Failure to Report

Many people attend Chicago Police Board meetings, like this one held in April, seeking information about the department’s investigations of excessive force complaints. (Photo by Christopher B. Santiago)

The Chicago Police Department has omitted the most vital part of a state-mandated report that could help reveal if it has any rogue cops.

After more than a decade of breaking the state law requiring the report, the department last month released one page of information about its investigations of officers accused of using unreasonable force. The status report shows that 1,429 unreasonable force allegations were made against 1,150 officers in 2003, and few were disciplined.

It’s unclear how many officers received more than one complaint, or if any officers were repeatedly accused of abuse. Though the law specifically requires it, Chicago police didn’t include that information, which some watchdogs and lawyers believe could show if there are problem officers.

The department published the status report on its Web site just days after former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge cited his Fifth Amendment right in response to allegations that he and detectives working under him tortured more than 100 black and Latino suspects.

“I think they’ve known that [unreasonable force] is a problem –¦ and Burge is the poster boy,” said Flint Taylor, a civil rights attorney with the People’s Law Office in Chicago.

From 1972 to 1991, Burge accumulated at least 88 citizen complaints of excessive force made to police or in court, Taylor said. “He got away with it.”

Through the Freedom of Information Act, The Chicago Reporter obtained a Sept. 22 letter from Assistant Illinois Attorney General Terry Mutchler to Sheri Mecklenburg, general counsel to police Superintendent Philip J. Cline. In it, Mutchler noted that previous Chicago Police Department administrations had not complied with the state statute.

“Your office also requested that the Office of the Attorney General issue a written waiver to the Chicago Police Department for its previous failure to comply with the original statute,” Mutchler wrote. “That request is denied,” she wrote, noting that the statute does not provide the Attorney General with the authority to issue such a waiver.

The statute doesn’t specify any penalty for its violation, and Melissa Merz, a press secretary for the attorney general, would not comment further.

By press time, Mark Donahue, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Chicago Lodge No. 7, did not return calls for comment.

Mayor Richard M. Daley’s office refused to comment and referred the Reporter to the Chicago Police Department.

David Bayless, a department spokesman, did not respond to questions the Reporter submitted for Cline. But the superintendent has said that identifying problem officers is a priority.

“Nothing erodes our relationships faster than allegations of misconduct or excessive force,” Cline said in March during a speech to the City Club of Chicago, a nonpartisan public forum. “We need to do a better job identifying problem officers earlier so we can intervene with counseling, training and discipline.”

“We also need to use our groundbreaking technology to develop the nation’s most innovative and efficient ways to identify problem officers before they cause trouble on the street,” he added. “For example, many people don’t know that we fire 50 to 60 officers every year and discipline hundreds of others.”

In his speech, Cline did not specify if those actions were made in response to complaints of unreasonable force.

The status report shows that, in 2003, 80 officers were disciplined for unreasonable force, and that no charges were filed against officers accused in 632 allegations. In all, the city employs more than 13,000 sworn police officers.

When asked if the department had published the status report previously, Bayless said, “The numbers are reported in great detail in our [regular] annual reports.”

The annual reports include the number of officers disciplined for any reason and the number of “excessive force” complaints filed by citizens. The reports do not specify penalties for excessive force or the number of complaints logged against each officer. The department’s 2003 annual report has yet to be made public.

The statute mandates that the status report include “the number of officers against whom an allegation of unreasonable force was made; the number of allegations of unreasonable force made against each such officer; [and] the number of police officers against whom disciplinary charges were filed on the basis of allegations of unreasonable force.”

The status report is also to include “a listing of investigations of allegations of unreasonable force pending as of the date of the report, together with the dates on which such allegations were made; and a listing of allegations of unreasonable force for which the board has determined not to file charges.” In its report, Chicago police didn’t include that information.

Harriet McCullough, executive director of Citizens Alert, a police watchdog group, said knowing the dates allegations were made could help show if complaints were made at specific events.

The department’s report leaves out the number of allegations made against each officer. When told of the omission, Joseph Bird, a legal officer for the department, said, “This is how we’re going to comply with the statute.”

The omission leads Ruth Peña, co-founder of Comité Exigimos Justicia, a group that documents police abuse, to believe the department is protecting “problem” officers. “This is a very big deal,” she said. “The police need to be policing themselves.”

It would be a “shocking revelation” if the department didn’t have those figures, said civil rights lawyer Craig Futterman of the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.

“If they don’t know, how are they protecting the public from these officers?” he asked.

Even if the number of allegations against each officer was released, the information would be misleading, said Michael Levine, a trial consultant and author of “Deep Cover,” a New York Times bestseller on police misconduct. “Any good cop will accumulate complaints against him,” he said. Some people file complaints in retaliation for an arrest or a ticket, Levine said.

The state law has seemingly gone unnoticed since it went into effect in 1993. It applies to cities of more than 500,000 people, according to the Attorney General’s Office. Chicago is the only Illinois city of that size.

Former Republican state Sen. Walter Dudycz, from the 7th District on Chicago’s Northwest Side, introduced what would become state statute “65 ILCS 5/10-1-18.1” in December 1992. Dudycz, a former Chicago police officer and detective, proposed a bill to limit the time an officer could be charged for unreasonable force to three years. It passed successfully through both state houses and was on the desk of then-Gov. Jim Edgar by March 1993.

“We went into hysterics, thinking, –˜This is on the governor’s desk, and no one knows about it,'” said Mary D. Powers, who for years was a coordinator for Citizens Alert. “It didn’t get reported. It wasn’t a high profile thing for anyone but us.”

Citizens Alert and other groups asked Edgar to veto the bill. Instead, he increased the time limit for charges from three to five years and added a clause requiring police departments to publish annual status reports of police brutality investigations. The legislature later passed the revised bill into law.

Although the addition was an achievement for activists, Powers said Citizens Alert never asked Chicago police for the status report and didn’t remember if anyone else had. “It should’ve been us because we were aware of it,” she said.

Citing the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, the Reporter first asked for the status report in a June 3 letter to Chicago police. It took more than three months to get it.

Initially, the department denied the Reporter’s request. The Reporter contacted the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and, in a letter, asked Cline to reconsider the denial. General counsel Mecklenburg then acknowledged that Chicago police had the information but had not put it all together in one report. In a Sept. 15 letter, legal officer Bird informed the Reporter that the status report had been published on the department’s Web site.

The law provides that the information used to compile the status reports and the identity of alleged victims or police officers not be disclosed.

Taylor, of the People’s Law office, said misconduct complaints need to be tracked over a span of years. “People should know who these [officers] are,” he said. “The statute is weak—but they comply with even less than it asks.”

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