Chicago police sergeant involved in two controversial fatal shootings now running for Cook County judge

A Chicago police supervisor who came under scrutiny for fatally shooting two people in a three-year span and was once investigated on allegations that were serious enough for the department to consider a move to fire him is a candidate for Cook County judge in the March 19 Democratic primary election.

Sgt. John Poulos, who is also a licensed attorney, is running for a vacant North Side judicial seat against three opponents: local attorneys Michael Zink and Nickolas Pappas, and Nadine Jean Wichern, chief of the civil appeals division in the Illinois attorney general’s office.

At the end of last year, thanks primarily to loans from his wife, Poulos had about $500,000 in his campaign coffers, far more than his three challengers combined.

Poulos was cleared of any wrongdoing by police oversight investigators in both fatal shootings, but lawsuits stemming from those shootings cost taxpayers about $2 million. And after the second shooting, it was revealed that a police internal affairs investigation of Poulos, that included allegations he lied on his CPD job application, had languished for about a decade without resolution.

Poulos, who is a sergeant in CPD’s records division and is in the process of being promoted to lieutenant, declined to answer questions on how his actions as a police officer might influence him as a judge. In a statement, he said he is “running to help restore some sense and sensibility to the bench and to our criminal justice system.

“In sum, it’s time to provide citizens with assurances that their interests are most important. A select few have made it clear that the interests of criminals are their paramount concerns; they don’t consider the interests of ordinary citizens, especially their health, welfare, and safety. I do care. That’s why I seek to continue to serve.”

James McKay, a lawyer who has represented Poulos, called him “highly qualified” and an “excellent choice” to be a judge and scoffed at any suggestion that he would be unfair to anyone who has business before the court.

“There’s no evidence to suggest that … John Poulos could not be fair and impartial to all parties that appear before him,” McKay said. “I would submit his life experiences, including his experiences on the Chicago Police Department, will assist him in judging the credibility of witnesses, reviewing all of the evidence before rendering a decision.”

Poulos was off-duty in 2013 when he fatally shot Kenyatta Hill-Cotton’s brother during a confrontation in Lincoln Park. It was ultimately determined her brother was unarmed.

“I don’t think he is fit to judge a beauty pageant,” she said of Poulos’ judicial candidacy. “I just don’t think that it’s fair for him to be in a position to even be considered, let alone run.”

In November 2016 in the West Englewood neighborhood, Poulos was on duty when he ran after 19-year-old Kajuan Raye during an encounter that began as a street stop.

Poulos told investigators with the city’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability that he opened fire on Raye after he twice pointed a gun at him. But immediately after Raye was fatally wounded, responding police found no gun near him or along the approximately two-block route of the chase.

About three months later, in February 2017, a resident raking leaves outside his home, which was located along the circuitous path taken by Raye, found a silver and black handgun under his bushes. The resident told investigators he did not pick up the gun and his mother called police.

This discovery contributed to COPA’s decision to clear Poulos of wrongdoing during its investigation. It was a decision that hinged largely on broken handgun parts found in the front pocket of Raye’s jacket, parts that appeared to have been missing from the silver and black gun — a loaded Kahr Arms CW40 pistol, a .40-caliber semiautomatic.

A lawsuit filed by Raye’s mother took more than three years to go to trial. Two reports issued by different firearms experts — one hired by Raye’s mother and the other by Poulos’ legal team — came to the same conclusion about the trajectory of Poulos’ gunfire: A bullet that struck Raye went through his back, exited his chest and damaged the gun in the front pocket of the coat.

Based on the experts’ findings, Raye’s mother’s lawyers conceded at trial that he was armed. But the lawyers also argued that Poulos lied to COPA about Raye pointing the gun at him since the weapon was likely in his pocket when he was shot.

A federal jury ultimately awarded Raye’s mother about $1.037 million in damages, finding that Poulos committed a battery when he fatally shot Raye.

The 2013 shooting involving Hill-Cotton’s brother, Rickey Rozelle, 28, happened as Poulos was returning to his home in Lincoln Park from Gamekeepers, a bar owned by a relative. According to an account of the incident provided by the Independent Police Review Authority, COPA’s predecessor, Poulos saw Rozelle on the rear porch of his neighbor’s second-floor apartment that was being rehabbed. Poulos told IPRA he asked Rozelle what he was doing and Rozelle told him, “You don’t wanna get hurt. … You don’t want any of this. Mind your own business.”

