Chicago, IL

90-Day Suspension of Chicago Officer for Body Slam Arrest Brings Attention to Police Use of Excessive Force

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

While the Chicago Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) recommended terminating the officer, the Chicago Police Board voted to suspend the officer for 90 days
Photo bySaturnism/Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

In a recent decision that has sparked public debate, a Chicago police officer has been suspended for 90 days by the Police Board for a controversial body slam arrest that occurred three years ago. The suspension, issued by the board after an investigation, has drawn attention to issues of excessive force and police accountability.

Officer Mark Johnson has been suspended by the Police Board in a unanimous decision on Thursday. The suspension came after Officer Johnson arrived at a bus stop in Chatham on Thanksgiving Day in 2019, where a fellow officer had forcefully brought down 32-year-old Bernard Kersh.

According to the report, plainclothes officers in an unmarked police car observed Kersh drinking vodka at the bus stop and attempted to issue him a citation. As the officers tried to ticket Kersh, he reportedly spat in one officer's eye, prompting the officer to respond with an "emergency takedown," as stated by authorities.

The incident, captured in a video showing Sgt. Jerald Williams lifting Kersh and forcefully bringing him to the ground, spread online and generated widespread outrage. Then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot expressed her deep concern, describing the video as "very disturbing."

Despite the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) recommending a 45-day suspension for Williams, records indicate that former CPD Superintendent David Brown suggested a 135-day suspension for Williams, who has a background in mixed martial arts. However, Williams has yet to serve the recommended suspension and was reportedly in the "grievance process" as of Friday, as confirmed by a police spokesperson.

Johnson arrived at the scene right after the body slam had occurred and forcibly picked up Kersh, who was unconscious at time, and shoved him into a police car, without first having medics examine him. He also failed to secure Kersh with a seat belt. According to the decision, Johnson's behavior “was disrespectful to Mr. Kersh and not consistent with CPD’s standards for transporting arrestees."

COPA additionally stated that Johnson hadn't turned on his bodycam to document the incident and that he included inaccurate statements in his report “by indicating that Mr. Bernard Kersh was alert and/or responsive prior to being placed into a marked Chicago Police Department vehicle, or words to that effect.”  In his report, Johnson had stated that Kersh had been "alert” and “feigning unconsciousness.”

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) had recommended the termination of Officer Johnson, claiming that he failed to provide appropriate care to Mr. Kersh and subsequently provided false information in relation to the arrest. However, the Board decided that the statements weren't "willfully" false.

City records indicate that a total of seven officers, including two sergeants, faced potential disciplinary actions for their involvement in the arrest. However, not all of these cases have been resolved.

This was the second time in the past five years that Johnson had to face the police board. In January of 2018, the police board concurred with COPA's suggestion to suspend Johnson for 366 days due to allegations of using unwarranted force against a student from Chicago Public Schools while off duty.

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