Accounting for Police

At an October rally against police brutality, activists displayed the names ot those killed by police officers around the country. (Photo by Jason Reblando)

At an October rally against police brutality, activists displayed the names ot those killed by police officers around the country. (Photo by Jason Reblando)

One morning last year, Calvin R. Mitchell Sr. went to a local dollar discount store to buy a fan and beat the July heat in his small, stuffy Uptown studio apartment. On his way back home, two police officers stopped him.

One asked, “‘You got a receipt for this fan?'” Mitchell recalled. Before he could get it out of his pocket, he said, one of the cops handcuffed him. Mitchell was taken to the police station at 5400 N. Lincoln Ave. and held for 13 hours without being charged. “I don’t steal. I’ve worked all my life,” said Mitchell, a 51-year-old grandfather and retired employee of the Cook County Recorder of Deeds’s Office. The dollar store owner later confirmed that Mitchell had paid for his purchase.

Ten days after the incident, Mitchell, then a regular participant in neighborhood community policing meetings, filed complaints with the Chicago Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division, which is staffed by police officers, and the Office of Professional Standards, the civilian body that investigates excessive force by officers.

Sixteen months later, the case still hasn’t been resolved.

Mitchell is wary of how civilian complaints are dealt with by the department, which includes 13,705 officers. “They’re going to interview me and investigate me—they’re not concerned about what happened to me,” he said.

Like Mitchell, many citizens are suspicious of the excessive force investigations that seem to be understood by only those involved with their inner workings. Officials confirmed that OPS scrutinizes both the victim and the officer accused, and its methods are dictated in large part by the police officers’ union. Through an analysis of OPS investigations, the Reporter found that the officers accused in the cases were provided lawyers before they responded to charges against them in writing, while in nearly every case victims were questioned without lawyers. Investigations often lasted more than 100 days and were closed or suspended when witnesses could not be found or witnesses’ testimonies conflicted.

Through this process, 6 percent of excessive force complaints were upheld in a five-year period—a number many citizens find too low. As a result, some people with complaints against officers bypass the agency altogether, and file civil suits, costing taxpayers $20 million in settlements as of Aug. 31 of this year, up from $5.5 million in 1998. City officials and aldermen have not responded to the rising numbers despite the city’s shrinking budget.

Between 1998 and 2002-the most recent year for which information is available-citizens made 13,703 charges against officers. OPS found evidence to support 847 of them. During the same period, the city resolved 935 civil cases alleging excessive force by Chicago police officers that will cost the city $61.2 million. The Chicago Reporter researched 489 of the suits, identifying 767 individual officers by their badge numbers. Of those, 109 were found in more than one suit-those cases alone cost the city $3.7 million.

“We’ve got to do something-we can’t put our head in the sand and pretend that everything is all right if we’re paying $15, $20, $25 million a year on these brutality cases,” said Howard Brookins, alderman of the South Side’s 21st Ward.

Brookins, an attorney who has represented victims in suits against the city for at least 12 years, last year introduced a “police accountability ordinance” in the city council. The measure, which has failed to attract support from most other aldermen, would require the police department to identify and discipline those who have been charged with excessive force more than once. That’s what OPS is supposed to be doing, but it doesn’t because it isn’t independent, Brookins said.

Tisa Morris, the office’s chief administrator, rejected the charge. “I follow an oath, and we have ethics,” she said. “We’re independent.”

OPS reports directly to the superintendent, who, when he upholds charges, imposes penalties. When penalties are greater than 30 days, or when officers appeal penalties, the Chicago Police Board, a nine-member civilian body, reviews and rules on the cases, and meets monthly to hear public comments. Police board members and the OPS chief administrator are appointed by the superintendent.

When OPS complaints are upheld, the discipline imposed on officers is insufficient, many victims and their families feel.

Last month, the Chicago Sun Times reported that an officer who fatally shot a citizen after a struggle at the 95th Street train station received a 30-day suspension. Police officials would not to confirm or provide any specifics about the case.

