Cop who killed Hershel Weinberger was suspended after drunken suicide threat

Hershel Weinberger
Hershel Weinberger

Streetsblog Chicago typically doesn’t publish the names of drivers from fatal crashes who haven’t been charged with felonies, but we’re making an exception in this case because the allegedly reckless motorist was a police officer sworn to serve and protect the public. Thanks to attorneys Michael Keating and Brendan Kevenides for input on this case.

Earlier this month in Chicago’s West Ridge neighborhood, an off-duty police officer fatally struck Hershel Weinberger, 9, on his bike after the officer reportedly ran a stop sign in his pickup truck. Records show that the officer, Michael Leverett, 48, was suspended from the Chicago Police Department for 11 months in the early 2000s for an incident in which he got drunk, threatened to kill himself, and fired his gun. Despite that, Leverett has been on the police force since the suspension, and in recent years Leverett was found to be one of the highest overtime earners on the force.

According to Police News Affairs, on Wednesday, July 14, 2021 around 8 p.m., Weinberger was biking east on the north sidewalk of Chase Avenue when he crossed Sacramento Avenue in the crosswalk. Both roadways are quiet side streets, and there are all-way stop signs at the intersection. In Chicago, it’s legal for children younger than 12 to ride on the sidewalk.

Leverett, who was off-duty and lives in the Norwood Park community on the Far Northwest Side, was driving north on Sacramento in a Toyota Tundra full-size pickup truck, police said. The vehicle was equipped with bull bars, which are outlawed in other countries because studies show they significantly increase the chances of death in collisions with pedestrians, especially children.

According to a report by Jenna Barnes from WGN News, “Witnesses say the boy was crossing the street at a crosswalk when [Leverett] appeared to run a stop sign and hit him.” The intersection has four-way stop signs. The officer appeared to drag the bike before coming to a stop, and neighbors rushed to help the boy, Barnes said.

Leverett’s truck with Hershel’s bike under it. Image: WGN News
Leverett’s truck with Hershel’s bike under it. Image: WGN News

According to WGN, Hershel’s father Shamai Weinberger held the boy before the child was taken to St. Francis Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 8:31 p.m. The family lives on the 2900 block of West Chase, a block east of the crash site. A GoFundMe  to help the them has raised more than $168,000.

Despite the testimony from witnesses that Leverett blew the stop sign, he was not cited for that violation. Instead, he was ticketed for failure to exercise due care for a person in the roadway, police said.

According to the narrative on crash report, Leverett told responding officers “that he stopped at the stop sign and looked east and west, then east again, then proceeded northbound on Sacramento. While going through the intersection of Chase and Sacramento at the north side of the crosswalk of chase [Leverett] heard a loud noise. [He] stopped his vehicle just past the crosswalk to investigate the noise. [He] walked around his truck and found Weinberger lying on the ground on the passenger side of his truck. [Leverett] called 911 to get help.”

The narrative raises questions the question, if, contrary to the reports from witnesses (none are listed or mentioned on the crash report), Leverett stopped and carefully looked both ways, why didn’t he see Hershel and not proceed through the intersection? The description of the officer stopping his truck just past the crosswalk also contradicts the report that Leverett appeared to drag the bike.

Diagram from the crash report.
Diagram from the crash report.

The crash report states that Leverett took a Breathalyzer test and drug tests around 11 p.m. on the evening of the crash. Chicago Fraternal Order of Police president John Catanzara Jr. told the Sun-Times the Breathalyzer was negative. “It’s just a tragedy. And any person could be in his shoes. This just happens to be a Chicago police officer.”

However, an incident from Leverett’s past raises doubts about whether he should even be a police officer. According to a case file published by the watchdog group the Chicago Police Board Information Center, part of the Chicago Justice Project, in 2000 the superintendent of police filed charges against Leverett with the city’s police board, requesting that he be fired.

The document states that the police board found Leverett guilty of the following misconduct. On February 25, 2000, at about 12:45 p.m., Leverett was off-duty at My Mistake bar, located near 23rd Street and Damen Avenue in Pilsen, drinking while in possession of an unregistered gun. Around 1:30 p.m. he showed up to a woman’s apartment on the 3800 block of North Albany Avenue in the Irving Park neighborhood. “He pulled [the woman] from her bed and/or grabbed her by the arms, and/or pushed her.” Leverett threatened to kill himself and “placed his gun into his mouth and/or relinquished his firearm to [the] victim… and/or told her to shoot him.” At some point during the incident Leverett fired the gun.

A majority of the police board members found Leverett guilty of the misconduct charges. But rather than agreeing with the superintendent’s request to fire him, they decided to merely suspend him for 11 months.

17 years later, a 2018 Sun-Times investigation found that Leverett was one of the top overtime earners on the police force, making $52,433 in overtime between April and June of that year.

It’s not clear whether terminating Michael Leverett would have prevented him from killing Hershel Weinberger on his bicycle more than two decades later. But one thing’s for sure: In the wake of this tragedy Leverett deserves to be fired for his recklessness.

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