reparations fund to compensate victims of police torture. Over 100 men, mostly black, were beaten, burned, suffocated, and electrocuted into making false confessions by former police commander Jon Burge and the officers under his command.
More recently, Chicago police are alleged to have taken suspects to a secret interrogation center where they were treated harshly without being charged with crimes. The journalist who uncovered the center referred to it as a “black site” akin to American military interrogation sites around the world.
Simmering discontent boiled over this winter, with the release of the police dashcam video capturing the killing of 17-year-old McDonald. Officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder in November, the same day the video was released. McDonald is seen veering away from officers before dropping to the street, his lifeless body still being pumped with bullets. The graphic images contrasted sharply with police claims that McDonald lunged at Van Dyke with a knife and continued to advance even after he was shot.
And Rekia Boyd? Boyd had been socializing with friends in the park when she and her companion, Antonio Cross, and two others decided to head to a nearby store to get cigarettes and snacks. They were walking down an alley when they encountered an off-duty Servin, driving the wrong way. Servin told investigators he fired at the group after quarreling with Cross about noise in the park; thinking Cross had a gun, he insisted, he took aim. Servin’s firearm was unregistered. Cross, who was shot alongside his friend Rekia, was unarmed; his cell phone was later recovered at the scene.
Prosecutor Alvarez’s office then charged Cross with aggravated assault, naming the officer as the victim. Those charges were later dismissed without explanation. Dante Servin walked away a free man.
“You have a straight line all the way through, for like 45 years, of state’s attorneys who were enforcers of the police culture—who in every instance where the police were put on the carpet for something, they defended the police,” said Flint Taylor, whose People’s Law Office specializes in civil rights, police violence, and death-penalty cases.
He pointed to the police torture that took place for years under Jon Burge. Neither Burge nor the officers under his command faced criminal charges, although Burge served four and a half years in federal prison for lying about it.
“You could not have the police code of silence, you could not have that kind of racist police activity, if the state’s attorneys didn’t facilitate that,” Taylor said.
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Anita Alvarez grew up in Pilsen, a largely Mexican-American neighborhood in Chicago. Neither of her parents, a waiter and a seamstress, had a high-school education. Alvarez cites their emphasis on education and her own Type A personality for fueling her rise. Her initial career goal was to become a probation officer or a cop. Later she would aim even higher: She made history when she was elected state’s attorney in 2008, the first female and first Hispanic person to hold the office.
Alvarez’s trim figure casts a big shadow. Projecting authority, she has a no-nonsense style. On the campaign stump, she often offers detailed, rambling explanations that can come off as condescending.
“I’m in a position where, no matter what decision I make, someone will be unhappy. That’s the nature of the job,” Alvarez said in a phone interview. But she counts among her successes creating the county’s first felony diversion prosecution program for nonviolent offenders in 2011; expanding the number of alternative prosecution programs from eight to more than 30; and drafting the Illinois Street Gang RICO Act, passed into law in 2012.
“She’s responsible for creating some very effective and efficient…pretrial diversion programs [as well as] a conviction-integrity unit,” said Bob Clifford, one of Alvarez’s biggest donors, whose law firm specializes in personal-injury and medical-malpractice cases. “She’s been a tireless advocate for effective gun legislation, and she’s the only candidate prepared to address the epidemic of violent gun crime in Cook County.”
Alvarez says “keeping all of our communities safe” is her No. 1 priority, which includes going after the perpetrators of violent crime, particularly gun crime. “I speak on behalf of people who have been traumatized, [crime] victims and people who have lost a family member [to violence]—that’s who I’m there for,” she said.
But for victims of gun violence perpetrated by police, the response seems to have been different. “Her office has taken positions that are consistently contrary to the circumstances of [the] poor and people of color,” says Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, a Cook County commissioner and former candidate for mayor. About a week after the McDonald video came out, Garcia called on Alvarez to step down. Six of the city’s Latino alderman joined in his call for Alvarez’s removal. In February, Garcia endorsed Foxx. The City Council’s Black Caucus also blasted Alvarez, saying in a statement that “people of color in Chicago know that there is more than one Laquan McDonald. While the facts may differ from case to case, there are many whose rights have been violated because their lives were deemed to not matter.”
After the video was released, hundreds of marchers spilled into the streets, shutting down parts of downtown. Alvarez’s name began to appear on protest signs and T-shirts.
Some see parallels between Alvarez and former state’s attorney Edward Hanrahan. The rising star saw his promising political career crash after Fred Hampton and Mark Clark died in a hail of bullets during a 1969 raid he oversaw on Black Panther Party headquarters. Hanrahan was defeated in his next election in 1972 after losing the support of black voters.
