Chicago Police detective Dante Servin during his trial on manslaughter charges in the shooting death of Rekia Boyd, at the Leighton Criminal Court Building on, April 9, 2015. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)
Chicago police Detective Dante Servin abruptly resigned just days before a hearing to decide if he should be fired for the controversial fatal shooting of an innocent bystander while he was off-duty.
Now, five months later, Servin is still seeking to collect disability pay from the city, arguing he continues to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from the shooting in 2012.
At stake are potentially tens of thousands of dollars for Servin, 48, who could collect as much as 75 percent of his former $104,000 salary until his police pension kicks in.
The fight over his disability pay is the latest twist in a case that had become a rallying cry against police use of force in Chicago, long before the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video ignited seismic change. Servin was charged with involuntary manslaughter for the death of Rekia Boyd, 22, a rare charge for a Chicago police officer, but was acquitted because of a legal technicality, prompting more public protests.
In an interview, David Kugler, a lawyer for the police pension board, said the board must first decide if Servin even qualifies for that disability pay. According to Kugler, a technicality could block him from receiving it — he hadn’t used up all his sick and furlough days before leaving the department.
But Servin’s attorney, Thomas Pleines, called that issue irrelevant and said the dispute instead comes down to two factors: Was Servin injured while he was performing his duties as an officer and did those injuries impact his ability to continue working?
Pleines cited a series of Illinois appellate court decisions since the 1980s that held that police officers who had resigned their jobs still qualified for disability pay if they had applied for the benefits before quitting. Servin applied for disability pay a month before he left the department under pressure.
If the police pension board agrees to hear the case, Servin must prove he indeed suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and that the shooting was the cause.
Attorney James Ferolo, who handles police pension cases, said that proving officers have suffered psychological damage on the job can be difficult.
"When you get into depression or anxiety … that becomes a real tough case because we all have lives outside our jobs and we are all wired differently," he said. "It’s not like proving a back or knee injury."
‘More reasonable options’
Servin arrived at his West Side home after working a second job just before midnight in March 2012 and saw a large group gathered in sprawling Douglas Park. He called 911 to report drinking, noise and the potential for trouble, according to court records.
About an hour later, Servin left his house for food, driving out of his garage through an alley.
What happened in the next minutes has been the subject of numerous Chicago police reports, media accounts and investigations by both the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and the Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates officer-involved shootings.
Servin has said he heard loud voices as he approached a group of four people while driving his car slowly. He rolled down his window and asked — he says politely — that the four keep the noise down. He said Antonio Cross immediately got upset, yelled profanities and pulled a gun from his waistband.
Servin, in plainclothes, said he yelled that he was a police officer and drew a Glock 9 mm, firing across his body out the window at Cross as he kept driving.
Cross was wounded on the hand, but Boyd, who was several feet behind Cross, was shot once in the back of the head. She died the next day.
Cross told authorities he had a cellphone in his hand as he yelled and gestured at Servin to leave, thinking he was there to buy drugs.
No gun was recovered at the scene other than the one fired by Servin.
In November 2013, the tragedy captured national attention when Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez charged Servin with involuntary manslaughter, saying he had acted recklessly by firing out of his moving car toward Boyd and the others.
It marked the first time in two decades that a Chicago police officer had been criminally charged in a citizen’s fatal shooting. But the lesser charge — not first-degree murder — raised questions in legal circles about whether Alvarez had compromised in a politically charged case.
Then in a stunning move in the midst of the April 2015 trial, Judge Dennis Porter acquitted Servin on a legal fine point, saying prosecutors had failed to prove the off-duty officer acted recklessly. If any charges were brought, the judge said, they should have been for first degree-murder because Servin contended he intentionally shot at Cross to protect himself.
Six months later, IPRA completed its investigation, concluding that Servin had violated the department’s policy on use of force because he had fired into a crowd. Even if Cross was holding an object and moving in an aggressive manner that could lead Servin to fear for his life, IPRA held that he should have realized the danger of firing so close to innocent bystanders.
The IPRA report also noted that Servin didn’t identify himself as an officer until he said he saw Cross brandish the gun.
Servin had "more reasonable options" that could have avoided the entire confrontation, including calling 911 again or simply not engaging with the group, IPRA determined.
