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But a week after the ruling was issued it was withdrawn on grounds Kalven calls “hyper-technical,” having to do (as best I can figure) with whether Watkins cited an oral ruling or a written decision.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

With Chicago taxpayers now expected to pay nearly $20 million to settle lawsuits stemming from police torture — in which no perpetrators have been prosecuted, and ringleader Jon Burge continues to collect his city pension — a new report on racial discrimination and human rights in Chicago has harsh words on criminal justice.

“Chicago’s criminal justice system continues to plague efforts to secure respect for fundamental human rights in Chicago,” according to the report.

”Long-observed patterns of police abuse continue unabated and lack of accountability within police structures have led to widespread distrust of the justice system in minority communities. Sharp disparities in service and inadequate efforts to establish better community relations reinforce the distressing reality of unequal treatment.”

A coalition of over 30 community and civic organizations sponsored the report, which will be submitted to the U.N. committee overseeing the International Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which meets in February in Geneva. Along with criminal justice it covers issues of poverty, housing, health, education, and transportation.

The report was presented to the mayor on Monday, December 10, with a letter requesting that he join in an effort to set citywide human rights standards, similar to initiatives in San Francisco and New York City. A follow-up meeting is being sought, said Brian Gladstein of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs.
The report notes that between 2001 and 2005, the city paid nearly $100 million to settle 864 lawsuits alleging police abuse, yet the Chicago Police Department fails to monitor and discipline officers repeatedly accused of misconduct and brutality.

In the Burge case, “despite solid evidence of police torture” none of the perpetrators has been prosecuted. “Impunity is allowed to prevail” as law enforcement agencies “have failed to pursue legal accountability for perpetrators of human rights abuses.”

The report also notes a “two-tiered system of police services,” with 911 response times far higher on the South and West Sides; and a CAPS program that “has failed to provide effective community involvement for all of Chicago’s communities of color.”

On other issues, the report gives detailed accounts of the effect of racial discrimination across the spectrum, from TANF to the CHA’s Plan for Transformation to CPS’s Renaissance 2010.

Racial Profiling and Effective Policing

On Thursday, Jane Addams Hull House will sponsor a forum on Police Intervention with Communities of Color: Profiling, Contact, and Force (December 13 at 10 a.m. at the group’s Sargent Center, 1030 W. Van Buren).

Featured will be University of Toledo law professor David Harris, a nationwide expert on racial profiling. His 2002 book, “Profiles in Injustice,” details the growth of racial profiling as a strategy and shows how it is ineffective. His 2005 book, “Good Cops,” uses stories of successful preventive policing from across the country to argue that preventive strategies protect civil liberties and are more effective at keeping communities safe.

Harris will speak along with Clyde Murphy of the Chicago Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Reservations are requested; call 312-235-5391 or email

Police: Few Abuse Investigations Completed

The Chicago Police Department’s response to a new report on its treatment of complaints of abuse by officers raises more questions than it answers.

While the report from the University of Chicago’s Mandel Legal Clinic reports that just 1 percent of civilian abuse complaints were sustained, CPD spokesperson Monique Bond told the Chicago Tribune that some investigations couldn’t be completed because complainants can’t be reached or don’t follow up to speak with investigators.

She said that of complaints that were investigated to a conclusion, 8 percent were sustained. This matches the national average for sustained complaints.

But it also indicates a remarkably high failure to conduct full investigations. The report examines 10,149 complaints over a five-year period, of which only 124 were sustained. That means only about 1,550 — about 15 percent — were investigated fully.

As Mandel Clinic’s Craig Futterman explained to Newstips last month after acting Superintendent Dana Starks made similar excuses, the failure to reach complainants is one element of “broad systematic deficiencies” in CPD’s investigation of complaints.

According to the report, “Standard CPS police abuse investigations violate virtually every canon of professional investigation.”

Bond referred questions about investigative deficiencies to the new administrator of the recently-created Independent Police Review Authority, Ilana Rosenzweig, who couldn’t say much except that the entire process is under review.

Futterman emphasizes that of the 10,149 complaints, only 19 resulted in significant disciplinary action.The report analyzes CPS data on complaints and says that the results “make clear that Chicago police officers can perpetuate abuse without fear of consequence.”

Some highlights:

The rates of charges that were sustained dropped dramatically in the period under study — from about 5 percent in 1999 to less than half a percentage in 2004.

Half of the excessive force complaints counted by the department as “sustained” found administrative violations but insufficient evidence to sustain the complaint of excessive force itself.

In 85 percent of cases studied, officers subject to complaints were not interviewed but asked to submit written statements. Police and civilian witnesses were rarely interviewed in person.

Investigators frequently ran background checks on complainants; never on officers. Investigators “did not consider the complaint histories of any Chicago police officer involved in the investigation.”

The odds that complaints against officers with a single complaint would be sustained were equal to the odds for sustaining a complaint against an officer with more than ten complaints over the five-year period.

