Dolton police officer Major Coleman III leaned out the window of his partner’s moving car and fired a volley of bullets at the tires of a suspect’s vehicle during a wild, 100-mph chase through the south suburb.
That Hollywood-style action scene on July 15, 2011 — one that began with a blown stop sign and sent multiple cars careening off the road — marked the fifth of six shootings so far in Coleman’s 20-year law enforcement career.
There was the time when Coleman, working off-duty at a Dominick’s grocery, fired twice in the direction of a man running away with a stolen can of baby formula. Or the night he mistakenly shot an unarmed 19-year-old in the back as the man walked home. Or the time an errant bullet from one of his shootings found its way into the living room of a sleeping woman after it blew through her front window.
To some, Coleman’s shootings are the result of his bad luck and aggressive attitude.
“Certain officers are more active than other officers,” said Dolton Police Chief Robert Collins Jr. “You have officers that are out there simply looking for the bad elements. They are looking for the criminals. They are looking for the drugs. They are looking for the guns out there, which is what they should be doing.”
To critics, however, Coleman is a symptom of a much larger problem that plagues small-town police departments in some of the most poverty-stricken, crime-infested communities in Cook County.
An examination by the Better Government Association and WBEZ of every suburban police shooting in Cook County since 2005 found that no officer shot more people than Coleman. He is one of at least 13 suburban officers who have shot more than one person.
The investigation also found officers involved in multiple shootings often had a history of warning signs in their past that were ignored. Those signs include domestic violence, difficulty following orders, anger issues and in one case an officer who had previously tipped off a drug dealer about police surveillance.
Records show there have been 113 police shootings in suburban Cook County over the last 13 years, with an outsized share concentrated in communities where unemployment, low incomes and stressed city budgets often translate to a severe lack of resources to pay, retain and train police.
That downward spiral contributes to questionable policing that, in turn, triggers lawsuits that cost taxpayers in poorer communities millions of dollars in civil liability settlements.
Those same suburbs are also places where officers with troubled histories and records of multiple shootings are often employed, the investigation found.
Towns such as Calumet City, Dolton, Harvey, Markham, Riverdale and Maywood together accounted for about 40 percent of all police shootings, despite representing less than six percent of a suburban Cook population of 2.5 million. Dolton and Harvey each experienced nine police shootings since 2005, tied for the most of any suburb.
“The realities are that this is driven by resources, it really is,” said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. “I remember back in the ’80s even, this was happening. Where you had officers bouncing around different departments, and they weren’t necessarily the best officers … It’s not good, it’s not good.”
“If you drive through a lot of these towns, particularly in the south suburbs, you’ll see their commercial districts are completely hollowed out,” Dart said. “There is a direct correlation between the financial condition of that town and their ability to fund a stable, well-paid police department.”
Warning signs ignored
It was the Cook County Sheriff’s Office that first raised warning signs about Major Coleman.
On Feb. 22, 1999, after just one year on the job as a sheriff’s deputy, Coleman was working an off-duty security job at a Dominick’s grocery in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood when he confronted a 38-year-old man who had left the store with a can of baby formula he didn’t pay for, reports say.
There was a brief fight between Coleman, then 27, and the alleged shoplifter who punched Coleman twice in the face and ran away. Coleman drew his weapon and “fired two shots into the ground,” according to a Chicago police report. Coleman told investigators he saw the man reaching into his jacket pocket and feared he might have a gun. He didn’t.
The Cook County Sheriff, unlike most smaller suburban departments surveyed by the BGA and WBEZ, has an internal affairs division that reviews shootings for policy violations. Coleman was suspended for 10 days.
It was the last time he was punished for his role in a shooting, records show.
After his suspension, Coleman worked several non-patrol jobs for the sheriff — equipment locker clerk, warrant officer, courtroom worker and an intake officer at the Cook County Jail — until he resigned in 2006 to be a police officer in south suburban South Holland.
He didn’t last six months, fired for repeated tardiness, missing a training class and sleeping on the job, records show. Coleman sued South Holland alleging he was fired because he’s black, and settled the case years later for $30,000.
