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Policing Police Civilian Disciplinary Board Lacks Teeth

The career—and the guilt or innocence—of Chicago Police Officer Serena Daniels will not be decided in a criminal court but in a hearing room of the Chicago Police Board.
Policing Police Civilian Disciplinary Board Lacks Teeth

By Rebecca Anderson

On Sept. 16, protesters demanding police accountability marched outside police headquarters, 1121 S. State St., prior to the Chicago Police Boards monthly meeting (photo by Walter S. Mitchell III)

The careerand the guilt or innocenceof Chicago Police Officer Serena Daniels will not be decided in a criminal court but in a hearing room of the Chicago Police Board.

Daniels is charged with firing her weapon without justification and disobeying orders in the June 4 shooting death of LaTanya Haggerty, a 26-year-old unarmed motorist. Superintendent of Police Terry Hillard has recommended Daniels firing, and she is scheduled to go on trial Jan. 18.

But the Police Boards nine civilian members, who will act as Daniels judge and jury, arent likely to be there.

The Police Board, once called "the caretaker of our trust in the law enforcement system" by Mayor Richard M. Daley, is the end of the disciplinary line for most police personnel.

Hillard determines whether officers or other employees should be fired or suspended for more than 30 days, and sends recommendations to the board, which makes the final decision.

The superintendent can impose suspensions of six to 30 days without board approval, but officers can appeal these penalties to the board. Last year, the board reviewed 96 such cases.

But most allegations of misconduct are either dismissed or handled internally, thus never making it to the board. Of more than 8,000 complaints of misconduct in 1998, the board held just 49 hearings. Twenty-nine of those resulted in dismissal of department membersthe most severe punishment the board can invoke.

And since 1994, 35 Chicago officers have been charged with crimes, said Bob Benjamin, communications director at the Cook County states attorneys office.

Members of the Chicago Police Board hear community concerns at the Oct. 21 meeting (photo by Walter S. Mitchell III).

"The number of cases that fall through the cracks is astounding," said Howard Saffold, chief executive officer of the Positive Anti-Crime Thrust Inc., a community group focusing on criminal justice.

Both police and their detractors complain the quasi-judicial body fails to deliver justice. Officers and their defenders charge that board members, who are mayoral appointees, feel political pressure to punish officers, particularly in high-profile, racially charged cases like the Haggerty shooting.

Attorney Joseph Roddy, who represents Daniels and three other officers in that case, asked for a change in venue, insisting his clients cannot get an impartial hearing in Chicago. Failing that, he argued that board members be required to attend the hearing. Members typically do not attend, instead relying on transcripts and discussions with hearing officers. Both his requests were denied.

"If youre going to decide credibility, you should be there," Roddy said. "The system itself isnt bad, but in practice its horrendous. They read a transcript to decide a case when peoples careers and livelihoods are at stake."

Victims of police abuse and their supporters argue the board does not have enough power to adequately monitor and discipline police misconduct. The system is fraught with conflicts of interest, they say, relying on the citys top cop to police his own. It also requires the citys Department of Law to prosecute officers before the board and then defend them if they are sued in civil court.

The board does not have the authority to initiate investigations, increase penalties or reveal the names of officers suspended for less than 30 days, including many who are punished for police brutality.

Still, the Police Board is not a rubber stamp for the superintendent, according to disciplinary records analyzed by The Chicago Reporter. Since 1995, the board upheld 89 of the 237 cases in which the superintendent recommended dismissal. In 25 cases, the board reduced the penalties to suspensions and reversed the superintendent in 35 cases, reinstating the officers. Charges were withdrawn in 88 cases after department members resigned.

Demetrius Carney, board president since 1996, said the panel is fair. He notes its decisions are rarely reversed on appeal. Between 1995 and 1998, the Cook County Circuit Court overturned nine of 70 board decisions, and the Illinois Appellate Court reversed two of 40 cases. None went to the Illinois Supreme Court.

"We have to walk a tight line," Carney said. "One day the police department is ticked off at us, the next day the community is ticked off at us. There is nobody that we can please on any one decision."

But attorney Victor Armendariz, a board member for 10 years before his term ended in August, said the board needs more authority. "There are some cases that are pretty obvious that we want to do more, but we cant. Were not allowed to by law."

Still, Daley "believes very strongly that the superintendent should oversee the department," said Rod Sierra, the mayors deputy press secretary. "When you give the board too much power it takes away the power from the superintendent and then its not the buck stops here."

No Requirements

Despite the powerful and occasionally high-profile nature of its job, the Police Board works in relative obscurity. Members of the board, which was created by the late Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1960, serve staggered, five-year terms. Unpaid until this year, they now earn $10,000 annually. The president receives $15,000.

The boards 1999 budget is $408,820, which includes salaries for an executive director, secretary and four hearing officers.

Unlike Chicago police personnel, members do not have to live in the city. Arthur J. Smith, a member since 1986, lives in north suburban Glencoe, and Armendariz lived in Cicero for the last nine months of his tenure.

The city also does not perform background checks on board members, Sierra said, other than to check for parking tickets. The Reporter found that two orders of protection were filed against South Side dentist William C. Kirkling, a board member since 1996 and a Chicago police officer from 1966 to 1974.

Froncell Childred-Kirkling filed a two-week emergency order of protection in Cook County Court against him on Jan. 23, 1986. They were divorced in June 1988, court records show. And a county judge granted Deborah Elligan, who once lived with Kirkling, a two-year order of protection on Sept. 2, 1992.

In September 1991, Elligan also accused Kirkling of assault and violating a court order. The Cook County States Attorney later dropped those charges.

Kirkling told the Reporter he did not break any laws, adding that the charges do not affect his judgment on cases before the board. "Yesterdays scores dont count in todays ball game," he said.

