Over the past year, administrators have been quietly reorganizing the Office of Professional Standards, the police agency charged with investigating citizen complaints of police abuse.
They have made the unpublicized changes as a result of a severely critical internal Police Department audit last year, and, in part, to restore public confidence in OPS.
The management moves, however, have gone unnoticed by community and civic organizations who continue to complain that OPS is insensitive and inefficient and that it exists only to exonerate police officers accused of brutality.
This August 1981 audit concluded that the major problem with OPS was the almost total lack of supervision of investigators and control of cases.
For example, half the cases involving, police shootings in 1980 were misfiled and effectively lost , the audit found. OPS had a backlog of 1,900 cases dating back to 1975 that had not been investigated.
The length of an average OPS investigation was 224.3 days, “an intolerably long time,” the audit stated.
Since the audit, according to DPS administrators, the number of supervisors has been doubled to eight and an assistant administrator has been hired. Investigators now work in smaller units with a supervisor, instead of individually.
To remedy the problem of lost- cases, investigators are required to keep a review log of their cases and make detailed reports to their supervisor. And investigators now take in cases, instead of clerical staff. Critics, however, suggest more sweeping changes are necessary if OPS is to effectively respond to citizen complaints about police misconduct.
“OPS ‘should be independent. It should be accountable to the people and not the Police Department,” says Aurie Pennick, a fellow at the Chicago Community Trust, and until recently executive director of Citizens Alert, a non-profit police and crime watchdog group. “It is not working.”
James D. Rasas, an administrator of OPS; disagrees. “I believe OPS is doing an excellent job,” he says. He says it is a unique police discipline system because it is staffed and administered by civilians. OPS has 60 investigators and three administrators. Its budget is $ 1.8 million.
“OPS receives about 2,500 complaints of police use of excessive force each year and about 6 or 7 percent are sustained,” says Rosas. The rest of the complaints are judged to be either unfounded, exonerated or not sustained.
“Can it be that over 92 percent of the citizens lie about police behavior?” asks Howard Saffold, a 17-year veteran police officer and president of the Afro-American Police League. “The public confidence in OPS has completely vanished.”
Harvey Grossman, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, agrees, and says, “Their sustain rate is dismal. We have no confidence in that office.”
Rosas defends the low rate. OPS investigators must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer acted improperly. In most cases, it comes down to the civilian’s word against the officer’s, so there is insufficient evidence to sustain the charge.
Rosas adds, “About 80 percent of the complaints received by OPS are of minimal physical contact between the police and the citizen, and the citizen misperceived that he was being abused.”
Critics believe the majority of complaints filed with OPS involve serious police misconduct against citizens, particularly minorities.
The bulk of complaints come from blacks and Latinos, acknowledges Frank Nolan, chief administrator of OPS. But he refused to divulge the number of complaints by district, because “community groups are going to think there is an intentional effort of police misconduct in their districts,” Rosas says.
Another complaint is the fact that five OPS investigators are related to police and another three are waiting to become officers. Ald. Lawrence S. Bloom introduced an ordinance last March to prohibit that kind of hiring, but it has been buried in committee.
Critics also score OPS for not publicizing its work and say it is placed in an intimidating location, police headquarters at 11th and State streets.
Rosas says OPS is “as accessible as possible,” and it is located at headquarters so it can be near necessary facilities such as police cars and computers.