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Police accountability — and politics

The First District of the Illinois Court of Appeals is set to rule in a police accountability case which has had some twists that can only be called bizarre – and, according to Jamie Kalven in Huffington Post, raise the question of whether the court has been influenced by political pressure.

In December, the appeals court issued a strong ruling granting an FOIA request by Kilroy Watkins, who’s serving a 55-year sentence for murder and armed robbery.  Watkins had requested the civilian complaint files for two Chicago detectives who were working under Commander Jon Burge when they arrested Watkins in 1992 and, as he’s maintained since then, coerced a confession out of him.

The City of Chicago has maintained that complaint records are personnel matters that are exempt from public disclosure requirements.  As Kalven explains, the appeals court relied on a 2009 state court ruling that established that civilian allegations of official wrongdoing are public business, and police departments can’t just hide them from the public by placing them in personnel files.

But a week after the ruling was issued it was withdrawn on grounds Kalven calls “hyper-technical,” having to do (as best I can figure) with whether Watkins cited an oral ruling or a written decision.

Political pressure?

“Did the First District yield to political pressure?” Kalven asks. “The question must be asked, though it cannot be definitively answered, for the city has consistently sought in every possible way to resist the emerging judicial consensus that [civilian complaint files] are public information.”

Watkins petitioned the state supreme court, which laid aside the appeals court’s procedural objection and directed the court to decide the case on its merits.  That decision is expected shortly.

The “logical outcome” is for the appeals court to reinstate its original ruling, Kalven says.  If it doesn’t, he suggests, it will raise serious questions about its judicial independence.

Kalven himself has been pursuing civilian complaint files for five years.  In 2007, Judge Joan Lefkow granted his request for the release of complaint files for five Chicago officers charged with abuse in a federal civil rights case which the city had recently settled.  Two years later a federal appeals court overturned her decision, ruling that Kalven lacked standing – but suggesting that he could file a FOIA request under state law.

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Daley and police reform

Mayor Daley told the Sun-Times that the increase in killings is attributable to police fears of civilian complaints and media coverage of police misconduct.

“It’s preposterous,” said journalist and activist Jamie Kalven.  “It’s almost hallucinatory — it’s Alice in Wonderland.”

For one thing, the kind of coverage the Mayor complains about — aside from what he terms “beating up police” by airing video of a drunken off-duty officer beating up a woman bartender — is nearly impossible.

Police officers are “always afraid of beefs because, once they get a beef, you write about it,” Daley told Fran Spielman, reciting an imaginary press account: “‘He has 25 C.R. numbers [complaints registered], all unfounded.’ You say, ‘Why? This fella must be a problem’. And you find out most of them are gangbangers and dope dealers [who] filed charges. And they didn’t show up in court or administrative hearings.”

But no one’s informed when a complaint is filed against a particular officer.

Those kinds of numbers are only available in the course of criminal trials and other legal proceedings against rogue police officers — most often after prosecutors have decided “this fella must be a problem” — as Kalven points out.  He’s sued the city for documents on police misconduct including a list of officers with over ten complaints.  In that case, the city has appealed a federal court order to release the documents; a hearing before an appeals court panel took place last month.

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Why Names Matter

Frank Main at the Sun Times reports that rogue cop Jerome Finnigan was third on the list of officers with complaints of excessive force, which the city is protecting — even from City Council members — in the name of the officers’ privacy.

This underscores and begins to answer the question Jamie Kalven asked last week: “What would be revealed about the CPD’s systems of supervision, monitoring, and discipline” if we knew Finnegan was at the top of the list?

Kalven pointed out that unit numbers on the list of complaints (individual names were blacked out on copies given aldermen) showed the top four officers, each with 50 or more complaints, were members of the Special Operations Section and that the top ten SOS officers on the list each had 30 or more complaints. “Of these complaints, only three were sustained by CPD investigators. Two resulted in reprimands (among the mildest form of discipline) and one resulted in a 15-day suspension.”

The Sun Times: “Most of the complaints against Finnigan… were deemed by Police Department investigators to be unfounded or not sustained.

“[Federal] prosecutors later found some of those same complaints to be valid and charged Finnigan and six fellow officers, including a sergeant, with crimes such as home invasion, robbery and kidnapping.”

Last week Kalven argued: “If the CPD failed to adequately investigate hundreds of civilian complaints against the central figures in what may well prove the biggest police scandal in Chicago history, then we must confront the fact that the essential issue is not how to improve a flawed system of investigation. It is how to dismantle a complex apparatus of official denial — a regime of not-knowing — in which not only CPD investigations but also [Mara] Georges’ City Law Office are components.”

City Denies Police Data to City Council

“In seeking a stay from the Seventh Circuit [of Judge Joan Lefkow’s order unsealing a list of police officers with the most excessive force complaints], the City emphasized that it would, in keeping with Judge Lekfow’s ruling, make the documents available to any aldermen who asked for them” Jamie Kalven comments at View From The Ground on the story broken in the Tribune today.

“Having been granted the stay, [City Counsel Mara] Georges now tells aldermen who request the documents that the City cannot provide them because of the stay.”

Kalven is the independent journalist who filed the motion initially requesting public disclosure of the documents, which Lefkow granted. The argument about alermanic access came as the City Council was considering reform of the Office of Professional Standards in July (see Newstips: Judge Orders Release of Police Data).