“That is a slap in the face,” said David Bates, a coordinator for the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights. Bates was on Death Row for 11 years, but, in 1994, his murder conviction was overturned after evidence revealed he had been tortured into confessing by former police Cmdr. Jon Burge.

Citizens who mistrust OPS, or file complaints but are frustrated with the lack of results, seek out lawyers to file suits.

“They do not come to us first,” said Jon Loevy, a civil rights lawyer whose firm has handled hundreds of excessive force cases. But Patrick Rocks, first assistant corporation counsel for the City of Chicago’s Department of Law, said the number or cost of civil suits the city settles has nothing to do with the performance of OPS. The city has many reasons to settle, he said, including how much the case will cost if it goes to trial. “These kinds of lawsuits can be very expensive to litigate,” he said.

And others suspect less noble intentions by the plaintiffs.

“Many Civil Rights Lawyers/Firms make a living out of suing municipalities for no other reason than they have deep pockets,” Mark Donahue, president of Chicago’s police union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, wrote in an email. “The distrust created in the community is also a basis for the sharks to enjoin on the feeding frenzies that they at times create.”

But R. Eugene Pincham, a retired Illinois Appellate Justice, disagreed. People file civil suits because OPS “doesn’t work. It never did,” he said. For eight years, Pincham heard Appellate Review cases alleging brutality by Chicago police. “Their investigations are biased,” he said. “They distort the facts, distort the questions and distort the answers.”

After being illegally detained by a Chicago police officer, Calvin R. Mitchell Sr. approached both the Office of Professional Standards and the Chicago Police Departmental Internal Affairs Division for help. More than a year later, his case has yet to be resolved. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

In the past year, Mitchell talked to his ward committeeman and local judges, but they couldn’t help. He said Cook County State’s Attorney Richard A. Devine advised him to file a lawsuit. But that won’t be easy for him. Mitchell asked for help with the suit at several free law clinics, but they were either not interested or didn’t call back. One told him there was a year’s wait, and private lawyers “want a lot of money I don’t have,” he said. Still, a suit is “all I can do—or I can forget. Those are my only options,” Mitchell said. But it’s not about the money, he said. “I’m not trying to attack one person; I’m trying to attack the issues. Something’s wrong with the way things are.”

OPS was once the response to such concerns.

Internal Affairs handled cases of police abuse until 1974, when former U.S. Representative Ralph Metcalfe, Chicago’s bar associations and activists banded together to threaten the Chicago Police Department with a lawsuit in response to what they said was its inadequate, closed-door investigations of excessive force by officers.

In response, then-Supt. James Rochford created OPS. Yet today—as the office completes its 30th year—citizens continue to question its impartiality and credibility, in part because of what they see as OPS’ secretive nature.

Civilians correctly assume OPS investigates officers who are charged with misconduct. But many do not realize that, to protect officers against retribution, it also examines the people who make the charges. Many alleged victims don’t understand the process or what the police board does, Carney said.

The process goes something like this: Citizens have to provide their names when they file complaints, by phone or letter, or by speaking with any officer. The most recent data available show that the agency receives an average of more than 900 complaints a year. In 2002, the last year for which the information has been published, the number of complaints hit 1,447, their highest point in the past decade.

Morris reviews the complaints and then assigns them to investigators, who, when they are hired, must have bachelor’s degrees and detective experience, or the equivalent. The City of Chicago’s 2004 budget for the police department shows that OPS has 12 investigative supervisors, 61 investigators and six staffers who do data entry. The agency has a $5.8 million budget in 2004. Morris declined to discuss the more detailed aspects of investigations.