“You’ve got a state’s attorney who has enraged substantial portions of the community, particularly in the black areas, but all over,” said Don Rose, who ran political campaigns in the 1960s and ’70s, mostly for independents. “It’s mainly based on one episode, although there have been complaints about her handling of a number of cases over the years.”
Like Hanrahan, Alvarez initially had the support of the Cook County Democratic Party and then lost it. When she first ran in 2008, Alvarez won the party’s endorsement. After initially voting to take a neutral stance in the 2016 election, the party reversed its decision in January to support Foxx.
In the past, Alvarez had the backing of powerful Chicago Democrats Michael Madigan, speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives and chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, and Alderman Ed Burke, known as the “dean” of the Chicago City Council, who has held his office for almost five decades. But neither camp has made an official endorsement this time around.
“There have been almost no police convicted of malfeasance or abuse, although there are plenty of cases that lead us to think there is police abuse,” said Dick Simpson, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
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Members of Boyd’s family say they were reassured in meetings with Alvarez and assistant state’s attorneys assigned to the case that Servin would answer for his actions in fatally shooting Rekia.
“They really had me believing they were on my side,” Helton said.
The family became suspicious when they arrived at the courthouse in April to hear a routine motion in the case. They took note of the extra police and security guards and the presence of police dogs for the first time. But nothing could prepare them emotionally for the decision.
The Cook County judge threw out the charges against Servin, four felony counts including involuntary manslaughter, reckless conduct, and reckless discharge of a firearm. The state had not proved recklessness, the judge said: Servin had acted with intent. Servin’s actions warranted a murder charge. The state’s attorney, the judge said, had undercharged Dante Servin. With this announcement, the courtroom erupted into chaos. Enraged, Sutton cursed Servin and the judge and was escorted by relatives out of the courtroom after being threatened with arrest. Many people think Alvarez mischarged Servin on purpose.
Alvarez said, “The charges I brought were charges I felt I could prove.”
Boyd’s family feels betrayed and say they still don’t fully understand what happened in court that day. It was a scandalous miscarriage of justice, Helton says, and she blames Alvarez.
Her opinion of the state’s attorney today?
“You don’t want to know—you definitely don’t want to know,” Helton said, shaking her head angrily, tears rolling down her cheeks. “You don’t want to know. Believe me, you don’t want to know.”
* * *
At a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day event held in a historic black church, Alvarez told a multiracial crowd of about 1,500, representing about 90 Chicago-area congregations, that she was opposed to appointing a special prosecutor to investigate police shootings. She was booed.
“Let us pray that God transforms your heart and bends your mind toward justice,” the moderator, the Rev. Eddie Knox Jr., said as he led a group prayer for a visibly angry Alvarez. The event was sponsored by the Community Renewal Society, the publisher of The Chicago Reporter.
Despite the obvious unhappiness with Alvarez’s tenure, her challengers can’t count on riding a wave of discontent into office. Both lack name recognition, and neither has run for office before. Between the end of August 2015 and the beginning of February 2016, Alvarez raised over $700,000 for her campaign. Foxx took in over $626,000, and More brought in almost $500,000, half of which came out of her own pockets. In an early February poll, Alvarez still held a slim lead, while many voters remained undecided.
Kim Foxx, who would become the first African-American state’s attorney if elected, has a backstory that is compelling to many black voters. Raised by a single mother, she grew up in the Cabrini-Green public-housing complex. Foxx describes hiding in a bathtub as a child when shots rang out in her violent neighborhood. And she talks openly about being sexually abused as a child and being homeless for a time. After earning her law degree, she became a public guardian for minors in the Cook County court system and spent 12 years as an assistant Cook County state’s attorney.
Foxx said she left Alvarez’s office because “we were driving policies that weren’t about justice. It was about convictions; it was about easy wins.… The collateral effects of the victories were causing more harm than good.” Foxx went to work as the chief of staff for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, one of Alvarez’s harshest critics.
Candidate Donna More, who is white, grew up in north suburban Evanston, the home of Northwestern University. Now the managing partner of the law firm Fox Rothschild’s Chicago office, she has worked as an assistant Cook County state’s attorney, an assistant US attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, and as general counsel to the Illinois Gaming Board. “I believe you can use your position as a bully pulpit,” More says—and, like Foxx, she has argued that the state’s attorney could do more preventative work.
But the Democratic candidates still have to convince a skeptical public that they care.