“Withholding the documents on the basis of this transparently specious argument is an affront to the First Amendment—-and to members of the City Council,” Kalven goes on. “They should insist on their right to this information.

“A great deal is at stake. Circumstances have combined to create an historic opportunity for police reform in Chicago. Once the disputed documents are released, they will interact with information already in the public domain in ways that will deepen our understanding of patterns of police abuse and also of the systemic failures of supervision, monitoring, and discipline that have allowed abusive officers to operate for years with impunity.

“Consider, for example, the ever-expanding Special Operations Section case. Six SOS officers have been indicted on an array of charges that include corruption, kidnapping, and robbery. They stand accused, in effect, of having operated a large-scale criminal enterprise out of their unit. A number of other SOS officers have been granted immunity in exchange for their testimony. The trial has not yet begun, yet the damage continues to mount. The state’s attorney’s office has dropped more than a hundred pending felony cases, because they were contaminated by one or another of the defendants. A large number of civil cases will inevitably be brought against the City. The U.S. Attorney’s office is undertaking its own investigation. Finally, last week Officer Jerome Finnegan, the alleged ringleader of the SOS racketeering operation, was arrested by federal agents for plotting the murder-for-hire of a former SOS officer who had agreed to testify against him and his co-defendants.

“Although we do not yet know the full dimensions of the SOS scandal, it is clear that the monetary and institutional costs to the City will be vast. Against this background, what might we learn from the list of officers who have amassed the most civilian complaints over a five year period?…

“What would be revealed about the CPD’s systems of supervision, monitoring, and discipline, if we definitively knew that Finnegan and his co-defendants are at or near the top of the list?”

Judge Orders Release of Police Data

While the City Council considers an ordinance that would increase transparency in the police department’s handling of misconduct complaints, the law department is opposing a legal effort to publicly release data on that very subject.

In a July 2 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Joan Lefkow ruled in favor of a motion by journalist Jamie Kalven to lift the protective order covering police department data on misconduct complaints and investigations produced by the city during a recent lawsuit. The data included a list of 662 officers with over ten complaints over the last five years.

On July 6 the city asked Lefkow for an emergency motion staying her order so it could consider an appeal. The city asked for a stay until July 19 – the day the City Council is scheduled to consider the police reform ordinance; Lefkow granted a stay until Monday, July 16.

[UPDATE – Late on Friday, July 13, the city filed notice to appeal Lefkow’s ruling as well as motions to continue her stay.]

The ordinance proposed by Mayor Daley last month would give the Mayor direct oversight over the Office of Professional Standards, which is charged with investigating misconduct complaints. It would require quarterly public summaries by OPS.

Lefkow’s temporary stay covers the plaintiffs but lifts any restrictions from the city on sharing the data.

At a hearing on the proposed ordinance by the council’s police committee last month, aldermen asked about data from the contested documents, but a law professor testifying about patterns gleaned from the case couldn’t answer many questions due to the protective order.

Lefkow’s latest ruling would allow aldermen to receive the documents from the city, said University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman, who was lead attorney in Bond v. Utreras, the lawsuit which unearthed the documents.

According to Futterman, the protective order prevented him from answering council members’ questions about which units and which officers had the highest levels of complaints. “It was information they considered important to their decision about what an effective ordinance would look like,” he noted, but “the city is fighting to keep the data not just from the public but from the City Council.”

“What they risk if they succeed in deep-sixing the data is ending up with a p.r. solution that aggravates institutional denial,” he added.

The documents show “an utterly broken system,” Futterman said. While only 5 percent of officers have over ten complaints (85 percent had between zero and three over five years), the department does little or nothing to track rogue officers, and they are extremely unlikely to be punished for misconduct, he said. Out of over 10,000 complaints filed between 2002 and 2004, only 18 officers received “meaningful discipline,” he said.

Only 89 of the 662 officers with ten or more complaints were flagged for monitoring or supervision, and there were officers with over 50 complaints who hadn’t been identified by the department’s early warning system, he said.

Files of complaints and investigations in the Bond case showed that OPS investigations “violate every canon of professional investigative technique,” failing to secure physical evidence, follow up with independent witnesses or even interview accused officers, who are usually allowed to submit statements instead. Chicago’s rate of sustained complaints is a small fraction of the national average, Futterman said.

Files for five officers in a gang tactical unit who were accused in a federal lawsuit of sexually and physically abusing Diane Bond, a Stateway Gardens resident, over the period of a year showed they had racked up numerous complaints of similar abuse of African-American women in public housing, Futterman said.

The police department and officers settled out of court with Bond in December for a six-figure amount, with no admission of fault.

“The system is so woefully insufficient in supervising, monitoring and disciplining its officers that a policeman with criminal tendencies has virtual impunity,” Kalven said.

He said the costs to the city are “incalculable,” going beyond the millions of tax dollars spend on court settlements to widespread distrust of civil authority in poor neighborhoods. And he believes that any real effort to address the problem will require “a full, public acknowledgement of the harm that has been done.”

Kalven said he will make the documents available at The View From The Ground as soon as the protective order is lifted — “whether that’s Monday at 5 p.m. or in six months” in the event of an appeal by the city.

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