But the Reporter inspected all 72 investigations of excessive force complaints involving off-duty officers from September 1999 to May 2001. Though OPS investigations are confidential, the 72 case files were provided to the Reporter by Loevy, who received them from the city through a 2002 civil suit. His client, George Garcia, alleged that he was hit and kicked in late November 2001 in an unprovoked attack by an off-duty Chicago police officer, resulting in a broken nose, cracked lip and injured hip. Garcia filed an OPS complaint before going to Loevy, but about six months later he still hadn’t heard anything from the office, Loevy said. Garcia later settled with the city for $600,000.

The Reporter’s analysis found that victims were questioned in person without lawyers present while officers responded to charges in writing after lawyers had been provided. Donahue said his union negotiated the provision into the officers’ contract with the city in order to protect their rights.

“The criminals have due process guarantees and so should we,” he said.

The files show that, soon after complaints are filed about incidents involving off-duty officers—including barfights, arguments over parking spaces and car accidents—OPS investigators talk to people in the area to find witnesses, photograph victims at hospitals, and conduct formal interviews, which are transcribed for the files.

Officers were interviewed by investigators an average of 76 days after the investigations were opened. The investigations took an average of 125 days to complete. In addition, in all of the 72 cases, at least two witnesses had to corroborate the alleged victim’s claim for it to be found credible. If an investigator couldn’t find witnesses or witnesses didn’t respond to letters, cases were closed or suspended.

Morris disputed the findings. “Credible” testimony from one witness can be enough to uphold a case, she said. In incidents where the only people present were the alleged victim and the officer, “a number of different variables –¦ specific to each case” determine if the charges are upheld.

Several different OPS workers review each investigation, Morris said. A complaint is classified as “sustained” if there was enough evidence to prove the claim; “insufficient” if there wasn’t; “unfounded” if the claim was found untrue; or “exonerated” if the victim’s allegations are proven true, but the officer’s actions are deemed justified.

If the charge is sustained, OPS makes a recommendation for a penalty based on “the specific rules” violated, Morris said. The superintendent then decides on a punishment.

An officer can appeal this decision to the police board only if the superintendent, upon the recommendations, imposes a suspension of more than five days, said Mark Iris, the board’s acting interim executive director.

But any penalty of more than 30 days is sent to the board for a hearing automatically. “The police board only deals with cases sent to it,” Iris said, though many people try to ask about ongoing OPS investigations in board meetings.

Once cases are sent to the police board, an attorney hired by the city conducts a videotaped hearing that includes the superintendent’s general counsel and lawyers for the police officers.

The hearing videotape and other case information is then forwarded to police board members, said Carney, who has been the board chairman for the eight years and was just appointed for another five.

The members meet behind closed doors once a month for an hour-and-a-half to review cases and make decisions. The board announces those decisions in its monthly public meeting, without specifying the names of the officers involved. Once it’s done so, the superintendent can lessen, but not increase, the penalties, Carney said.

With OPS deciding in favor of officers almost every time, many victims of excessive force turn to the courts for relief. While Loevy’s investigations show that complaints were sustained against 23 of the 74 off-duty officers, nine of the 74 officers were also charged in civil suits, costing the city $209,000.

The suits also show that, in the span of five years, 17 officers were charged in at least three different civil suits, costing the city nearly $1.6 million.

“That directly shows that OPS, the city of Chicago and Mayor [Richard M.] Daley turn a blind eye to police brutality,” said Bates, of the Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights. “The city should be more careful with its money.”

But there are explanations Bates isn’t considering, according to Jennifer Hoyle, spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department.

“I think that there are some officers in certain roles in the police department who have more contact with the public and are more likely to be named in these lawsuits,” Hoyle said. “It’s also important to remember that police officers are allowed to use force in arresting people.”

Morris, the OPS chief administrator, said that, once it has been determined an officer should be disciplined, investigators review both commendations and excessive force complaints—sustained or not—over a five-year period to help determine the officer’s penalty. The department’s contract with the police union mandates that officers’ OPS files are destroyed and their records wiped clean every five years.

