Crime is down, but the number of Cook County teens convicted on adult felony charges continues to grow.
Abusing the badge
A small group of officers who have cost the City of Chicago millions in police misconduct lawsuits remain on the force with few signs of discipline.
DATA: Click here to see the list of officers named in misconduct suits.
Glenn Evans watched from the side of his West Pullman home as a tall man with a wide frame limped up the walk. “Get off my property,” he shouted. But that didn’t stop the man from stepping slowly and steadily forward until he slapped the bright orange paper—a water-shutoff notice—on a drain pipe of Evans’ single-story brick home.
Evans, a lieutenant with the Chicago Police Department, called his fellow officers. “There’s a guy here claiming to be from the water department,” he said, according to court documents. “Send a squad car.”
Evans tore the paper off the pipe and crumpled it up in his hand. Rennie Simmons, the water department employee, turned and snapped a picture, as per protocol. Each has his own take on what happened next. Their stories come together with Simmons pinned to the ground.
Within minutes, two officers had Simmons’ wrists locked in handcuffs and told him to get into the backseat of a squad car. At the 5th District station on East 111th Street, Evans signed a battery complaint. According to the police report, Evans claimed that Simmons shoved him and said, “I got something for your ass” and then “went to the trunk of his car [to get] an unknown object.”
Simmons, who is partially paralyzed on the right side of his body, the aftermath of a stroke he suffered in 2003, said he tried to protest, saying that he was attacked without provocation. But it was the city worker’s word against the lieutenant’s. It would be up to a judge to sort the incident out.
For Evans, his day in court wasn’t his first—or his last. Ultimately, the battery charge against Simmons was tossed, in part because Cook County Circuit Court Judge Adam Donald Bourgeois Jr. found Evans’ witness less than convincing. “Lieutenant,” Bourgeois said as he closed out the hearing on Sept. 17, 2007, “the next time you pick somebody to come in here as a witness, make sure they lie a little better.”
Simmons went on to file a federal lawsuit alleging that Evans tried to pin a false criminal charge on him to cover up his own misconduct. That same year, a second man opened a similar case against Evans.
In 2009, the city settled both cases out of court for a combined payment of $118,999, making Evans part of a small—but costly—group of officers who were named in multiple police misconduct lawsuits that led to city payments in recent years.
The near impunity with which these officers—dubbed “repeaters” for their recurring legal troubles—are allowed to operate, along with the mounting legal cost to defend them, are glaring evidence that the city’s effort to stem police misconduct is falling short of the mark, The Chicago Reporter found.
Of 441 police misconduct lawsuits that led to city payments between January 2009 and November 2011, nearly a third—or 145—involved the “repeaters,” shows a Reporter analysis of federal and state court records. This small group—140 in all—proved costly. Despite making up 1 percent of the police force, they accounted for more than a quarter—or $11.7 million—of all damage payments incurred from police misconduct lawsuits. The city defended a good number of those officers in additional cases as well; nearly a third of the 140 officers were named in at least five misconduct lawsuits since 2000.
But the Reporter found that some fine print in the police union contract and a state statute routinely shields the “repeaters” and any others sued for misconduct from investigations by the Independent Police Review Authority—which was created to help investigate police misconduct—and the police department itself.
The result: Eight in 10 of the “repeaters” remain on the job with few signs of discipline.
As far as Ilana Rosenzweig, the chief administrator of the review authority, is concerned, it’s ultimately up to the police department to track lawsuits and complaints throughout an officer’s career to identify patterns of misconduct. “I can’t say if [the police department] is doing that or to what degree they’re doing that,” she said. “But that’s something that should occur.”
A lack of transparency around what’s being done to vet alleged beatings, frame-ups and unlawful searches raises one question in the mind of Craig Futterman, an attorney who founded the Civil Right and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago’s Mandel Legal Aid Clinic: “Who’s policing the police?”
Ralph Price, the police department’s lead attorney, said the department routinely meets with the city’s law department to review allegations of police abuse that are outlined in lawsuits.