The board has ruled on 10 cases involving domestic violence filed since January 1995. It fired five officers and suspended four others, ordering three to undergo counseling. One officer was found not guilty. Kirkling voted with the board on all but one decision.

The mayor "wants people on that board who are upstanding citizens," Sierra said, adding Daley was unaware of Kirklings orders of protection.

"You dont want people on the police board with backgrounds that would influence their ability to judge people with similar problems," said J. Terrence Brunner, executive director of the Better Government Association, a government watchdog group.

No Shows

The Police Board approves the police departments annual budget before it goes to the Chicago City Council and recommends candidates for police superintendent to the mayor. But its authority in high-profile discipline cases draws the most attention.

Serving on the board is a "thankless job," said Mary D. Powers, coordinator of Citizens Alert, a police accountability group. "The Police Board takes abuse that no public employee should be subject to. I think they have a hard, unrecognized responsibility."

The boards monthly meetings at police headquarters, 1121 S. State St., sometimes attract large, boisterous audiences.

The meetings have been particularly raucous since the Haggerty shooting and the June 5 shooting of another unarmed African American motorist, Northwestern University football player Robert Russ. Officer Van B. Watts IV told investigators he shot Russ, 22, after they struggled for the officers gun, according to police reports.

"He was a young man starting his life. Now hes dead," said Russ sister, Brandi Spencer-Russ.

At the October meeting, a mother choked back tears while clutching a photo of her son, who she claimed was wrongly convicted of murder. A man asked why there was still drug dealing on his street. "Somehow, meetings have become a platform for people to address things not within our control," said board member Phyllis Apelbaum. It is "very difficult when someone stands up there screaming and ranting and raving, and its unfair."

While it faces the public monthly, the board rarely sees the people whose cases it decides. For example, Police Officers James Comito Jr. and Matthew Thiel were charged with the Sept. 26, 1997, beating of Jeremiah Mearday, an 18-year-old Humboldt Park resident. Their hearing was held over nine days in December 1997 and January 1998. On March 12, 1998, in a 6-3 vote, the board found the officers guilty and fired them.

The Cook County Circuit Court upheld the decision, and the officers appeal is pending before the Illinois Appellate Court.

Only Apelbaum and Russell H. Ewert, a business consultant who served on the board from 1988 to 1998, attended Meardays testimony. Both later voted not guilty. The late James C. Murray, board member from 1995 to 1998, cast the third dissenting vote.

Those votes show why members should attend hearings, said Paul Geiger, an attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police, the police union that represents Comito and Thiel. "Its like a jury that never hears a case but is standing in the hall smoking cigarettes or something," he said.

But Carney said it is "unrealistic" for board members, who usually have full-time jobs, to attend hearings that can last from several hours to many weeks. To decide cases, members already read hearing transcriptsabout 1,200 pages a monthand meet with hearing officers, he said.

Each hearing officer, who must be a licensed attorney, handles about 15 hearings and 25 review cases a year, said Mark Iris, the boards executive director. "If you have very good hearing officers, which we have, then I dont think its a necessity to attend every hearing," Carney said. "It would be like a full-time judgeship."

Limited Powers

The Police Board reviews appeals from officers suspended six to 30 days by examining their case files, which are closed to the public. Of the 298 suspension reviews between 1995 and 1998, about 40 percent were police brutality cases, the Reporter found. The board upheld the superintendents decision in 77 percent of the cases.

State law and police personnel policies keep those records closed, Carney said. The Chicago Tribune challenged that policy in a June 23 lawsuit, arguing it violates the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. The case is pending.

The board also does not collect information on the race of officers or victims, which critics say could help determine whether instances of police misconduct are racially motivated.

"You cant control police if you dont know what the hell theyre doing," said Standish E. Willis, an attorney for the Russ family. "Just because they have a collective bargaining agreement with the city doesnt override our right to know."

Saffold, a Chicago police commander from 1983 to 1989, suggested the city add more citizen review by creating community-based panels of citizens and experts.

On Oct. 21, the human rights organization Amnesty International called for Chicago to create a board with authority to increase penalties and review police policies. But Hillard said Chicago already has the nations most independent police oversight system, with civilians investigating police brutality and the board ruling on cases.

Citizen review systems vary widely around the nation. For example, in Portland, Ore., independent auditors review internal police investigations. The New York Civilian Complaint Review Board can investigate complaints but only makes recommendations to the police commissioner, who decides an officers punishment.

"Theres no simple measure of independence. It can look good on the surface, but it can be a sham," said Sam Walker, professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and author of a forthcoming book on civilian review. "The overriding factor is leadership from the mayor."

The Haggerty family, awaiting the Police Boards decision in the Serena Daniels case, said all they want is justice. "We want this not to happen to other people," said Maurice Haggerty, the 39-year-old brother of LaTanya Haggerty. "[Police] should be treated just like the rest of us would be."

For more information on police accountability, visit the following sites:

w Portland's Internal Investigations Complaint Process (scroll down to Citizen Complaint Process brochure)

w San Francisco's Office of Civilian Complaints

w New York's Civilian Complaint Review Board

w Report of the Commission on Police Integrity

w The Chicago Police Department

w Human Rights Watch report on Chicago in Shielded from Justice: Police Accountability and Brutality in the United States

w The National Coalition on Police Accountability and Citizen's Alert

w Read the Reporter's story on policing the police:  Police Brutality Complaints Decline; Disciplinary Actions Increase, September 1990. Also see Death Behind Bars, March 1999, and Policing Their Own, September 1999.

Contributing: Mick Dumke, Pamela A. Lewis and Stephanie Williams. Sylvia Barragán, Leah Bobal, James Boozer, Emily Dodson and Billy OKeefe helped research this article.




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