Days later, he took the job in Dolton where he has been involved in five shootings including the high-speed car chase in which he fired at the tires of a fleeing vehicle, a practice widely considered inefficient and dangerous.
His first shooting in Dolton came before dawn on July 28, 2007 after an armed robbery and carjacking at a White Castle restaurant. As the two robbers drove off, they crashed a stolen Pontiac sedan and tried to jump out of the car to run away, reports said.
Coleman and his partner at the time, officer Joseph McNeal, told investigators they saw one suspect, 36-year-old Rodney Chaney-Jackson, point a semi-automatic pistol at them as he jumped out of the car window. Both officers opened fire.
Coleman later told investigators he could not remember how many shots he fired that night, but that he emptied his gun of its first eight-round magazine, reloaded, and emptied most of the next.
One of the officers’ errant bullets ended up in the home of Sharon Morrissette, who was asleep when she heard the bullet hit her window. She said the village of Dolton picked up the tab for the damage.
Chaney-Jackson, currently serving time at the Illinois River Correctional Center for numerous felonies related to the incident, said by telephone that he was unarmed when he was shot 15 times but survived. He said his partner, also in prison, is the one who had the gun.
“It felt like getting hit with balls of fire from hell,” Chaney-Jackson said.
Dolton wrote Chaney-Jackson a check for $2,500 to settle a lawsuit he filed over the shooting. Chaney-Jackson said he still suffers memory loss, partial paralysis to his left arm and numbness in both thighs.
Gun confiscated while officer off duty
Although it was Coleman’s first shooting in Dolton, it was the second in 18 days for McNeal, who at the time was enmeshed in a domestic battery case. He had been arrested by his own department two years earlier for beating and using a belt on a 5-year-old boy.
After being charged, McNeal had to get permission from a judge to carry his weapon on duty. It was confiscated by supervisors after his daily shift, records show.
At the time of the two shootings, McNeal was under court supervision after pleading guilty to misdemeanor battery in the domestic violence case.
On July 10, 2007, McNeal tripped and accidentally shot unarmed 22-year-old Alexx Lee while responding to a report of drug dealing. According to investigative reports, McNeal was chasing a suspect when he ran into Lee, who told investigators he was walking home from a neighborhood store and was not involved in the alleged drug deal.
McNeal ordered Lee to stop, reports say. While McNeal held his gun in one hand and tried to turn on a malfunctioning flashlight with the other, he told investigators he tripped and accidentally shot Lee in the abdomen, reports say.
Lee suffered internal injuries from a single gunshot wound. He and his family filed a lawsuit against Dolton and settled it for an undisclosed amount. Lee, through his mother, declined to be interviewed.
Collins, who was not the chief when McNeal was first charged with domestic violence, said if he had been McNeal may have been fired.
“We’d be talking about their job, we’d absolutely be talking about that,” said Collins, who nevertheless defended the actions of his officers in the shootings. Both McNeal and Coleman made about $75,000 in 2017. Coleman is currently a detective. Neither agreed to be interviewed.
Those were the only two shootings for McNeal, but Coleman has been involved in four more since — starting with the 2009 shooting of 19-year-old Fermon Booth.
“He’s a different kind of cop,” said Booth, now 28. “He’s an intimidating mother------, man.”
Just after midnight on New Year’s Day, Coleman and his partner got a call of gunshots being fired when they spotted Booth dressed in black, wearing a hoodie and standing in the entrance of a residential alley near Dolton’s Kandy Kane Park, according to reports.
In a statement to investigators after the shooting, Coleman said he got out of his squad car and ordered Booth to stop and show his hands. Booth kept his hands in his pockets and turned to walk away, Coleman said.
Coleman said he shot at Booth when he saw Booth turn toward the officers with his hands in the pockets of his unzipped hoodie and then “raised his right arm,” records say.
The bullet from Coleman’s gun hit Booth in the lower back, traveled through his body and exited from the lower abdomen. Booth later sued Dolton and the village settled with him for $45,000.
“It wasn’t like I had a gun,” Booth said in a recent interview. “Even if I had a gun, I’m running away from you. You shoot people in the back? Crazy.”
