On May 17, 2005, officers from the Special Operations Section burst into Roberto Ontivero-Artal’s Southwest Side home. After an illegal search, they seized drugs and $30,000 in cash. They turned in the drugs and only $463 as evidence—the rest they split among themselves.
Keith Herrera, a former member of the elite police task force, pleaded guilty to Ontivero-Artal’s charge and other similar allegations, stealing $40,000 from arrestees in 2005 alone. Other former members have also admitted to breaking into suspects’ homes and using coercion and false police reports to cover it up. The section was disbanded in 2007, and most of the officers were reassigned to other units, but the city payments to civilians harmed by the officers keep rolling in.
A Chicago Reporter analysis shows that 21 members of the section belong to a list of 140 police officers who were named in two or more misconduct-related lawsuits that led to city payments between January 2009 and November 2011. Their actions cost the city more than $1 million.
The police department’s failure to rein in the section was one of the major motivations behind the establishment of the Independent Police Review Authority in 2007, and activists have accused the department of turning a blind eye due to the race of most of the arrestees.
“It was definitely a race-based targeting. They went after black and brown people,” said Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project. “It went on so long because no one believed their complaints.”
The most serious charges came against Jerome Finnigan, the de facto leader of the section. As the allegations against the officers came to light, Finnigan feared that a fellow cop was turning state’s informant, and he asked Herrera to help him find a hit man. Herrera was working with the federal investigation and recorded their conversation. In April 2011, Finnigan pleaded guilty to seeking the murder for hire as well as tax evasion for the $174,000 he stole from arrestees. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Finnigan’s punishment was by far the most severe. Many of the officers received only short prison sentences and probation for their crimes and are no longer with the department, while Herrera awaits sentencing.
Five years later, the scandal remains a black eye for the Chicago Police Department, but it’s unclear whether anything concrete has been done in response. The Reporter analysis of misconduct lawsuits that led to payments shows that officers with multiple lawsuits against them continue to go unchecked within the police department, and there are police on the streets with lists of allegations rivaling the members of the Special Operations Section.