“There’s no procedure to globally look at misconduct,” said William Hooks, a criminal defense attorney and former president of the Cook County Bar Association. “Individually, each [complaint] becomes unfounded, and the practice continues.”

The lack of results leads to a mistrust of OPS, Loevy said. “We have a lot of clients who tried to resolve it in the internal discipline level and basically got told, ‘Screw you,'” Loevy said. “So people who have been wronged get frustrated and don’t let it go. They go seek out lawyers.”

Hooks instructs his clients not to file OPS complaints at all, because the information the office collects from victims is later turned over to city lawyers in order to defend officers in civil suits.

“You’re giving up your story and they’re not giving up anything,” he said.

Rocks, the city attorney, countered that discouraging victims from filing complaints with OPS actually prevents officials from stemming problem behavior.

“If someone doesn’t file a complaint, it hinders the police department’s ability to discipline officers who have violated rules,” he said.

Others who file civil suits don’t cooperate with OPS because they may be facing criminal charges themselves, making them hesitant to cooperate, Rocks said.

And the high number and cost of civil suits, along with the number of officers cited in them, may simply be due to greed, wrote Donahue of the FOP. “They are performing an injustice to the Police, the City and all Chicagoans.”

Hooks said it’s not that easy. Most settlements aren’t lucrative: The median payment is $10,000, according to the Reporter’s analysis. Not many victims of excessive force have enough money to hire a lawyer, Hooks said. And, when they do, “the city is very good at getting the cases dismissed.”

From 1992 to 2003, the City of Chicago resolved 54 percent of excessive force lawsuits brought against officers without paying out.

While the city continues to pay millions for police abuse civil suits, few officials are willing to do anything about it. Last year, after meeting with community groups, members of the ACLU and the Justice Coalition, a community activist group, Alderman Brookins introduced the ordinance requiring that the police department identify and provide additional training to officers who had accumulated repeated civilian complaints.

Those are the same requirements that courts across the country are imposing, said Brookins, whose father was a police officer.

He said he approached other aldermen, but only 20th Ward Alderman Arenda Troutman signed on. The council referred the ordinance to the Police and Fire Committee, chaired by Alderman Isaac S. Carothers of the West Side’s 29th Ward. It’s been there ever since.

City code gives the committee “jurisdiction over all matters relating to the Police Department and the Fire Department.” Its 14 members have the authority to request documents, ask “probing questions” and craft legislation on police policy.

Brookins’ ordinance would increase documentation and reporting of excessive force incidents. It specifies that OPS “accept and investigate anonymous complaints,” interview both citizens and police “in the same amount of detail,” and, when only the victim and officer were present during an incident, show “no presumption in favor of the statement of the police officer.”

“This is something that the citizens have been complaining about, and they’re tired of seeing millions of dollars go to these victims. –¦ I think those things can possibly be avoided,” Brookins said. By law, any city expense of more than $100,000, including settlements and judgments for civil suits alleging excessive force, require approval from aldermen, he noted. “They continue to pay out for these lawsuits for officers who, quite frankly, are named in OPS reports or lawsuits on numerous occasions.” The payouts cause a “large hole” in the city’s budget, Brookins said

Brookins said he asked Carothers a few months ago to call the ordinance before the police and fire committee. Carothers told him that it would happen “soon,” but it still hasn’t, he said.

Carothers did not return repeated phone calls requesting a response. But over the summer, he told the Reporter he is hesitant to support laws that affect the police.

“The supervisor people in the police department need to see if we need to bring these people in for additional training, do we need to use some sort of discipline, or should those people be off the force all together,” Carothers said. But “once you put something in an ordinance, now you have to change a law, and you can’t change it so easy as changing a policy.” He added: “Of the 13,000 [officers] we’ve got, those are some bad apples, and we need to weed them out, and I’m confident that the superintendent will do that.”

Brandi M. Green, Dana Keith, Mica Powers and LaTricia Taylor helped research this story.

Comments are closed.