Chicago's Flawed System for Investigating Police Shootings
By Todd Lighty and Stacy St. Clair and Steve Mills
It is a system seemingly designed to fail.
Chicago police officers enforce a code of silence to protect one another when they shoot a citizen, giving some a sense they can do so with impunity.
Their union protects them from rigorous scrutiny, enforcing a contract that can be an impediment to tough and timely investigations.
The Independent Police Review Authority, the civilian agency meant to pierce that protection and investigate shootings of citizens by officers, is slow, overworked and, according to its many critics, biased in favor of the police.
Prosecutors, meantime, almost never bring charges against officers in police shooting cases, seeming to show a lack of enthusiasm for arresting the people they depend on to make cases -- even when video, an officer's history or other circumstances raise concerns.
And the city of Chicago, which oversees that system, has a keen interest in minimizing potential scandal; indeed, it has paid victims and their families millions of dollars to prevent information from becoming public when it fears the shooting details will roil neighborhoods and cause controversy for the mayor.
In many quarters, it's common knowledge that Chicago's system of investigating shootings by officers is flawed. But the Tribune's examination of the system shows that it is flawed at so many levels -- critics say, by design -- as to be broken. IPRA's own statistics bear that out. Of 409 shootings since the agency's formation in September 2007 -- an average of roughly one a week -- only two have led to allegations against an officer being found credible, according to IPRA. Both involved off-duty officers.
Attorney Joseph Roddy, who was a police union lawyer for a quarter-century, said the IPRA figures suggest a deep problem.
"It's hard to believe," Roddy said in an interview. "Michael Jordan couldn't make 407 out of 409 shots -- even from the free-throw line."
Lorenzo Davis was more blunt. Davis, a retired Chicago police commander who joined IPRA and became a supervisor, sued the agency in September after he said its chief ordered him to change his conclusions in six cases in which he found officers wrongly shot citizens.
"The public cannot trust anyone who is currently in the system," said Davis, who himself was cleared in two shootings while an officer years ago.
To be sure, much of the Police Department is honest and hardworking, and an officer's job can be exceedingly dangerous in the city.
Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo Sr. viewed the IPRA figures as evidence that police shoot only when they are forced to defend themselves or the public.
"Those types of numbers and statistics tell me that the city of Chicago has a very good police force," Angelo said. "We're scrutinized at a level never seen before. These (officers) are examined to the nth degree. The findings show they're doing nothing wrong and they're justified in their actions."
But the 16 shots that struck Laquan McDonald in October 2014, and the dash-cam recording that captured the fatal shooting, has sparked protests across the city, led to a murder charge against Officer Jason Van Dyke and prompted the firing of Superintendent Garry McCarthy, a reflection of the astounding failures it suggests. What's more, the shooting of 17-year-old McDonald is only the latest case to underscore the city's historic inability to deal adequately with police shootings and other forms of police misconduct. The department and this issue were challenges for the agency that preceded IPRA, the Office of Professional Standards, and for Richard Daley, the mayor who preceded Rahm Emanuel.
The root of the trouble, many observers of the system say, is a code of silence among many of the rank-and-file that contributes to a sense that the police can shoot with impunity. A federal jury even found that the code existed. In late 2012, in a lawsuit that stemmed from a drunken off-duty officer's beating of a female bartender, the jury determined that the code protects officers who engage in misconduct.
Other issues contribute to the problem, including that patterns of complaints against officers are not considered during investigations.
"Almost every scandal, you'll find a pattern of complaints," said Craig Futterman, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School who has been studying misconduct data for Chicago police for years. "The obvious thing would be to use that information. But we don't."
City officials often blame the city's contract with police for that, as well as for being a broader obstacle to reform. And the contract does afford police protections ordinary citizens do not enjoy -- what some call "super due process." An officer involved in a shooting has, for instance, 24 hours before being questioned by IPRA, a crucial delay in a criminal investigation and an opportunity for officers to square their story with colleagues.