“We don’t shut our eyes and ignore it. Absolutely not,” Price said. “There is definitely a follow-up between litigation and a review of department policy and training.”
Futterman agrees that the Chicago Police Department has programs—like an early warning system—in place to flag abusive officers. But too few officers are required to participate. The result, Futterman said, is that “The Chicago Police Department has allowed a few bad apples to abuse vulnerable people with impunity.”
* * *
Between January 2009 and November 2011, the City of Chicago paid $45.5 million for damages in 441 lawsuits involving claims of police misconduct—a rate of $5.54 annually per city resident, the Reporter found. That’s more than twice as much as Los Angeles’ $2.66, and roughly half as much as New York City’s $9.93 between 2009 and 2010. These figures don’t include the untold number of legal fees picked up by taxpayers to cover the officers’ legal defense.
“These [payments] have been a cloud over what happens at City Hall for decades,” said 2nd Ward Alderman Bob Fioretti, who sponsored the new police accountability legislation that was adopted in 2007 to empower outsiders, like Rosenzweig, to investigate and root out police misconduct.
A vast majority, 75 percent, of the 441 police misconduct cases were based on excessive force and false arrest allegations, and most of the cases were closed with settlement agreements hashed out by attorneys. The city rarely acknowledged liability in such deals.
That’s a rub for some police officers who think the city is too quick to strike deals that leave them little room to clear their names. In Lieutenant Evan’s case, one of the five lawsuits in which he was named did go to trial, and a jury found him not liable for covering up facts in another officer’s shooting.
But the settlements don’t necessarily say much about culpability, said attorney Standish Willis who specializes in civil rights law. Some lawsuits are settled simply for expedience’s sake. In others, either the plaintiff or the city had a strong case, and in striking the deal, costs could be minimized.
The Reporter found that the three officers named in the largest number of lawsuits—Jerome Finnigan, Donovan Markiewicz and Frank Villareal—were members of an elite tactical unit, the Special Operations Section, which was busted up in 2007 after a federal investigation found its members were running a theft and extortion ring right under the nose of police officials.
Before the city began paying out on lawsuits involving the section, city attorneys were representing the section’s members in a series of lawsuits. Court records show that Finnigan, Markiewicz and Villareal alone were named in at least 16 misconduct cases in the two years before the department pulled the plug on the section.
Not one of the misconduct lawsuits filed against the members of the section ended with a ruling by a judge or jury. Trials are a rarity; only 6 percent of the lawsuits analyzed by the Reporter ended with a judge or jury’s ruling.
Finnigan, Markiewicz and Villareal are off the force today. But a majority—at least 26—of the 42 officers named in five or more cases, including three former Special Operations Section members, are still on the department’s payroll.
That doesn’t surprise Futterman. “The city recognizes the need to look at patterns,” he said. “But with each and every scandal … the Chicago Police Department turns a blind eye to those patterns.”
* * *
Cordell Simmons, a community college student with a long rap sheet of marijuana-related arrests, was picked up at gunpoint by a pair of beat officers near a bus stop at the corner of Loomis and 79th streets on a damp evening in early June 2007.
The 6th District police officers have more than their fair share of the city’s drug dealing and violence to deal with in a typical shift. During 13 months ending on March 31, 2012, officers made more than 20,000 arrests in the South Side district that stretches roughly from 76th to 98th streets between Western and Woodlawn avenues.
The pace can be grating, said Richard Wooten, a 19-year police veteran who works in the 6th District, where he lives, and runs a nonprofit, Gathering Point Community Council, that mentors children from the neighborhood. “This stress level really kicks in, and you are moving, you’re feeling on 10 and you don’t realize it,” he said.
The officers frisked Cordell Simmons and found $20 worth of marijuana tucked in four small plastic bags, according to a police report. Then they banged him around on the hood of a squad car, trying unsuccessfully to get him to cough up the rest of his stash, according to court documents.
The 24-year-old was arrested and taken to the station on 78th and Halsted streets. He was ushered into a processing room. That’s where he crossed paths with Lieutenant Evans.
