Police Misconduct

Tension is building between Arab-Americans and police near Chicago

The community of Oak Lawn is voicing its outrage after a police officer who beat an Arab-American teen during an arrest pleaded not guilty to charges.

Tension is building between Arab-Americans and police near Chicago
Scripps News
SMS

In the southwest Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn, tensions are boiling between Arab-American activists and police.

Activists have been showing up at every police and fire commission meeting since the violent arrest of a Palestinian-American teenager last July.

Last week, chaos erupted after police supporters used their public comment time to show a video montage of officers getting killed in other cities.

"The police force knows that they have absolutely no justification for what Patrick O'Donnell did," said Muhammad Sankari, lead organizer of the Arab American Action Network.

Hours before the public meeting, Oak Lawn police officer Patrick O'Donnell appeared in court surrounded by around 40 other officers. He pleaded not guilty to aggravated battery and official misconduct for his involvement in the beating of 17-year-old Hadi Abuatelah. No other officers have been charged.

Last summer, a bystander video of the beating sparked outrage in the Arab-American community.

According to prosecutors, O'Donnell is seen punching Abuatelah more than 10 times in the head while another officer kneels on the teenager's legs. A third officer later joins in. O'Donnell uses his taser on Abuatelah, who was later hospitalized for six days for a fracture to his pelvis, a broken nose and internal bleeding of his brain.

The incident started with police pulling over a car they say lacked a license plate and smelled of cannabis.

A squad car camera shows Abuatelah running away. 

After catching up with him, the officers say Abuatelah reached for his shoulder bag. Police say they later recovered a loaded gun inside that bag.

Oak Lawn police chief Daniel Vittorio defended his officers' actions the day after the arrest.

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"Had the offender drawn that weapon, he could have shot them," Vittorio said. "Were they supposed to wait for him to pull it out and then?"

Emma Melton of the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Abuatelah against the village of Oak Lawn and the three officers involved in the beating.

"We all saw the footage," Melton said. "I've seen it from multiple different angles, from the squad car cameras to the bystander videos, and at no point do I see him reaching for a gun. Hearing that the chief of police agreed with this level of use of force and how these officers interacted with Hadi shows that this is something that could and probably will happen again."

Melton says Arab-American residents have long complained about the Oak Lawn Police Department.

"A lot of the police officers in that area are actually White, and so when dealing with people from another background, sometimes a lot of the cultural awareness and sensitivity can be lost," Melton said.

For professor of criminology Nicole Nguyen, the Oak Lawn incident reflects a lack of trust between law enforcement agencies nationwide and Arab communities.

"Research studies have shown that Arab people face police brutality, physical threats, verbal harassment and so on," Nguyen said. 

In a recent survey about Arab-American communities in Chicagoland, 1 in 5 respondents said they experienced stereotyping and prejudice from the police.

"There's a perception of Arabs and Muslims as dangerous, as potential threats," Nguyen said.

O'Donnell's attorney didn't respond to multiple requests for an interview. However, the Oak Lawn Police Department tells Scripps News: "We live in a society based on laws and fundamental fairness, and that applies to everyone, including our men and women in uniform."

For now, O'Donnell has been assigned to "administrative duties" with the police department and remains free on bond. His next court date is April 6.