In 2011, Coleman was in another shooting in which he shot out the tires of a fleeing car.
On July 15, Coleman was with another partner, Det. Damon Griffin, when they pulled over a car driven by 29-year-old Sharrieff Rowell after it ran a stop sign in a residential area, reports say.
As Griffin walked up to the car and asked Rowell to roll down the window, Rowell suddenly put his car into reverse, rammed into the front grill of the police car and then took off, reports say.
According to investigators and statements from the officers, Rowell led the officers on a wild chase that reached speeds of 100 mph before he tried to get on Interstate 94 at the Dolton exit, thought better of it, and then did a U-turn and tried to get off the interstate going the wrong way on an entrance ramp.
During the chase, Griffin pulled the police car alongside the suspect as he fled. Coleman leaned out the passenger window and began shooting at Rowell’s car tires, records show. Rowell abandoned his car, disabled because of the flat tires, and was later caught and arrested.
Police later found nearly six pounds of marijuana in Rowell’s car. Rowell sued Dolton over the incident, and settled with the village for $10,000, records show.
Dolton — with the seventh highest property tax rates in Cook County last year and a budget deficit of $3.3 million — reported 279 violent crimes in 2012 and 2013, according to federal data.
Like most communities plagued with high numbers of police shootings, Dolton is coping with significant poverty, unemployment, and an eroding tax base tied to an exodus of more affluent residents.
“That certainly translates into hardships not only for individuals who live there and who are still around, but for the municipalities in the terms of the ways they can respond,” said Alden Loury, a research director for the Metropolitan Planning Council. “It’s not just people in these communities, it’s the governments also that are in a bind.”
Harvey and Riverdale, which had a combined 15 police shootings since 2005, recorded 590 violent crimes in 2013, the latest figures available from national crime statistics compiled by the FBI. Among the six police shootings in Riverdale since 2005 was the one that killed Brandon Harper, an unarmed 23-year-old who was shot through the chest by officer Anthony Milton.
Deyon Dean, who was a few months into his first term as Riverdale mayor when Harper was shot, said the officers in the department were not trained properly at the time.
“If they don’t have training to see certain things or pick up on certain things, the only thing that they know is ‘This guy looks like he’s going for something,’ and boom,” Dean said.
He added that a sense of community frustration, unemployment and hopelessness all help contribute to a problem the village is not equipped to handle.
Dean said similar houses to his in upscale communities nearby sell for nearly $200,000, but “my house? I’m lucky to get $30,000 to $40,000 if I sold it today.
“My taxes are quadruple what they are paying there,” he said. “They get bigger homes and I’m paying more taxes. You tell me what the balance is, what the equalness is, what the fairness is.”
Nearby Harvey was once a muscular middle-class community with a thriving steel industry. These days, it has the eighth-highest property tax rate in Cook County despite a median income two thirds the state average, as well as a City Hall mired in corruption and fiscal mismanagement.
“We were the apex of the south suburbs approximately 50 years ago,” said Harvey Ald. Christopher Clark. “Now we are a city where just the simplest of basic services are not provided to the residents.”
Officer tips off drug dealer
Since 2005, Harvey, like Dolton, has endured nine police shootings, and its police department has been criticized for lax hiring standards and civil rights abuses. In 2012, a U.S. Department of Justice report found “serious deficiencies” in the department that “create an unreasonable risk that constitutional violations will occur.”
Consider the case of Antoine Anderson, a Harvey police officer.
On May 17, 2015, Anderson shot and killed Ronell Wade, 45, as Wade wrestled over control of a gun with a different officer from the nearby village of Phoenix. Before coming to Harvey, Anderson was a part-time officer in south suburban Markham where he wounded Lyle Wickliffe, 28, in a shootout in 2013, reports say.
Prior to both of those shootings, records say, Anderson was fired in 2011 from yet a third nearby suburban department, Country Club Hills after allegations he tipped off a drug dealer to an impending police raid on his home.
Internal reports from the Country Club Hills investigation said Anderson’s alleged actions risked the safety of officers who executed a search warrant.
