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Chicago Cops Say Keeping Evidence of Misconduct Puts Cops in Danger – So They’re Destroying It

With protesters thronging the streets of Chicago demanding police accountability and clamoring for the resignation of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the city’s police union is frantically trying to destroy decades of records documenting police misconduct. As is always the case, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) sees “officer safety” as the highest priority – including protection from legal accountability.

“I protect all my members, and I will continue to do that,” Dean Angelo, president of the Chicago FOP, explained to CNN.

An injunction filed by the FOP insists that preserving those records violates Section 8.4 of its bargaining agreement with the City of Chicago. That provision specifies that all files of misconduct investigations and officer disciplinary histories “will be destroyed five (5) years after the date of the incident or the date upon which the violation is discovered, whichever is longer, except that not sustained files alleging criminal conduct or excessive force shall be retained for a period of seven (7) years after the date of the incident or the date upon which the violation is discovered, whichever is longer….”

Once that deadline passes, the episode of excessive force or other misconduct “cannot be used against the Officer in any future proceedings in any other forum” unless it deals with a matter subject to litigation during the five year period or “unless a pattern of sustained infractions exists.” This element of the bargaining agreement creates an incentive for the police department to delay, obstruct, and obfuscate investigations of misconduct and abuse complaints until the deadline expires – and to keep the process opaque to the public.

“Basically, they bargained away transparency and accountability,” points out Chicago University Law Professor Craig Futterman, who is fighting in court to prevent the destruction of the officer misconduct records. “In a world where an incident like [the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald] happens and the public statements are `Deny, deny, deny,’ and then close off and circle the wagons, and then a code of silence and an exoneration at the end of the day – in that system, you cannot create public trust,” Futterman explained to the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.

Futterman, who founded Chicago University’s Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project, has spent fifteen years trying to end the official impunity of police officers. Chicago, Futterman told the Sun-Times, “is the capital of the code of silence.”

Working with independent journalist Jamie Kalven, Futterman was able to exhume the video of the McDonald shooting and the autopsy report showing that he had been shot sixteen times – evidence that completely contradicted the official account that described the shooting as “self-defense.” Jason Van Dyke, the officer who shot McDonald, has been charged with first-degree murder, an all but unprecedented development involving an on-duty police shooting in Chicago.

Through freedom of information requests, Futterman has also pried loose a small portion of the disciplinary files, which are available in an online database. The records Futterman seeks to preserve date back to 1967, and cover decades of corruption and abuse, including the now-notorious Jon Burge torture scandal and the unlawful detentions, interrogations, and abuse of citizens at the Homan Square “black site.” The FOP-negotiated contract requiring the destruction of records after five years went into effect on July 1, 2012 – and it is by no means clear that it applies retroactively to misconduct cases that occurred prior to that agreement. The FOP is essentially seeking to re-litigate the agreement for the purpose of obstructing an ongoing Justice Department investigation into the Chicago PD.

Although FOP President Angelo pouts that “I don’t understand why a 77-year-old retirees’ complaint in 1967 needs to be on a database,” the records his union seeks to destroy include disciplinary histories directly relevant to very recent incidents of excessive force.

According to CNN, “a search for Jason Van Dyke, the officer charged with the first-degree murder in the killing of Laquan McDonald, shows that he had 19 complaints before he fatally shot the teen, including 10 for use of force. The officer who shot and killed Cedrick Chatman has 30 complaints in the system, including 10 for use of force. None of the complaints, for either officer, resulted in disciplinary action. Van Dyke’s attorney says his client feared for his life in his encounter with McDonald. The Chatman shooting was ruled justified.”

Preserving the records, and making them publicly accessible, could help identify officers who pose potential threats to the public they supposedly serve. The FOP, in keeping with its long-established priorities, is more concerned about preserving blue privilege.

One measure of the depth and extent of the official privilege enjoyed by Chicago police officers is offered by the case of former CPD Command Jon Burge, who tortured and otherwise abused more than 100 Chicago residents over the course of three decades. Several innocent people were imprisoned on the basis of confessions extracted by Burge through torture – including the use of electric shocks, beatings, and suffocation with plastic bags. Last April, Mayor Emanuel approved a $5.5 million dollar reparations package for Burge’s victims. Even as city taxpayers absorbed the cost of Burge’s crimes, they continued to pay his pension: Despite being convicted in federal court for perjury and imprisoned in 2010, Burge continued to receive his $4,000-a-month pension.

Some of Burge’s erstwhile comrades in torture are still under investigation – and the documents necessary to continue that probe would be fed into a shredder if the FOP prevails in court. Those records most likely would also contain information about the Chicago PD’s off-the-records interrogation facility at Homan Square, a CIA-style “black site” where thousands of people were detained without cause and interrogated without constitutionally mandated access to an attorney, reports the Guardian of London.

An estimated 82 percent of the 7,000 people who were arrested and illegally held at Homan Square are black. Angel Perez, who was chained to a metal bar in a second-floor interrogation room at the facility in October 2012, alleges that he was sodomized with a metallic object by officers who taunted him with threats of prison rape if he didn’t cooperate. During a December 15 hearing before the Cook County Commission, several other detainees described being denied access to lawyers and being pressured to become police informants.

“There they interrogated me, asking me things that I had no idea about, for murder and things of that nature,” testified Kory Wright. “And I sat in that room, and they turned the temperature up and I was zip-tied to a bench.”

This Gitmo-style “rendition” site operated under Rahm Emanuel’s tenure, and it features very prominently in the accumulating demands for his resignation. With protests growing in intensity, the Mayor under political siege, and the police department desperately seeking to destroy evidence of long-festering corruption and misconduct, Chicago’s municipal government is beginning to look like an authoritarian dictatorship in the throes of a terminal crisis – Tehran circa 1978, perhaps, or Romania in December 1989.