Complaints about complaints | Bleader

Complaints about complaints

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It’s now clear that the City Council questioning of police chief Jody Weis Tuesday had two purposes: (1) to send a message to the world, and particularly that small slice of it known as the International Olympic Committee, that Chicago’s leaders are going to crack heads and take care of this unpleasant gun violence problem (or at least make sure it’s banished from downtown); and (2) to allow the mayor to make a pointed argument—delivered via his handpicked police chief and surrogates in the council, who would not act on an issue like this without Daley's knowledge and consent—that the real source of this mess is an overly aggressive push to discipline police officers.

This second matter is the one most likely to impact the daily lives of people in Chicago. 

"I have heard from many officers that there is a degree of timidness--that people are not maybe as engaged as they should be because of fears of lawsuits, fears of [complaints registered] being put against them by criminals and by other folks who are just trying to impugn their integrity," Weis said, as quoted by the Sun-Times.

We’ve heard this argument many times before. “I understand there may be a few bad apples in the bushel, but there are gangbangers and drug dealers in the neighborhoods who learn how to file complaints against officers,” the 47th Ward's Eugene Schulter said in a hearing just last week that gave alderman an opportunity to tee off on the Independent Police Review Authority, the agency charged with vetting complaints about cops.

Schulter/Weis/Daley make a disturbing argument, but it’s certainly not the full story. Some thugs may actually file complaints to taint good cops and, as a result, undermine the process for disciplining not-so-good ones. Then again, it's also possible that some cops may actually rack up complaints from honest citizens concerned about their conduct.

From April through June the IPRA closed its investigations into 672 cases that involved either allegations of misconduct, reports of an officer discharging a weapon, or other “extraordinary occurrences” such as a suspect dying in custody, according to the authority’s most recent report (which can't be viewed on all browsers). The vast majority—at least 523—didn’t result in any finding against the officers. In fact, in 230 of these cases the person who filed the complaint refused to sign an affidavit, an assertion under oath that the testimony is true. This figure could underscore what Daley, Weis, and the aldermen are ranting about: if gangbangers are indeed filing frivolous complaints about cops just to screw with them, they’re probably not going to follow up by taking a trip to IPRA headquarters to sign affidavits.

And another 86 cases were closed after investigators ruled the allegations were simply “unfounded.”

Still, at least 203 were “not sustained,” which essentially means the evidence wasn’t substantial enough to prove misconduct or innocence.

And I can tell you from firsthand experience that it’s not that easy to file a complaint--and it’s far less easy to prove it’s justified.

A couple of years ago I was on the Red Line headed south of the Loop when a couple of cops stepped onto the car and immediately approached a teenager and asked for his ID. He provided it, and one of the officers glanced it over and then put it into his pocket. The kid demanded to have it back; the cop told him he’d return it when the kid got off the train—which, the cop said, would be at the next stop.

Sure enough, we pulled up to the 47th Street station and the officer shoved the teenager off the train, pushed him over to a support beam, and ordered him to put his hands up. As we pulled away, the officer was kicking the kid in the legs.

Maybe I don’t need to say this, but I will: I respect and admire the thousands of officers on the force who help keep me safe every day I’m in this city, and most of those I’ve interacted with appeared to be serious about their jobs because they cared about people they’d never met. But this cop’s behavior was way out of line. I wasn’t the only person who thought so—our train car was buzzing about what had just happened. So I took down the names and phone numbers of four or five others who’d seen the whole thing and put in a call right then to the Office of Professional Standards, the IPRA’s predecessor. I was told they’d look into it.

A few weeks later an investigator got in touch with me and asked me to come down to their offices on the south side. I hadn’t gotten the officer’s name or star number, and OPS couldn’t figure out which cops might have been on a southbound CTA train at the time of the incident, so the investigator needed me to take a look at the photos of a bunch of officers.

I had to take a half day off work to make the trip down there, wait awhile, wait some more, then finally get escorted to the desk of an investigator who pulled up a bunch of photos of officers on her computer screen . . . only to determine what you might expect: there was no way to look at someone’s head shot and honestly say yes, that’s the guy I saw once, several weeks ago, from several yards away, most of the time with his back to me, seemingly harassing a teenager who didn’t appear to do anything other than act like a teenager.

Many weeks later I received a letter from OPS in the mail. The complaint, it said, had not been sustained. The case was closed.

Our ongoing problems with violence demand action, including vigorous public debate. But I wonder if engaging in baldly political displays shows any respect for Chicago Police officers or the citizens they try to serve and protect.

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