Harvey police officials declined to respond to telephone calls, leaving unanswered the questions about why they would hire Anderson after he was suspected years earlier of tipping a drug dealer.
Markham Police Chief Mack Sanders, who oversaw Anderson’s hiring there shortly after the botched Country Club Hills drug investigation, said he did not know why Anderson had left his previous job.
“We try to do our best to vet the individuals we have here,” Sanders said. “You have to be responsible for what you are putting out there. You don’t obviously catch every apple that comes through.”
At the time Sanders hired Anderson for the $14-per-hour part-time police job in 2012, Markham was led by longtime Mayor David Webb, who was indicted last year on federal bribery charges.
Anderson held the Markham job for three years, before working a brief stint in 2015 as a full-time Dixmoor police officer. Records show that in March 2015 he took the job in Harvey, where he makes $56,000 per year.
In a phone interview, Anderson claimed he had “no clue” about the allegations in Country Club Hills and said he didn’t know the felon he was alleged to have tipped to the raid. “That irritates me because there is some false information out there against my name,” Anderson said.
The revolving door for troubled officers also extends to western suburbs like Cicero and Maywood, where there have been a combined 10 police shootings.
They included shootings by officer Don Garrity of Cicero and Maywood’s Dwayne Wheeler.
Garrity was promoted to detective after he shot and killed 22-year-old Cesar Munive on July 5, 2012 in what was officially said to have been an attempt to protect another officer that Munive was threatening with a gun. But Munive’s family said he was unarmed and the gun found near him was planted. They sued Cicero over the shooting and the suburb settled last year for $3.5 million.
Wheeler is now chief of police in Kincaid, a small town near Springfield, following a law enforcement career in Chicago’s suburbs marred by alcohol-related problems and a three-day suspension for his involvement in a high-speed chase over a traffic infraction.
In 2007, Wheeler shot and killed an unarmed drug dealer who had just sold $20 worth of drugs to an undercover informant on Sept. 20, 2007. Wheeler told investigators he felt threatened by the suspect’s moving car. Maywood paid the family a $500,000 civil liability settlement.
Wheeler said the shooting was justified.
Illinois lawmakers created a database in a 2015 police reform bill designed to track troubled officers, and to help prevent the revolving door. Under the new law, an officer who resigns or is fired under suspicion of a felony is supposed to go on the list compiled by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board. Police chiefs making hires are supposed to use the list to vet job candidates.
But a copy of the state database acquired by the BGA under a Freedom of Information Act request shows only 26 officers’ names have been submitted — including none from the Chicago Police Department. Ten of the 26 had already gone on to land additional policing jobs, the investigation found.
Among them is Eric Harlston, 52, who started his job at the south suburban Phoenix Police Department in August.
Harlston was hired despite being fired from the Metra Police Department in December 2016 for using “unreasonable and/or excessive force” in the arrest of D'Nardo Mack on Jan. 15, 2015 at Millennium Station in Chicago, records show.
Video of the arrest, provided by Metra through an open records request, shows Harlston’s fellow officer David Robertson — now charged with aggravated battery, perjury and official misconduct — repeatedly striking Mack with his fists and a baton, and blasting him with pepper spray. According to news reports, Mack in December settled his lawsuit against Metra and the two officers for $225,000.
According to testimony in the lawsuit, Harlston assisted his partner in the beating, pushed Mack into the blows and letting him fall to the ground shoulder first.
“The force that they used was unnecessary,” Metra Police Captain Brian Peters said in a deposition. “It was appalling.”
In August, the police department in Phoenix hired Harlston as a part-time police officer, records show. On his resume to apply for the job in Phoenix, Harlston stated that he “failed to report force” in a prior policing job but noted on the application “I can’t explain more in detail.”
Phoenix Police Chief George Bowman said in a recent interview that Harlston no longer works for the department, although he declined to answer questions about the circumstances under which Harlston was hired, or when he left the department.
Harlston, reached by telephone, hung up on a reporter after saying he didn’t “beat up anyone.”
WBEZ criminal justice reporter Patrick Smith contributed to this report.