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Why Is It So Hard To Fire A Policeman?'; Top Cop Says It Should Be His Call

CHICAGO — Chicago Police superintendents have been unable to fire most of the cops they have wanted out of the department for misconduct, a Sun-Times analysis has found.

The Chicago Police Board has the final say on firings, and it turned down the superintendent about 70 percent of the time between 2003 and 2007. It operates with little publicity, even though its decisions play a big role in ensuring quality policing in the city.

Of 80 officers the superintendent sought to fire over that five-year period, just 21 were dismissed. Thirty-nine were suspended — some for as long as three years — even though the Police Board found them guilty of violating department rules. Twenty officers were restored to duty after being found not guilty by the board.

The 59 officers spared from dismissal included:

– An officer who received a three-year suspension for accidentally shooting a homeless man in what the officer said was a carjacking.

– Two officers who were later charged criminally in federal court, one for unrelated weapons violations and another for the on-duty beating of a man in a wheelchair.

– An officer who allegedly printed 13 photos of a woman from the Police Department's arrest database and gave them to a friend who was later convicted of attempted murder for shooting her and another man.

Brad Woods, former commander of the Police Department's personnel division, questions why so many officers have escaped being fired.

"If they worked for IBM or Sears, do you think they would keep their jobs? Why is it so hard to fire a policeman?" Woods said. "There does not seem to be any rhyme or reason to their decisions."

Criminal justice experts like Samuel Walker, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska, worry that such a track record does as much harm to department morale as it does to public safety.

"To the extent that they are returning officers to the street, that has an impact on the people of Chicago and that has an impact on the image of Chicago,'' Walker said. "And it has an impact on the finances of the city, and it has an impact on the morale of good officers."

Police Supt. Jody Weis says he needs the power to fire officers to do the job Mayor Daley hired him to do: Clean up the department following several highly publicized misconduct cases.

Weis says the Police Board serves a critical role in holding hearings to determine if an officer is guilty of breaking the rules.

But when the officer is found guilty, the police superintendent should decide if an officer loses his job — not the nine-member civilian board, Weis said.

"At the end of the day, it is the department which is often looked at as accountable for our personnel. We have to make sure we can discipline our folks in a manner that is fair and consistent," Weis said. "I can't overstate how seriously we take separation cases. . . . I should be the final decision-maker."

Weis says bringing back an officer found guilty of serious charges hurts morale and that there is always a risk the officer will get in trouble again.

"Then we are faced with another black eye,'' he said. "And we look like we are not policing our own.''

Police Board President Demetrius Carney insists it's not the board's job to make decisions based on what the superintendent wants or on how they will be viewed later.

Decisions must be based on an impartial review of the evidence, and punishment is based on the officer's record and seriousness of the conduct, Carney said.

The board meets once a month to decide on guilt and discipline. Board members read transcripts and watch videotapes of hearings conducted by independent officers who, in effect, try the cases.

"The law requires the superintendent's case be put to the test,'' board members said in a statement. "In many cases, the nature of the misconduct, when weighed against the officer's record, is not sufficiently serious to justify firing an officer who has up to that point served the department well.''

The transcripts of the hearings are made public, but it's still hard to pinpoint the reasons why the board turns down the superintendent's firing requests so often.

The mayor recently said he wanted to make police discipline more "transparent," but when the board issues rulings, it does not give a reason. It does disclose which members dissented, but does not say why.

Weis said the board should, at the very least, make public a clear set of guidelines on discipline.

"People should know what they should expect if they get off track," Weis said. "You have to have a disciplinary process that is transparent, fair and consistent. You have to have a process in place where, pretty much, you should be able to know what you're going to be eligible to get."

When pressed by the Sun-Times, the board refused to discuss its rationale in each of the cases.

Without an explanation from the board, it remains a mystery to many familiar with the system why some officers are found not guilty of rules violations — and why they often aren't fired when they are found guilty.

"I honestly had very little idea of how they came to most of their decisions,'' former city attorney Lee Ferron said. "I could only guess."

'Wolf guarding the hen house'

Joe Roddy, a Chicago lawyer who has represented countless officers facing punishment, said the hearings allow officers to challenge the department's version of events for the first time.

Roddy ridiculed Weis' desire to have the final say on punishment.

"Asinine, ludicrous and stupid,'' he said. "It'd be like the wolf guarding the hen house.''

But other major cities do leave discipline up to the head of the department.

Oversight of police departments by civilians started in the late 1960s in response to high-profile police shootings and out of concern over how police treated minorities.

In Washington, a citizen review panel decides if a complaint is true. After the decision is reviewed by an outside examiner — who can call a hearing if needed — Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier decides the punishment.