For months, then-Superintendent Garry McCarthy had expressed public support for Servin, but last November, he moved to fire and suspend him without pay — a day before the bombshell release of the video showing a Chicago police officer shootMcDonald 16 times.
The administrative charges accused Servin, among other things, of bringing discredit on the department by making false or inconsistent statements about the shooting — including that he believed he had been shot during the encounter.
"Without identifying yourself as a police officer, you inserted yourself into and/or intervened in a situation, thereby escalating or increasing the risk of confrontation, which led to your discharging your weapon and killing an innocent bystander," the department charged.
An act of duty
For months, a fired-up crowd of activists packed monthly Chicago Police Board meetings, demanding that Servin be fired. The protest grew so raucous one night that the board cut short its meeting.
Finally, in May, a hearing officer for the Chicago Police Board set aside five days for testimony to determine if Servin should be fired, but just two days before, the 24-year department veteran resigned.
According to Pleines, Servin’s lawyer, the officer had notified the department in March 2013 — a year after the shooting — that he was going on paid sick leave and seeking counseling.
Ever since, Servin has been under the care of a psychologist who diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder, Pleines said in a legal memo to the pension board last month. He has also been treated by a psychiatrist, he said.
Both doctors found that Servin could not return to work "as a result of the various manifestations of the PTSD," Pleines said. The memo provided no details, though.
In applying for disability pay in April, Servin submitted a brief handwritten statement in which he said he opened fire that night in self-defense.
Kugler, the pension board’s attorney, said the board is reviewing whether Servin has legal standing to make his claim of disability if he hadn’t used up his sick days before he quit.
"The initial question is should we be hearing the case or not," Kugler said. "There has been no decision on that."
The board could make that determination as early as its next meeting Thursday, according to Kugler.
To qualify for disability pay, Servin will need to show he was "an active policeman" who became disabled "in the performance of an act of duty," as state law requires.
Much could hinge on the fact that Servin was off-duty at the time of the shooting.
Ferolo, the attorney who handles police pension matters, said the board would weigh if Servin was "acting beyond the scope of his job" and whether what he did "was so far afield that this was not an act of duty."
"That is the question here," he said. "Was the conduct a part of his job as a police officer, and if the answer is yes, is the injury such that he can no longer perform his duty?"
Servin could still prevail if he shows he acted in good faith — even though the outcome was tragic.
"In the context of police work, it’s quick-moving and officers have to make a split-second decision, and sometimes they get it right and sometimes they get it wrong," said Ferolo, who did not offer an opinion on the merits of Servin’s case. "If he can articulate a good-faith basis for how he acted, whether he got it right or wrong isn’t the question."
‘The justice we got’
Pleines downplayed that Servin was off-duty, saying he still had to take action according to both state law and the Police Department’s general orders when he believed Cross pulled a gun on him.
"He has to take some action when he sees what he believes to be a crime in progress," Pleines said.
Pleines agreed that Servin’s case was unusual in that he is seeking disability pay for a shooting that IPRA found violated the Police Department’s policy on when officers can use force. But that shouldn’t affect his right to make a claim, he said.
"Dante Servin is doing nothing other than what the law allows him to do, regarding his resignation, his application for disability and his avoiding being fired by the department," Pleines said. "Everything he does is sanctioned by Illinois law."
Another issue at play will be proving that Servin suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. If the police pension board agrees to hear the case, Servin will be examined by a doctor approved by the board.
Ultimately, the board would weigh how much the shooting contributed to the post-traumatic stress disorder — or if other factors in Servin’s life were also at play.
On learning of Servin’s bid for disability pay from the Tribune, Rekia Boyd’s brother, Martinez Sutton, said it was one more example of a system that protects police no matter what. Victims, he said, don’t get the same consideration.
Sutton, who has traveled the world since his sister’s death speaking out on policing and human rights issues, is seeking a degree in clinical mental health counseling at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago.
"Based on the experience I went through … we have to deal with this mental beating on our own and find our own way through it. And yet still, they go and hug their officers and make sure they are OK," Sutton said. "… Let’s be real. Some of the police officers actually do (face) danger. This is just a case where (he) wasn’t even close to being in danger. No weapon found. And look at the justice we got."