Remarkably, of the 33 officers who had 30 or more complaints over the period — amounting to over 1,000 complaints — only one single complaint resulted in meaningful discipline.

In other words, a complaint against an officer with over 30 complaints in his file was actually half as likely to result in meaningful discipline as a complaint against an average officer, of whom 80 percent had one or less complaints in the period studied.

Police abuse is a group phenomenon — it’s impossible without the accedence of fellow officers — but according to the report, the department makes no effort to find patterns of abuse within units.

The seven Special Operations Service officers indicted last year for robbery, kidnapping, and false arrest would never have been idenitifed by the department’s internal monitoring. They were investigated only when prosecutors noticed that they stopped showing up for court appearances.

The report also looks at the department’s early warning system, which identified only a portion of the officers with large numbers of complaints.

Rates of complaints against officers often went up after they participated in the city’s early-warning intervention program, which may provide cover for criminal activity.

The early-warning programs “are not designed to protect the public” but as a commander explained, “to preserve the department’s investment in these officers….”

“None of the CPD’s current or contemplated early warning programs…incorporate any investigatory or disciplinary component…

“Thus, if CPD were somehow successful in identifying an individual or group of officers who were engaged in a pattern of brutality or corruption, it would not deploy any resources to investigate those patterns, much less anything resembling a sting or undercover operation that has proven effective in federal investigations of police misconduct.

“The CPD would simply offer the suspect brutal or corrupt officer counseling or a class, putting him on notice that he needs to cover his tracks.

“While such interventions may make sense in response to other problematic behavior (e.g., substance abuse, attendance problems, complaints of verbal abuse, etc.), they are inappropriate to address potential patterns of serious abuse or other criminal conduct. It makes little sense to offer counseling to an officer that the CPD has reason to believe is stealing money, engaged in a drug conspiracy, or beating innocent people. These patterns require aggressive, proactive investigations, followed by meaningful action in meritorious cases.”

According to the report, the statistical analysis “provides powerful evidence of deliberate indifference — the affirmative efforts that policymakers must make not to know about individual and group patterns of abuse and the egregious harm caused by such abuse.”

Finally, “the impact of race is impossible to ignore, and hard to discount. The people most impacted by these law enforcement policies in the context of the War on Drugs are African-Americans and other members of minority communities. Thus, all the effort invested in not knowing implies something more than simple indifference to Black and Brown people who live in the inner city.

“Does a different Constitution apply in inner city minority communities?”

Police claims merit scrutiny

If Dana Starks wants to prevent and punish police abuse, he might be more concerned about inadequate follow-through by department investigators — not lack of follow-up by complainants.

Arguing against letting City Council members see the names of police officers with ten or more abuse complaints against them, interim police superintendent Starks testified at a City Council budget hearing yesterday that nearly 45 percent of complaints against police officers were closed because complainants failed or refused to cooperate with the investigation.

In fact, cases have been closed after investigators sent complainants letters which were returned as undeliverable, said Craig Futterman, an attorney and law professor who has studied CPD statistics on complaints against police.

Aided by detectives and experts in investigative technique, Futterman analyzed a large body of data on serious complaints of police abuse which was provided in a federal civil rights case (pdf) in which he was the plaintiff’s attorney.

(The city paid a large settlement in to the plaintiff, whose complaints to the police department had been dismissed; files for officers who had repeatedly harassed her had numerous similar complaints, which had also been dismissed.)

The analysts found “broad systematic deficiencies” in the department’s investigations of civilian complaints against officers, Futterman said.

Members of his team with police backgrounds said that “if we investigated [criminal] cases like this we’d never make an arrest,” he said.

Very few officers were personally interviewed; generally they were given several weeks to prepare short written statements. There were only cursory attempts to contact witnesses, and no attempts to gather physical evidence. If complainants provided names of witnesses with addresses, “they were sent a letter saying please contact us.”

He did see notations by investigators reporting failure to follow-up on the part of complainants — “it could mean an investigator sending a letter to a complainant and it came back undelivered, and the case was closed” — but “what we saw didn’t support numbers like” Starks reported, Futterman said.

Starks’ claims “don’t match up with what we’ve seen,” he said.He was also skeptical that many complaints are filed by criminals seeking to discredit their arrests, as Starks suggested. As a public defender earlier in his career he dealt with numerous gang members who had serious stories of abuse, and “they were afraid to report them,” he said.”

They’d say, ‘I’ve been arrested, no one’s going to believe me.'” And filing a complaint “invites greater scrutiny and draws attention to the complainant.”

They also knew that the names and addresses of complainants are given to the officers they’ve complained about, he said.

(This presents a striking contrast with the police department, which is afraid of the results if officers’ names are given to aldermen.)

In fact, it’s more likely that a large majority of abuse victims fail to file any complaints at all — often out of fear of retaliation, or simply suspecting that nothing will de done — than that large numbers of bogus complaints are being filed. A June 2006 study by the U.S. Department of Justice (pdf) estimated that less than 15 percent of individuals who believed they were victims of excessive force filed complaints with police departments.

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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