Chicago police officer being investigated after shoving teen in ‘unprovoked attack’

Surveillance video shows Officer Craig Lancaster, who's reportedly faced roughly 30 complaints of misbehavior over 20 years, hitting JaQuwaun Williams as he walked into Gresham Elementary.

A Black Chicago police officer is now at the center of an investigation after he allegedly hit and shoved an eighth-grade student in an “unprovoked” attack at an area school.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office is looking into the off-duty behavior of 54-year-old Officer Craig Lancaster after a surveillance video surfaced showing him hitting JaQuwaun Williams, then 14, near his throat as the student walked into Gresham Elementary, a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school on the city’s South Side. At least one school official and several of JaQuwaun’s classmates were present at the time.

The May 18 encounter lasted less than 30 seconds, but critics of the Chicago Police Department have long contended that such minor, unreported incidents destroy confidence between CPD and the community. Lancaster’s defense has attempted to portray JaQuwaun as a hostile teen who needed controlling because he constituted a threat to others at Gresham, though that is not evident in the video.

Gresham Elementary School in Chicago
A 14-year-old at Gresham Elementary School in Chicago was struck in the throat on campus by an off-duty police officer this year, and now that officer, Craig Lancaster, is under investigation. (Photo: AdobeStock)

“Officer Lancaster is a decorated Chicago police officer who was legally at the school when the minor child became a danger to the students and the staff,” wrote attorney Tim Grace, who often handles police misconduct cases. “He acted in a manner to protect the children and staff from a student who clearly was a threat to all present. He was acting within the scope of his duties as a law enforcement officer and acted in a manner that is consistent with the rules of the Chicago Police Department and laws of the state of Illinois.”

JaQuwaun had played pickup basketball with a friend before school, approaching the building with only two minutes until the first bell rang.

According to the family’s lawsuit, Lancaster, dressed in civilian clothing, pulled up to Gresham Elementary at about the same time to visit Yana Cruz, an upper-level math teacher described as the officer’s “personal companion” in a school incident report, as she ushered students inside the school building. 

In the sound-free surveillance clip obtained by the Tribune, as JaQuwaun and his friend approach the door, Cruz seems to say something and redirect the teen to an area where other eighth-grade students are waiting to enter the school. JaQuwaun walks on, showing no visible hint he heard the teacher.

Lancaster steps into JaQuwaun’s path and strikes him in the throat area, sending the boy falling several feet backward. His companion, who is in sixth grade, proceeds into the building, the Tribune reported.

“I was shocked, embarrassed, and quiet,” recalled JaQuwaun. “First, I was shocked that he (hit) me; then I’m embarrassed because I got (hit) in front of my friends. And then I was just quiet because I didn’t want to talk to anybody.”

Despite being a half-foot taller than Lancaster, JaQuwaun reportedly did not attempt to fight back. Instead, the video shows the teen with a puzzled expression and a questioning gesture with his hands as Lancaster continues marching toward him. The officer leaves the schoolyard less than a minute after the incident.

The Williams family’s lawsuit claims that Lancaster yelled he was going to “beat the (expletive)” out of the teen as he walked to his vehicle to depart the premises.

Simultaneously, the school security guard, David McDaniel, jumps over the parking lot fence and confronts Lancaster. A redacted incident report on school letterhead claimed that when McDaniel approached him, the off-duty officer picked up his shirt and “revealed a badge and gun holster.”

Campus officials questioned McDaniel for the incident report, which defines the confrontation as “assault-physical.” It also refers to JaQuwaun as the “victim.”

Lancaster, who remains on active duty, is a 30-year Chicago police veteran who reportedly has faced roughly 30 complaints of misbehavior over 20 years – the vast majority being overuse of force.

JaQuwaun said he repeatedly asked to phone his grandmother, Lynida Williams-Saddler, after the incident, but school administrators refused his pleas.

Williams-Saddler, JaQuwaun’s legal guardian, whom he calls “Mom,” said school administrators did not tell her of the occurrence until the end of the day. They met in person the next morning, when Gresham staff told her what happened, expressed worry about her grandson’s well-being, informed her Lancaster was a police officer and encouraged her to submit a police report.

Williams-Saddler has filed complaints against the officer with the Chicago Police Department and the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, an independent entity that examines misconduct charges. According to the Tribune, she is also suing Lancaster and the city of Chicago, accusing the latter of fostering a spirit of impunity among police officers by neglecting to investigate and punish misbehavior.

In documents filed earlier this year, the city acknowledged Lancaster is under criminal investigation in connection with the event and requested to postpone the legal procedures until law enforcement officers complete their work.

A representative for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said the case is “under review,” but declined to provide additional comment, according to the Tribune.

JaQuwaun, now 15, wants Lancaster to face criminal charges. He said he attempted to forget about the incident for the remaining two weeks of eighth grade, but his classmates’ ridicule weighed too heavily on him. He was allowed to stay home for his final week of school but attended his June 5 graduation.

He is now a freshman at Simeon Career Academy, hoping to try out for the school’s basketball team. Still, Williams-Saddler said he has struggled to sleep since the physical confrontation and is in therapy to help him cope.

“JaQuwaun and the rest of these kids are going to be skeptical for the rest of their lives about whether the police are there to actually protect them or just hurt them,” said the family’s attorney, Jordan Marsh, the Tribune reported. “If they weren’t already cynical, they definitely are now.”

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