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An off-duty Chicago police sergeant went “rogue” in allegedly tackling a Park Ridge young teen and pinning him to a sidewalk, Cook County prosecutors argued in court Monday.
But an attorney for former Sergeant Michael Vitellaro characterized the case as a “Kim Foxx special,” referencing the Cook County state’s attorney, who some police officers have seen as overzealous in holding law enforcement to account. The attorney insisted the case did not belong in criminal court and argued the sergeant had acted according to his law enforcement training when he believed he saw a crime taking place.
Vitellaro faces two counts of official misconduct and one count of aggravated battery following an incident last July in which he grabbed a then-14-year-old boy, wrestled him flat on the ground, stomach down, and held him there while accusing the boy of taking his son’s bike. It happened outside a coffee shop on Northwest Highway in Park Ridge.
Video of the incident, which circulated extensively on social media, shows Vitellaro holding the boy to the ground with a knee on his back. The boy’s family has said he is of Puerto Rican descent.
The boy, now 15, said while testifying in court that while he had not been injured, he had been afraid for his life during the incident.
State prosecutors argued that Vitellaro acted irrationally and jumped to conclusions about his son’s missing bike, which another young teen had taken from the Park Ridge Public Library and moved to the intersection of Euclid Avenue and Northwest Highway, a distance of about a block and a half.
“This case is about a rogue officer who rushed to judgment and acted out of rage, not out of reason,” Assistant State’s Attorney Alyssa Janicki said in her opening argument.
Janicki later stated Vitellaro had filed a Chicago police report after he stopped the boy, and she called what he wrote “mischaracterizations of the facts [Vitellaro] used to justify his actions.”
“There is no justification for what Sergeant Vitellaro did to [the boy],” Janicki said.
When Foxx’s office approved charges against Vitellaro in August 2022, investigators said in a statement that security video from a coffee shop and other nearby businesses showed the teen arrived at the scene on his own bike and did not steal anything. Vitellaro approached the boy when the boy went to handle the missing bike, prosecutors said.
Defense attorney James McKay did not argue that the boy had taken the bike but sought to establish that Vitellaro had probable cause to detain him.
He emphasized the connection between the boy and another teenager who allegedly removed the bike from the Park Ridge Public Library, pointing out different instances in surveillance footage when the two boys were seen walking away from the incident together and highlighting the close friendship between the teen and a third boy who was allegedly present when Vitellaro’s son’s bike went missing.
McKay also said the matter did not belong in a criminal court, calling the case “another Kim Foxx special.”
“[Vitellaro] was following the law; he was following his training as a police officer and he was following his duty as a father,” McKay said of his client’s actions in July 2022.
“What you see is a lawful arrest by a police officer who has sworn to uphold the law,” he said. “These are laws that Kim Foxx ignores.”
McKay also suggested that the boy and his family hoped to profit off of the case, citing a GoFundMe page the boy’s mother posted in the days after the incident and the fact that the family has retained the legal firm Romanucci Blandin, LLC to represent them.
Finally, McKay emphasized that the boy had not sustained physical injuries from the situation, refusing paramedics’ offers of treatment, and disputing prosecutors’ arguments that Vitellaro had acted violently in his move to restrain the boy.
“If I threw you to the ground, two things would happen: one, you’d be physically injured and two, the video would show it,” he said.
Investigators stated Vitellaro found his son’s missing bike at the site where the incident took place. When the 14-year-old went to move the sergeant’s son’s bike out of the way, the statement continued, Vitellaro restrained the boy, wrestled him to the ground, held him there and called 911.
A Sept. 7 Cook County indictment states that Vitellaro “knowingly made physical contact of an insulting or provoking nature with [a] juvenile” and as “a public officer or employee in his official capacity, to wit: a police officer for the Chicago Police Department, knowingly performed an act which he knew was forbidden by law to perform.”
Vitellaro, who had worked with the Chicago Police Department since 2000, was relieved of his police powers the day before Foxx’s office approved charges, a Chicago Police Department representative said after the incident took place last summer.
The boy had just graduated from Park Ridge-Niles District 64′s Emerson Middle School at the time of the incident last summer and now has completed his freshman year at Maine South High School in Park Ridge.
The family’s attorney, Antonio Romanucci, has stated that the family believes the case is one of racial profiling because their son was with a group of white teenagers.
“All he [Vitellaro] saw was a brown-skinned boy out of a group of many whiter fellows who were with him,” Romanucci said at a press conference last fall. “And that’s the one [Vitellaro] chose to restrain.”
The initial footage of the incident drew a crowd of concerned Park Ridge residents to last year’s July 5 City Council meeting who questioned how the incident reflected treatment of people of color in the city.
Vitellaro’s trial will continue Tuesday, June 6, Judge Paul Pavlus said.