Chicago police officer pleads not guilty to felony aggravated battery for videotaped school incident

CHICAGO — A veteran Chicago police officer pleaded not guilty Thursday to felony aggravated battery for striking an eighth grade boy earlier this year while making an off-duty visit to a South Side elementary school.

Craig Lancaster, 55, was arraigned during a brief hearing before Cook County Judge Adrienne Davis at the Leighton Criminal Court Building. The judge barred the officer from contacting the young victim or stepping on school property, but specifically said she would not impose any restrictions that would impact his job.

The Chicago Police Department, however, stripped him of his police powers last week and he has been prohibited from carrying a gun or his badge while awaiting trial, his attorney said. He has been assigned to desk duty until the case is resolved.

Lancaster was indicted earlier this month after the Chicago Tribune published a video of the altercation, which shows him hitting 14-year-old JaQuwaun Williams near his throat as the boy walked into Gresham Elementary School on May 18.

The officer was on school grounds that day to drop off money for his girlfriend, a teacher who was directing students into the building before classes began. ‭Prosecutors said the teacher had left the school door open, apparently creating confusion as to whether students were supposed to be lining up or were allowed to enter.

Both the officer and JaQuwaun acknowledged the teen said something as he headed toward the open door, though prosecutors say the two offered different accounts about the intended target of the comments. JaQuwaun said he and a classmate were arguing over an alleged foul during a pickup basketball game moments earlier, while Lancaster, who had his back toward the teen, told investigators that he heard belligerent remarks aimed at the teacher, Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Emily Mabey told the judge.

“Other witnesses thought (JaQuwaun) was muttering under his breath and did not perceive him to be acting aggressively,” Mabey told the judge.

The video, which has no sound, does not show the teen interacting with Lancaster before the physical contact or doing anything obvious to provoke it. It also shows neither Lancaster nor school employees doing anything to indicate immediate danger after the officer makes contact with JaQuwaun. To the contrary, the teacher moves closer to the teen, touches him on the arms and instructs him to stand near more than a dozen other students. JaQuwaun complies.

The video shows Lancaster, who is wearing civilian clothes, leave the schoolyard less than a minute after the incident, and the teenager is allowed inside the school without further scrutiny.

According to a redacted incident report written on school letterhead, a security guard stopped Lancaster before he left the parking lot and the officer lifted his shirt when McDaniel approached and “revealed a badge and gun holster.” It’s unclear whether the holster held a weapon, according to the report.

Battery is typically a misdemeanor charge in Illinois, though it may be upgraded to a felony if the incident takes place on public property. Courts have previously ruled that schools qualify as public property because they are taxpayer funded and accessible to some members of the public.

Lancaster’s attorney Tim Grace told the Chicago Tribune he believes prosecutors went too far by charging him with a crime that carries a maximum 5 years in prison. The officer also could receive probation under the sentencing guidelines outlined in court.

“We think this is an overcharge by the State’s Attorneys Office,” Grace said. “We look forward to presenting our case to the court.”

JaQuwaun’s grandparents, Lynida Williams-Saddler and Vincent Suttles, attended the court hearing, which offered a glimpse of the justice they’ve sought for nearly six months. The teen, who is now a 15-year-old freshman at Simeon Career Academy, did not attend.

“I’m glad they’re doing something about this,” Williams-Saddler said. “Because police have to be held accountable too.”

In a recent Tribune interview, JaQuwaun said he repeatedly asked to call his grandmother — whom he calls “Mom” and who has raised him since he was young — as soon as he got inside the building after the incident, but school officials denied his requests.

The teen’s family is suing Lancaster and the city of Chicago, accusing the latter of instilling a sense of impunity among the police ranks by failing to investigate and punish misconduct. In documents filed in the lawsuit, the city acknowledged Lancaster was under criminal investigation in connection with the incident and requested the legal proceedings be postponed until law enforcement officials can finish their work.

Lancaster is a 30-year Chicago police veteran who began his career with the department as a civilian employee and has spent much of his career protecting the city’s transit stations. His supervisors have recognized him over the years through more than 50 department honorable mentions and commendations, according to his attorney, including when he and fellow officers on the mass transit team nabbed a suspect accused of sexually abusing and battering teenage girls on the CTA.

But according to city records, Lancaster also has faced nearly 30 allegations of misconduct during a 20-year span. The majority were use-of-force complaints, including in 2004 and 2006 when suspects in separate incidents accused him of grabbing them by their neck or throat.

Police review agencies cleared the officer in both of those cases — the latter of which also occurred on Chicago school property, according to records obtained by the Tribune.

Under the CPD’s accountability system, only three of the nearly 30 allegations against him were sustained. Two of the more serious sustained complaints — both while Lancaster was off-duty and accused of discharging a weapon — resulted in unpaid 30-day suspensions, according to personnel documents.

The judge ordered Lancaster to be fingerprinted and photographed. He is due back in court Dec. 12.