How Chicago racked up a $662 million police misconduct bill
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How Chicago racked up a $662 million police misconduct bill
How Chicago racked up a $662 million police misconduct bill
Mar. 19, 2016
CHICAGO (AP) — In this city's troubled history of police misconduct, Eric Caine's case may be unrivaled: It took more than 25 years and $10 million to resolve.
For decades, he maintained he didn't brutally kill an elderly couple. The police, he said, beat him into a false confession. Locked up at age 20, he was freed at 46, bewildered by a world he no longer recognized. Caine ultimately was declared innocent, sued the city and settled for $10 million. But victory brought little peace to his troubled mind.
"They wouldn't give anybody that large amount of money if they didn't believe that person was wronged," he says. "But I also look at it as a way for them to just want me to go away. ... Nobody cares if I live or die. I'm a shell of a human being."
Caine is one of the more dramatic examples of huge police settlements that have tarnished the city in recent years. Among them: A one-time death row inmate brutally beaten by police: $6.1 million. An unarmed man fatally shot by an officer as he lay on the ground: $4.1 million.
And last year, the family of Laquan McDonald, the black teenager shot 16 times by a white officer, received $5 million. His death, captured in a shocking video, led to a murder charge against the officer, the police chief's firing and thunderous street protests with calls for Mayor Rahm Emanuel's resignation.
In all, Chicago has paid a staggering sum — about $662 million — on police misconduct since 2004, including judgments, settlements and outside legal fees, according to city records. The payouts, for everything from petty harassment to police torture, have brought more financial misery to a city already drowning in billions of dollars of pension debt.
The U.S. Justice Department's recent decision to investigate the Chicago police — fallout from the McDonald case — has helped focus new attention on this agonizing record of misconduct and the surprising lack of consequences. Few officers accused of wrongdoing have been disciplined in recent years.
So how did the city get to the point where a massive police misconduct bill has almost become the cost of doing business? And why has bad behavior gone unchecked?
There's no single answer, but Alderman Howard Brookins Jr., who's required to approve settlements exceeding $100,000 as part of his city council duties, offers one explanation. "If you were seen going after police, you were seen as being for crime," he says. "It's a whole culture of not wanting to step on their toes. ... Nothing happened to the police officers even after they got a big judgment against them so it appeared to be like Monopoly money."
Lawyer Jon Loevy noticed the same unsettling pattern while winning more than a dozen seven-figure misconduct verdicts over the last decade. Jurors, he says, concluded "police did reprehensible things" — including framing people, shooting them without justification and planting evidence — but he knows of no case where those officers were punished. "Not only was nobody disciplined, nobody was asked any questions," he says. "It was just back to work."
Few accusations ever reach the punishment stage, according to the Invisible Institute, a nonprofit journalism organization, and the University of Chicago Law School's Mandel Legal Aid Clinic. They found that from March 2011 to September 2015, more than 28,500 citizen complaints of misconduct were filed against Chicago police officers, but less than 2 percent resulted in discipline.
Of 375 investigations of police shootings since 2008, the Independent Police Review Authority — which looks into the most serious claims of misconduct — found accusations of wrongdoing against officers valid in just two instances.
Both the police and the union representing rank-and-file officers say the numbers are misleading.
Dean Angelo, president of the union, says criminals routinely file frivolous complaints to harass and discourage police from pursuing them. "If you're working in the worst neighborhoods ... people are going to complain about you," he says. "It comes part and parcel with the job."
City officials also say many complaints are less serious — an improperly issued ticket, for instance — or can't be pursued because the accuser will not sign a sworn affidavit detailing the accusation. The Chicago police, in a statement to The Associated Press, said there were 45 firings and 28 suspensions from 2011 through 2015 in a department of about 12,000. Some cases remain open.
During that time, the city doled out tens of millions of dollars on misconduct claims, some dating back many years. The city's top lawyer, Stephen Patton, says his office has reduced costs with new strategies: It has cut the number of outside lawyers by more than 80 percent, taken more cases to trial (the corporation counsel's office won 21 of 28 last year), whittled down a backlog and spread the word it will no longer settle small cases routinely.
Since 2011, he says, his office has saved taxpayers at least $90 million by evaluating suits promptly and settling them, if appropriate, rather than racking up large legal fees. The McDonald case was settled without a lawsuit.
The cost of misconduct, though, extends far beyond dollars and cents. In some cases, it leaves deep psychological scars on the victimized and their families.
Ronald Kitchen, who said he was beaten into confessing to several murders, spent 21 years in prison, 13 of them on death row while seven men were executed. "You keep thinking, 'Am I going to take this walk? Is that going to happen to me?'" he says. "It's not in the back of your mind — it's in the front."
Kitchen, who was eventually exonerated, settled for $6.1 million from the city. "The money has been good ... but the pain is still there," he says.
Martinez Sutton says the $4.5 million settlement his family received in the death of his 22-year-old sister, Rekia Boyd, "seems almost like hush money."
For four years, Sutton has been agitating for the dismissal of Detective Dante Servin, who was off-duty when he shot Boyd in the head. Servin fired several times over his shoulder while sitting in his car after arguing with a group of people. He said he feared for his life as a man pulled an object from his waistband. No gun was found. The man had a cellphone.
Servin was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter last year in a controversial ruling: The judge suggested the prosecutor should have charged him with murder. Both the Independent Police Review Authority and the former superintendent have recommended his firing. The decision is up to the Chicago Police Board.