What's more, the contract forbids officials from publicly identifying officers involved in a shooting unless they are convicted, though any officer who is charged would be named in court records.
But the city negotiates with the FOP, the union representing officers, and agrees to the terms. That, according to critics, suggests that city officials are more than willing to bargain away some of the rigor of an investigation as well as its transparency.
"The city comes out and blames the union contract for their hands being tied," said Paul Geiger, who was an in-house lawyer for the union for more than a decade and part of the negotiating team for the most recent contract with the city. "Their hands are tied because they want them to be tied."
Attorney Steve Greenberg, who has sued the city and the department on behalf of the family of a fatal shooting victim, agreed.
"It's a cozy relationship where the police union gets to cover up wrongdoing among its members and the mayor gets to protect his image. Neither side cares about the truth or addressing corruption," Greenberg said. "The entire system is built to impede the truth."
The Tribune came to a similar conclusion in 2007. That year, reporters spent eight months examining the department's police-shooting investigation practices, looking at more than 200 cases from the previous decade. The Tribune found that officials often rushed to clear officers, in many instances before critical evidence -- including forensic evidence -- could be analyzed, and even when evidence emerged later that contradicted an officer's account.
Daley created IPRA the same year following a series of police misconduct scandals, hoping that it would improve investigations and convince increasingly skeptical residents that officers did not enjoy a separate standard of justice when they shoot citizens. He portrayed himself as the champion of police reform.
Since then, IPRA has come to be widely viewed as a part of the problem. Studies, including a December 2014 review by former federal prosecutor Ronald Safer, have found that its caseloads are too large, while critics and even some supporters say its investigators are overmatched in cases that can be complex. Although its investigators have subpoena power, officers still are reluctant to cooperate when they or their colleagues are being targeted.
"The design of IPRA is a fundamentally strong design," said Ilana Rosenzweig, IPRA's first chief administrator, who left in 2013. "But IPRA was never given the resources for the volume it was expected to handle."
The ordinance that created IPRA gives the agency six months to complete investigations, and the Department of Justice recommends that cases be completed within the same time frame. But attorneys and others who deal with IPRA say it rarely finishes its investigation within that time period.
IPRA spokesman Larry Merritt acknowledged that the agency sometimes takes longer than six months. He said some cases are complex, and some are delayed for reasons beyond the agency's control. But, he said, IPRA "will never sacrifice the integrity of any investigation for the sake of time."
City officials said IPRA has added investigators to its staff to cut caseloads and, as a result, trimmed a long-standing backlog.
The notion that IPRA is independent is also open to question, as the superintendent of police must sign off on discipline. Geiger and others said that even if IPRA wants to discipline an officer, a case may languish on the superintendent's desk for months or even years.
After eight years in operation, IPRA this year for the first time sustained findings against two officers. In both cases, the officers were off-duty when the shootings occurred. In both cases, the incidents happened years ago, one of them in 2011, the other in 2012.
IPRA's frailties have led lawyers to dismiss it as ineffectual, turning instead to the courts to hold the police and the city accountable.
A police training expert hired by plaintiffs in a federal court case submitted a report in 2013 that found IPRA was ineffective.
"Once again true reform was substituted for smoke and mirrors to fool the public," Joseph Stine, a former Philadelphia police official, wrote after reviewing more than 300 IPRA cases. "It is my opinion that this sorry state of affairs has been permitted to continue because the city of Chicago does not want it fixed."
Indeed, for a time IPRA and police officials would meet to discuss all officer shootings, particularly those that Rosenzweig and others called "lawful but awful" -- those justified under department policy but nonetheless reflected some sort of failure. But in IPRA's 2010-12 annual report, the agency noted that police took part in only one of the shooting meetings in 2011 and 2012. Rosenzweig said their meetings stopped altogether in 2013, with the knowledge of Emanuel's office.
"I thought it was important, and I thought it needed to continue," she said.
