At a time when other cities are experiencing large protests over police conduct in highly publicized encounters with citizens, Chicago would be wise to get its house in order by reforming its police discipline system.
That system is broken. As the Sun-Times reported last week, between March 2014 and March 2015, Police Supt. Garry McCarthy asked the nine-member Chicago Police Board to fire 25 officers. The board fired only seven of the officers. Two were already convicted criminals by the time the board acted.
Judging from those numbers, the Chicago Police Department has a difficult time ridding itself of problem cops. That puts citizens at risk, erodes their trust in police and undermines morale among the vast majority of police officers who responsibly do a hard job every day.
“Until the police board challenges and prosecutes acts of police that are wrong, then every policeman out here suffers because they have to deal with people that don’t trust them,” says the Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina.
It’s a longstanding problem. Back in 2008, we reported that of 80 officers the then-police superintendent tried to fire between 2003 and 2007, the Police Board agreed to do so in just 21 cases. Those returned to their jobs included an officer who had accidentally shot a homeless man, an officer who had beaten a man handcuffed to a wheelchair and an officer who had allegedly given 13 police photos of a woman to a friend who later shot that woman and another man.
A reform four years ago to limit the board’s members, who all are civilians, to 10-year terms clearly hasn’t made enough of a difference. Despite the reform, the president has sat on the board for 19 years, although City Hall says it plans to announce a replacement in the near future.
No one wants to make officers who do their jobs properly look over their shoulders. They deserve a system that protects them from arbitrary discipline.
But the system also needs to weed out problem officers before they bring the entire department into disrepute. For example, Anthony Abbate was found to have abused a civilian, but after the case dragged on for five years, the final determination was no discipline. Abbate later was caught on video viciously beating a female bartender, an image that still shadows the department.
With such a cumbersome system, it’s easy for police officials confronted with the need to mete out discipline to throw up their hands and say it’s not worth the effort. And even if discipline is enforced, it is less meaningful if it happens years after the infraction.
Some critics say the heart of the problem is a contract between the city and police union that has too many hoops police officials must jump through to fire an officer, setting up the system for failure. For example, in some cases the original investigation and the review by the command channel takes so long that the Police Board will rule due process has been violated and the case is closed. Such provisions should be carefully re-examined.
The risk of returning police officers to the force even if their superiors want them fired goes beyond violent cops. If police officers who have been caught lying, for example, are returned to the force, they become a defense lawyer’s dream when they later testify in trials. The defense lawyers can easily impeach their testimony.
Under the current system, any attempt to fire a police officer must be approved all the way up the chain of command before the police superintendent signs off on it and brings it to the Police Board. It’s hard to believe the Police Department gets it wrong most of the time.
We just have to look at Baltimore, Cleveland, Ferguson, Mo., New York and North Charleston, S.C., to why Chicago must ensure it’s doing everything possible to ensure only law-abiding police officers remain on the force.