They faced off at a forum on the city’s largely black South Side sponsored by the National Panhellenic Council of Chicago, an organization of black fraternities and sororities representing a coveted demographic. Alvarez told the packed room of 450 that she shared their outrage over McDonald’s violent death but had legitimate reasons for delaying charges. “As I’ve said, I have four children,” she told them. “I have a 17-year-old son. I, too, was appalled at what I saw.” But her long, in-the-weeds description of the obstacles to prosecuting police officers prompted the moderator to ask her to wrap it up.
Foxx countered that Alvarez would not have acted at all if not for the video. “The frustration that we are hearing, and that I am feeling,” Foxx continued, tapping her heart, “is no matter how many explanations we get…if we know that [any other citizen] was gonna be charged with murder, they wouldn’t get another hour on the street.”
Voices rose in agreement. “Not a single one!” someone exclaimed. “Not a minute!”
* * *
In mid-January, about 100 people crowded into Casa Puertorriqueña, a community organization and social club in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, where about 20 percent of the residents are Puerto Rican. The group said they stand in unity with African Americans and want to remind Latinos that their votes matter. A poster taped on a podium had Alvarez’s name scrawled in bold black letters with a crimson X slashed across it. A sign over a table in a corner announced: Registro de Votantes. “We understand that we can’t just protest and march and yell,” said Pastor Eddie Colon of Latinos for Justice. “Because if we don’t come out and vote on March 15, nothing is going to change, and it’s going to be business as usual on March 16. “
In recent weeks, activists have intensified their pressure on Alvarez, disrupting campaign events and, in at least one case, forcing her to leave.
While activists would like to see Alvarez ousted, they know that simply removing her won’t end police violence. Carruthers of BYP 100 is pushing for investigations of possible cover-ups. “Anita Alvarez is part of a system that is set up to favor the presumed innocence of police officers over the value of the lives that they take,” Carruthers said.
Complicating cop prosecutions is the unshakeable fact that no matter who becomes the state’s attorney, police and DAs work in a close partnership. This relationship raises questions about conflict of interest when an officer is under investigation. Some experts argue that police officers are usually afforded the benefit of doubt—something the average citizen doesn’t get—and the bar for prosecution is higher.
That’s not to say a local prosecutor can never be fair, says Craig Futterman, director of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project of the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Chicago. “But we have to start with acknowledging the reality that there are real conflicts of interest when local prosecutors are working as a team and rely almost exclusively on the work and cooperation of the police to stay in office and win cases.”
Prosecutors have to overcome jurors’ perception of cops as the good guys, says University of Pittsburgh law professor David A. Harris. Officers also have a legal right to use force while carrying out their duties. Proving this force was excessive can be a challenge, especially when officers claim to have acted in self-defense.
“You put all that together with the inclination to shy away from these cases because they are all on the same team,” Harris adds, “and you can see why very few [charges] get brought.”
Christopher Whitt, associate professor in the department of political science at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, said that now, though, “we’re seeing activists bringing up the names of prosecutors and elected officials as opposed to simply being angry. They are directing the anger, and directing it in a very politically savvy way. I think that’s the way to get changes in actual policies and practices.”
* * *
Boyd’s family received a $4.5 million settlement from the city in 2013 after bringing a civil lawsuit, but Helton would have preferred Dante Servin’s conviction for what she calls an execution. She blames Alvarez and city officials for not holding anyone accountable. “They knew from the beginning they weren’t going to charge [Servin] for a crime,” the mother of six says. She’s convinced that the Chicago police tampered with evidence and attempted a cover-up. With the charges against Servin dismissed, she hopes at the very least that he’ll be fired.
Sutton, a master’s student who works part-time, attends Chicago Police Board hearings and he urges the group to fire Servin, often with tears streaming down his face. “The pain in my heart is just overwhelming,” Sutton said as he sat next to his grieving mother, at times wrapping his arm around her. “I’m just looking for this officer to get his due. I just want to see the justice system work.”
* * *
A red headband pulls Helton’s long braids away from her downcast face. Her matching hoodie displays her daughter’s portrait on the front. In the photo, Boyd wears an uncharacteristically somber expression. “They took my life,” the lettering reads. “But not my voice.”
On the back, it says simply: “I am Rekia Boyd.”
Martinez wears a black T-shirt under his dark hoodie that says the same thing, but his photo shows Rekia smiling so hard her eyes are squinting. A cascade of orange autumn leaves swirl around her. “That was her,” says Sutton, looking down at the image on his chest. “You describe Rekia, that’s her—she was always laughing like that.” The picture was etched on Boyd’s black onyx gravestone. Helton has been unable to bring herself to visit it.
As the fourth anniversary of Boyd’s death approaches on March 21, Helton says her daughter cannot rest in peace while Servin keeps his job and his freedom. “She’ll be at rest,” she said, “when he goes to jail.”