While Emanuel fired McCarthy, pressure also is on Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, whose office charged Van Dyke only after a judge ruled that the video of the shooting must be made public. Alvarez, who has been roundly criticized for how she has handled wrongful conviction cases, has been accused of being reluctant to charge the officers on whom her office depends for evidence gathering and testimony.
Alvarez, who faces a tough campaign for re-election next year, drew criticism in 2013 when she announced that she would not bring criminal charges against a Chicago patrol officer caught on a recording fatally shooting an unarmed man. Prosecutors said their two-year review showed that Officer Gildardo Sierra reasonably mistook a cellphone for a gun pointed at him on a darkened street.
The death of that man, Flint Farmer, was the third shooting -- the second fatal shooting -- in six months by Sierra, who worked in the Englewood district. It was so disturbing it prompted McCarthy to call the shooting a "big problem" and to acknowledge the department had erred when it allowed Sierra back on the street after the previous shootings.
A video of the shooting showed Sierra firing three shots into Farmer's back as he lay on the ground. Court records showed Sierra had been drinking before his shift, but his blood alcohol level was zero when tested five hours after the shooting -- a delay that raised questions about how aggressively police pursued the case.
IPRA had forwarded the case to Alvarez's office as part of the agency's standard procedure for officer-involved shootings. But it also referred the case to federal investigators, a highly unusual step that Davis said was taken because some IPRA officials doubted Alvarez would take a hard look at the case.
Sierra, who had been on desk duty since June 2011, resigned from the department earlier this year. The city of Chicago settled a lawsuit brought by Farmer's estate for $4.1 million without admitting any wrongdoing, a fraction of the $42.5 million the city has paid in judgments and settlements over police shootings from May 2011 through this October.
Overall, police misconduct, including shootings and other wrongdoing, has cost taxpayers more than $500 million since 2004, according to officials.
Alvarez has rebuffed recent demands that she step down as the county's top prosecutor.
The echoes of 2007 are clear. Then, Daley was forced to act after a videotape of an incident in which police used excessive force became public. It even cost the officer's superintendent, Philip Cline, his job. The case involved the beating of bartender Karolina Obrycka by Officer Anthony Abbate and allegations that Abbate's colleagues covered for him. But a jury found for Obrycka in her federal lawsuit and awarded her $850,000 in 2012.
What was unusual was that city attorneys cut a deal with Obrycka to pay her immediately and not appeal the judgment if she agreed to join a motion to have the finding that a code of silence existed stricken. The city feared the ruling would be used by other excessive force victims.
A federal judge refused to erase the verdict.
In the same way, the city paid McDonald's family $5 million before it had even filed a lawsuit;. That payment came with an agreement that the video of Van Dyke shooting McDonald would not be made public, a fight the city continued to wage in court, albeit unsuccessfully.
Like the video of Abbate battering Obrycka, the McDonald video quickly went viral. And now another dash-cam video of a shooting will be made public. On Thursday, Emanuel ended months of opposition to the release of video of the October 2014 shooting of 25-year-old Ronald Johnson III, who was killed as he ran from officers. An autopsy found Johnson was struck in the back of his shoulder and knee.
Under fire for his handling of the McDonald case, Emanuel appointed a task force to study fault lines in police discipline. After saying he did not believe a wide-ranging federal investigation was warranted, he switched direction and said he was open to such an examination.
"Recent events have made it clear that the system is not working," Emanuel spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said. "That's why the mayor appointed the Task Force on Police Accountability earlier this week. He expects strong recommendations of systemic reform and will promptly implement them."
As calls for a federal inquiry multiplied, including from Alvarez, who has been in office for seven years, Angelo, the police union president, was sanguine about the prospects of more scrutiny of the embattled police force.
"It's coming, so why fight it?" he said. "We have nothing to hide, nothing to apologize for."
Chicago Tribune's Jennifer Smith Richards contributed.
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