"It's a morale issue,'' said Philip Eure, executive director of the Office of Police Complaints there. "She's in charge of the troops.''

New York's police commissioner also decides punishment after the Civilian Complaint Review Board investigates and weighs in.

In Los Angeles, termination cases are sent to a board of rights, which consists of a civilian and two command-level department officers who determine guilt and discipline. The chief of police can only reduce a punishment.

Los Angeles also limits its suspensions to no more than 65 days — and even those instances are rare.

In Chicago, some of the unpaid suspensions last several years. Weis said returning officers to duty after such a long time presents a lot of "challenges.''

One is the training returning officers need. "Things change, policies change," Weis said. "New technologies are in place."

And there's another problem with long suspensions, Weis said. Holding a spot for the officer leaves fewer officers on the street.

Weis is opposed to suspensions that last longer than a year. He says if a yearlong ban isn't enough, the officer should be fired.

One Chicago officer the board suspended for two years — Detective Janice Govern — is arguing in a federal lawsuit against the city that such a long time away from work harms the officer and the department.

Govern's attorney, Benjamin Nwoye, said the prolonged absences are a problem because of "the training, the readiness, and they can become financially bankrupt. . . . None of this helps.''

'Years pass'

Attorneys who represent officers before the Police Board see areas where Chicago's system could be improved, even though they often win their cases.

Thomas Needham represented an officer accused of passing details of a narcotics wiretap to a friend whose name surfaced on the wire.

The board found the officer not guilty despite testimony against him from two supervisors and a fellow officer who said the friend and others confirmed the misconduct.

Needham called the allegations "very serious on paper'' but questioned why they were brought against his client in 2006, three years after the supposed leak during an investigation into drug-dealing music producer Charles Patton, who is now in prison.

"If there is a difficulty the city prosecutors and the Police Board have in deciding cases, it's that there is often a very lengthy period between the alleged rules violation until when the cases is filed. Years pass," Needham said.

"In any tribunal in which I have handled a case, that delay will negatively affect the party bringing the case, whether that is a civil court or a criminal court."

City attorneys who have prosecuted officers say cases brought by the superintendent can suffer from witnesses disappearing or memories fading. And the city attorneys don't have the same budget as defense attorneys to chase missing witnesses.

Roddy raised a different concern in 2000.

He criticized board members when they failed to attend dismissal hearings for a client, Officer LaTanya Haggerty, fired for shooting and killing an unarmed motorist.

Because of the criticism, board members now have to watch videotapes of the hearings, which Roddy called "a step into the 21st century."

The Charge: Officer William Cozzi allegedly used a baton to beat a man handcuffed to a wheelchair in 2005.

The Defense: Cozzi's attorney said he was remorseful and owned up to what he did.

The Background: Cozzi had no sustained complaints against him and 32 honorable mentions and 7 complimentary letters during his career. "This is an officer who had a stellar career for 13 years," his attorney, William Fahy, said. "The Police Board had to balance his stellar law enforcement career against the wrongdoing."

The Discipline: The department moved to fire him. The Police Board found him guilty of six rule violations and voted to suspend him for two years. Two members dissented, saying Cozzi should have been fired. Last year, Cozzi pleaded guilty in state court to misdemeanor battery and got 18 months' probation.

Postscript: The U.S. attorney's office has since charged Cozzi with civil rights violations. He is currently suspended.

The Chicago Police Board

Demetrius E. Carney, 61

President of the Police Board and a government relations attorney for the Perkins Coie law firm. Former St. Ignatius College Prep teacher and trustee. Former city planning commissioner. Board member of the Chicago Cultural Center Foundation. Lobbyist registered with the City of Chicago. Clients include the Hudson Group, Planned Parenthood and Comcast Corp. Over the last five years, he cast more votes for harsher punishment than any other board member. Appointed in 1996.

Patricia C. Bobb, 61

A lawyer in private practice and a former Cook County assistant state's attorney portrayed in the movie "The Jagged Edge" for her prosecution of Patty Columbo, who killed her parents and brother in 1976. Former president of the Chicago Bar Association. Headed a committee in 2003 to explore allegations of excessive force at Cook County Jail. Over the last five years, she cast more votes for lesser punishment than any other board member. Appointed in 1998.

Arthur J. Smith Sr., 65

Ex-Chicago Police sergeant and founder of Art's Enterprises Inc., a corporation involved in the food, transportation, radio and security businesses. His companies have reaped millions of dollars in city and state contracts. He and his companies have given about $200,000 to a who's who of Illinois politicians over the last decade. Appointed in 1986.