Poulos said he hit and kicked Rozelle after he threatened to kill him and lunged at him while refusing to surrender, an IPRA report said. Rozelle tried to get away, but a brick wall blocked his escape. Poulos told investigators he saw Rozelle holding a shiny object near his waist. Thinking it was a weapon, Poulos fired two shots, one of them a fatal bullet to the chest, the report said.

No weapon was found — a chrome-colored watch was found near Rozelle’s body, according to IPRA. Still, Poulos was cleared of any wrongdoing. For his actions, he was given an officer of the month award in 2014 from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

In 2018, the Chicago City Council settled a lawsuit against Poulos from Hill-Cotton for $950,000.

Michael Goode, Hill-Cotton’s lawyer in the suit, said Poulos should not be running for judge and raised concern about whether he can be fair if elected, especially if at some point he were to preside over a lawsuit in a police shooting case.

“Who would want to go up in front of somebody and be looking at that person as a judge?” said Goode. “I just think the questions that are out there, they’re too extreme and they’re just too indicative of a bias from my standpoint.”

Several years before the two shootings, Poulos faced administrative charges from the Police Department alleging he concealed a past arrest while applying to become a cop and his part ownership of Gamekeepers. The department prohibited officers from holding ownership in businesses that serve liquor.

Poulos was alleged to have lied in a personal history questionnaire he filled out as a job applicant with the department in 2000. In the form, he denied he had ever been interviewed by police in a criminal matter. He also allegedly lied the next month during a background investigation interview when he denied he had ever been arrested.

Sources said Poulos, who was hired as a police officer in 2001, had been arrested in the early 1990s on a misdemeanor charge of tampering with a vehicle. Records show that Poulos told an internal affairs investigator the case had been expunged and he didn’t believe he was required to disclose the arrest.

The department also alleged that Poulos retained an ownership interest in Gamekeepers from 2003 until 2006. Public records show Poulos held a 10% interest in the business on West Armitage Avenue until 2006.

The case remained dormant for more than a decade, and wasn’t resurrected until the Tribune reported on it in 2016, weeks after the Raye shooting. The department then sought to fire Poulos in 2017, but the Chicago Police Board the following year dismissed the disciplinary charges, citing the city’s yearslong delay in bringing them.

Ordered by the board to explain why such a long delay took place, then-police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said he believed it was the department’s practice at the time not to bring charges against officers on leave of absence and Poulos, after injuring his hand while on duty in March 2002, didn’t return to work until June 2010.

Even given that, however, it took seven years for the department to bring the charges — a gap that the Police Board, in its eight-page written decision, said that Johnson “candidly conceded” he couldn’t completely explain.

In its 164-page investigation into the Police Department’s practices in January 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice cited the Tribune’s coverage of the missteps in disciplining Poulos, saying it illustrated the Police Department’s lack of a functioning early intervention system, which is intended to red-flag certain officers.

According to state Board of Elections records, Poulos’ wife, Marjorie, is listed as the treasurer for his campaign and issued two separate $250,000 loans to his coffers. Poulos has also personally loaned $12,000 to his campaign, the records show. Through Dec. 31, his campaign had $496,918 on hand.

Through the same period, Wichern had $205,800 in her campaign fund, records show. Zink and Pappas had $28,945 and $10,018 in their campaign funds, respectively, through Dec. 31, the records show.

Like his three opponents, Poulos gathered a couple hundred pages of signatures on candidacy petitions that were circulated on his behalf to get on the Democratic primary ballot. Among those who signed the petitions were a top aide to Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker and a Democratic lawmaker from Poulos’ neighborhood.

Asked about the signature from Anne Caprara, Pritzker’s chief of staff, a spokesperson for the governor said in a statement that “signing a petition to allow someone onto the ballot does not mean you support them – it just means you support their right to take their case to the voters.”

“Anne was approached on the street by her (residence) by a volunteer gathering signatures to get Democrats on the ballot. As a staunch supporter of ballot access, and a former campaign worker well acquainted with the difficulties of collecting signatures in cold weather, Anne signed the petition,” the spokesperson, Jordan Abudayyeh, said in a statement. “Anne has signed many petitions in the past – some for candidates she supported and some for candidates she didn’t vote for.”

State Rep. Margaret Croke, said she is supporting Zink for the judicial seat and that had she known about the controversies surrounding Poulos, she would not have signed his petition. As a voter, she said, she researches candidates more closely than when they’re trying to get on the ballot.

“During the petition process, I would love to do the background necessary on every single candidate who asks me to sign their petition,” said Croke, a Chicago Democrat. “Unfortunately, that’s just not possible.”