Officers suspected that Cordell Simmons slipped additional drugs into the station and was trying to swallow them before he got caught, according to the police report. As Evans moved closer, the report says he was kicked in the legs by the Moraine Valley Community College student. Evans then grew frustrated that Simmons was “not cooperating,” according to court documents. One of the cops who hauled him back to the station pulled off his pants and shoes.
Cordell Simmons laid naked from the waist down while Evans walked out of the room and returned with a Taser gun, according to court records. The three officers held Simmons down and, “Evans proceeded to Taser [the] plaintiff in the groin, under his testicles.”
“In agony,” Cordell Simmons “rolled onto his stomach,” the complaint reads. Evans shot Simmons a second time with the Taser gun, in his rectum. As the officers allowed Simmons to stand up, “Evans walked toward the door, then turned and Tasered [the] plaintiff twice more, hitting him in the right arm.”
City attorneys acknowledged that Cordell Simmons “was [T]ased at some point during his arrest.” However, in court documents, attorneys wrote that, “The [c]ity is without knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as to the truth of the remaining allegations.”
The Reporter could not reach Evans for comment.
Cordell Simmons was charged with disorderly conduct and battery of a police officer. The following month, the charges were thrown out in the criminal courts. He responded by filing an excessive-force lawsuit in the federal courts seeking damages that included the $4,849.50 worth of medical bills he ran up following the attack. The city ultimately settled the case for $19,000. His attorney, Richard Zachary, chalked the relatively small settlement amount up to the fact that few experts can testify about the lasting effects of a Taser attack.
Cordell Simmons’ payout was just a small fraction of the recent misconduct-related payments that stemmed out of the 6th District, the Reporter analysis shows. Between January 2009 and November 2011, the city paid at least $413,500 for damages in excessive-force lawsuits in the Gresham District, which ranked fifth in the amount of excessive-force payouts. The 10th District ranked in the highest citywide, accounting for more than $1 million worth of excessive-force payouts.
After working as a beat and tactical officer for a decade in the neighboring Englewood District before transferring to Gresham, Wooten found that “the people that were working the hardest got the most complaints.”
And taking drug dealers and violent criminals head-on is a dangerous job. Officers report that they come under attack on a regular basis; the department reported 3,135 attacks on its officers citywide in 2010 alone. That’s nearly four times the number of excessive-force complaints filed with the review authority that same year.
But Wooten’s not oblivious to the fact that there is misconduct—or that most complaints stem almost exclusively from police interaction with residents in majority African-American or Latino districts.
“You have [officers] who have never seen a black person, never went to school with a black person, never lived around a black person, but then they’re assigned to a black neighborhood. And that black neighborhood is such a crime-infested area, it’s totally different from what they come from,” he said. “Sometimes they can misjudge a person’s character because they begin to look at everybody the same.”
While race has something to do with it, Wooten said, it’s not always a factor.
“When you look at Lieutenant Evans, a black man raised in a black community, his main focus is not being a racist but to clean up his community,” he said. “He’s an old-school police officer that says, ‘Hey, listen here. You’ve got drugs moving out there on your block? We’re going to come over there, we’re going to check it out and we’re going to deal with it.’”
“Lieutenant Evans is going to [get] lawsuits until he’s retired,” Wooten added with a chuckle. “And he’ll probably get sued after that.”
* * *
For the better part of the past decade, the Chicago Law Department and police accountability activists have been sparring in court over whether the police department should be forced to divulge a list of officers who have been repeatedly fingered by civilians for misconduct.
City attorneys have gone to great lengths to keep the names under wraps. A federal judge has upheld their efforts.
“The vast majority of officers aren’t out there racking up abuse complaints,” said Futterman, who has been a lead attorney pushing the city for disclosure. “But a small percent get an extraordinary number of complaints about abuse—and the most serious types of abuse.”