Phyllis L. Apelbaum, 68

Founder and CEO of Arrow Messenger Service Inc., a multibillion-dollar corporation. Honored in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush as finalist for Small Business Person of the Year. Has been a member of the boards for Meals on Wheels, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Better Boys Foundation. Known for regularly attending police graduations and retirement parties. Appointed in 1996.

Scott J. Davis, 56

A lawyer and partner in the Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw law firm. The firm's ties to the Daley family include Mayor Daley's brother William M. Daley, who once worked there as a senior partner. Appointed in 1989.

George M. Velcich, 53

A lawyer in the Belgrade & O'Donnell law firm. Appointed in 1998.

William C. Kirkling, 62

A dentist on the South Side and former Chicago Police officer. Appointed in 1996.

Rev. Johnny L. Miller, 59

Pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church on the West Side. Appointed in 1998.

Victor M. Gonzalez

Executive counsel of UniCare Health Plans. Appointed in 2000.

WHAT THE BOARD DOES

The Chicago Police Board interviews candidates for superintendent, adopts the rules that govern the department and decides on the discipline of cops and civilian police employees.

Cases come to the board after they have been investigated by the Internal Affairs Division or the Independent Police Review Authority, formally called the Office of Professional Standards. Generally, IAD investigates allegations of corruption and IPRA investigates allegations of excessive force. Those bodies recommend discipline to the superintendent, who then suggests a penalty — either firing or a suspension — to the Police Board.

A hearing officer conducts a trial-like hearing where witnesses are called and cross-examined. The burden of proof — not as high as in a criminal trial — is on the superintendent. Board members view video of the hearing and read transcripts before they meet to decide the case.

If the board finds an officer guilty, it reviews his or her history — past awards and discipline — before deciding the punishment.

Either side — the superintendent or the officer — can appeal to Cook County Circuit Court. The court can send cases back if it finds the board's decision is against the "manifest weight of the evidence,'' a high standard.

'SEE, I CAN FIND OUT WHATEVER I NEED TO ABOUT YOU'

The Charge: Officer Eric Sanders was accused of printing 13 internal department photos of Nikcole Riles in 2003 and giving them to a pal who later shot Riles and her boyfriend. Sanders' friend, Jeremiah Bracey, testified at his trial that Sanders gave him the photos. Bracey was convicted of attempted murder. Bracey used the photos to threaten Riles before he shot her, she said. "He was like, 'See, see I can find out whatever I need to about you'," Riles told the Sun-Times. "I was scared. . . . I was real scared.''

The Defense: Sanders denied at his hearing — and to this day — that he gave Bracey the photos, saying he printed them for investigative purposes and handed them to other officers.

The Background: Sanders had 62 honorable mentions, 11 complimentary letters and 4 department commendations. But he also had served a one-day suspension and was reprimanded by the department.

The Discipline: Supt. Terry Hillard moved to fire Sanders. The Police Board found him guilty of violating five department rules and suspended him for one year.

Postscript: Sanders has since left the department on his own while under investigation.

The Charge: Detective Janice Govern walked into a South Side Dominick's in 2001 — on duty — while a bank robbery was in progress. She is accused of failing to try to make an arrest, preserve the crime scene or talk to witnesses. Govern was accused of getting in line for a bottle of water and not performing police duties.

The Defense: Her attorney said she acted properly by walking into the store with her gun drawn and by instructing an officer to call 911. She disputes the city's version of events to this day.

The Background: Govern had one reprimand in her file for having an expired sticker. She also had one department commendation and two honorable mentions.

The Discipline: The department moved to fire Govern, but she was suspended for two years by the Police Board, which found her guilty of failing to perform her duty and three other department violations. Five members voted for suspension. Two other members voted for discharge.

Postscript: Govern, back on active duty, has filed a federal lawsuit against the city alleging that her punishment violated her civil rights, saying it was heavy-handed because she is an African-American woman.

The Charge: Lt. Richard Guerrero allegedly took a phone number of a woman off a police report and called her about 10 times. He already had been found guilty of misdemeanor harassment charges in 2005.

The Defense: Guerrero claimed he'd met the victim two weeks earlier and she gave him her phone number — something she denied. He also said she asked for help fixing an accident report, something she also denied.

The Background: Guerrero had one unit meritorious performance award, "emblems of recognition" for appearance and physical fitness, three department commendations, 39 honorable mentions and 35 complimentary letters. Once a high-ranking department member, Guerrero was previously investigated by the Internal Affairs Division over allegations of "inappropriate contact" with his ex-wife. He has a two-day suspension and a reprimand on his record.

The Discipline: The department moved to fire Guerrero. The Police Board found him guilty of two rule violations and suspended him for a year. He remains with the department.

Postscript: A federal lawsuit filed against Guerrero was dismissed; another is pending in state court.

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