"It's a slap in the face to me," Sutton says. "You can give me money but you still can't get rid of this officer? It's not hate against the police department. It's hold accountable whoever commits the crimes. I thought that's the world we live in. You've basically got to prove why your loved one was innocent and that's what I've been doing. "
The great majority of misconduct cases are resolved for far smaller amounts, but even seemingly minor incidents can mushroom into costly face-offs.
Torreya Hamilton represented a biracial 14-year-old who'd recently moved into a predominantly white neighborhood. A group of officers who lived nearby harassed him, she says, handcuffing him without reason, conducting surveillance on him and his house. One officer, she adds, also posted messages on his Facebook page falsely calling the teen a drug dealer and criminal.
Hamilton sued, claiming illegal detention, and proposed settling for $75,000, including legal fees.
By the time the case was over, several lawyers were involved on the teen's behalf. The settlement was almost $530,000, most going to the lawyers. The law department says it settled at the 11th hour when it discovered the officer with the Facebook postings wasn't a credible witness.
These kinds of cases, Hamilton says, breed mistrust of police, especially among minorities.
"When a police officer has treated you unfairly, the obvious reaction is to not trust the government anymore and not want to call the police when you need the police," she adds.
Chicago isn't the only city with these problems. New York, Albuquerque and Baltimore have each doled out millions of dollars in recent years in cases that have sparked street protests and demands for reform.
In Chicago, though, the lack of police accountability, a code of silence and racial tensions tend to be more entrenched than in other cities, says Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor and expert on police misconduct. "It's not that Chicago is overrun by bad or abusive police officers," he says, "... but here, a small percentage of officers has been allowed to abuse some of the most vulnerable Chicago residents with near impunity."
More than 80 percent of officers have fewer than four complaints for the bulk of their careers, he says, while a small number have accumulated more than 50 in five years and haven't been disciplined.
Futterman faults the Chicago police for not addressing patterns of abuse, noting that with some officers, "there was not just a trail of bread crumbs, but a trail of steak that if anyone would have bothered to look, it would have raised serious eyebrows."
He points to Officer Jason Van Dyke, charged in the McDonald shooting, who'd been the subject of 20 civilian complaints, including allegations of excessive force, records show. One person who claimed he was injured when Van Dyke and a partner arrested him received $350,000 in civil damages.
In another high-profile case, Officer Gildardo Sierra, responding to a 2011 domestic disturbance call, was captured on video fatally shooting Flint Farmer while he lay in a parkway. It was Sierra's third shooting in six months — two were fatal. The prosecutor declined to charge Sierra, saying the officer mistook a cellphone for a gun.
Sierra also is one of two officers involved in the civil case of a fatal traffic stop shooting that will be retried because a judge ruled the city lawyer withheld critical evidence. The lawyer resigned. Sierra quit the force in 2015 while he was under investigation.
The mayor, who has been the target of blistering criticism for his handling of the McDonald case, recently formed a police task force that will create an early warning system to intervene with problem officers. The police also said in a statement that Interim Superintendent John Escalante is working with others "to review discipline histories, patterns of misconduct, settlements and other information to prioritize investigations and take action where necessary."
No pattern of wrongdoing has been more damaging than the one involving former commander Jon Burge and his "midnight crew" of rogue detectives. Scores of black men, many with criminal histories, alleged the officers beat and nearly suffocated them, played mock Russian roulette and subjected them to electric shocks to secure confessions.
The routine nature of these abuses over two decades was unparalleled, says G. Flint Taylor, a lawyer who has spent nearly 30 years fighting Burge and his associates. "You can look long and hard around the country and you'd find few cases where they (police) used electric shock from a box or where they put plastic bags over people's heads in a systematic way," he says.
Burge cases — including settlements and outside lawyers — have cost the city more than $92 million (about $109 million, if county and state expenses are included), according to Taylor, who keeps his own tally. Yet only Burge himself was ever charged, decades later — for perjury in a federal lawsuit when he denied torture had occurred. He was sentenced to 4½ years in prison.
A special prosecution team concluded in 2006 that scores of Burge accusers had, in fact, been brutalized, but cases were too old or too weak to pursue. That "sends the message that, for decades, black lives did not matter to high-level Chicago," Taylor says. Emanuel, who was not mayor at the time, has publicly apologized, calling the scandal "a stain on the city's reputation."
Chicago is still paying. Last year, the city council approved an unprecedented $5.5 million reparations package that provides up to $100,000 for each of 57 Burge victims, funds counseling and requires the sordid chapter in city history be taught to 8th and 10th grade public school students.
Some critics say these steps, the mayor's vows of reform, the federal probe and the ongoing search for a new superintendent give them hope this could be a pivotal moment. "There's been a lack of political will and courage to address these fundamental issues up until this point," Futterman says. "That may be changing."
But Eric Caine, the victim in one of the Burge cases, is skeptical. Five years after his release, he has a house and a restaurant, but he struggles.
"That 25 years was real hell to me," he says. "My sense of dignity, my sense of self-worth was destroyed — all shattered, all gone. ... Every second, every minute of the day, I think about my mortality, constantly, constantly. I've had trouble with the law and my personal life. I don't really seem to be able to connect with people."
He points to the year it took the city to release the McDonald video as evidence there isn't a new attitude. "The system is designed to protect itself," he says. "They continue to do the same thing over and over, instead of doing the right thing."
Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at email@example.com.