The responsibility to investigate misconduct claims falls almost exclusively on the city-funded review authority, as well as the police department’s Internal Affairs Division. The review authority is the first stop for filing all misconduct complaints, but the agency mostly investigates allegations of excessive force, coercion and police shootings. The remainder are forwarded on to the Internal Affairs Division.
Both agencies keep a running tab on the number of complaints filed against individual officers. Their names are never made public.
The review authority reports fielding 28,176 cases between 2009 and 2011. Its team of 48 investigators was responsible for vetting 6,416 of the complaints, while the rest were forwarded to either the Internal Affairs Division or the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.
The turnaround time in probing the allegations can be slow. Roughly a quarter of those filed in 2010 are still pending review. Another 55 percent of complaints filed in 2011 remain open.
Harold Winston, a longtime public defender and member of the Chicago Coalition for Police Accountability, which pushed to replace the police department’s Office of Professional Standards with the review authority, said that, while not perfect, the new agency is a marked improvement.
“In the old days, when [the Office of Professional Standards] did an investigation, the superintendent could stick it in a drawer,” he said. “That can’t happen anymore.”
Along with enhanced power—the review authority now has subpoena power—it is supposed to probe the allegations behind most misconduct lawsuits.
But conducting investigations into the lawsuits isn’t without complications, Rosenzweig said. Many never make it past the initial review stage because, under state statute and the police union contract, the officers are off-limits unless a plaintiff signs a sworn affidavit. In a system where out-of-court settlements dominate, cases can be closed before plaintiffs are even deposed, she said. And even when depositions are completed, they can be thin on essential details.
Still, Rosenzweig’s office sends letters letting plaintiffs know that they need to file an affidavit to bring an investigation to life. Responses vary. “Some do,” she said. “Some don’t.”
Police accountability advocates say the process puts an undue burden on people who’ve been abused by police and lets the city off the hook from having to interview officers.
“It’s the same thing they did with” the Office of Professional Standards, Willis said. “We’re going to give the officer the benefit of the doubt; we’re not going to even interview them … unless you come in and sign something.”
A vast majority—or 91 percent—of the lawsuits reviewed and closed by Rosenzweig’s office since 2009 were tagged “no affidavit.” Not a single allegation from a civil suit has been sustained during the past three years, according to the Reporter analysis of the agency’s records. These records don’t reflect complaints that were fielded by the review authority before civil lawsuits were opened. Rosenzweig said some of those complaints have been sustained but could not give the exact number.
That could change when some of the pending complaints—which, in Rosenzweig’s estimation, are disproportionately stronger than those tossed—are resolved.
There are other avenues for addressing misconduct as well. Between 2010 and 2011, the review authority forwarded 223 instances of potentially criminal officer behavior on to Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’ office for potential prosecution. Prosecutors have pressed for felony charges in four of those cases. Alvarez’ office is also pursuing another five felony cases that were forwarded on by the police department’s Internal Affairs Division.
The police superintendent and the Chicago Police Board are ultimately responsible for disciplining officers.
There’s not much public information about how many officers have been disciplined—or for what. The Internal Affairs Division reports that five of the officers they recommended for discipline were fired by the Chicago Police Board in 2010.
The Reporter found that two of the 140 officers named in multiple lawsuits were disciplined by the police board. Neither of the decisions was based on the facts from the civilian lawsuit.
As far as Rennie Simmons is concerned, he’s still conflicted about what Lieutenant Evans’ punishment should even look like. He has deep roots in the Chicago Police Department, with friends and cousins on the force.
“Honestly speaking, I don’t want nobody to lose their job,” he said.
He makes an exception for officers like Evans.
“You know, this guy was arrogant,” Simmons said. “After he knew that he had made a mistake, he kept up with his lies. He kept going with his lies, on and on and on.”
“We got some good cops now, don’t get me wrong. We’ve got some great cops out there. But they get blamed for the stuff that the bad cops do.”
“He needs to be taken off the police force,” Simmons added. “He needs to be.”
Yisrael Shapiro, Christie Thompson and Samantha Caiola helped research this article.
May 1, 2012: Updated to reflect clarification.