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Supt. Eddie Johnson. | Getty Images file photo

6 cops suspended for mishandling crash involving fire deputy

SHARE 6 cops suspended for mishandling crash involving fire deputy
SHARE 6 cops suspended for mishandling crash involving fire deputy

Six Chicago Police officers have been suspended for giving the third-highest ranking member of the Chicago Fire Department favored treatment after the fire deputy crashed his city-owned SUV near Lake Shore Drive in Lincoln Park.

Police Supt. Eddie Johnson suspended all six officers for “improper processing and reporting procedures” in connection with the April 20, 2016 crash involving former Deputy Fire Commissioner John McNicholas.

McNicholas had a blood alcohol level nearly twice the legal limit nearly four hours after the crash.

Sources said the disciplinary action is not final because all six officers, three of them supervisors, have filed grievances challenging their suspensions.

Three of the officers were suspended without pay for five days. Two faced 15-day suspensions. And one officer was suspended without pay for 20 days.

Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi refused to comment on the suspensions disclosed one week after the U.S. Justice Department’s scathing indictment of the Chicago Police Department and its disciplinary procedures.

Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo said he needs to know what the six officers are “accused of doing” before he can decide whether the suspensions are “harsh or not.”

“I don’t know where the allegations are stemming from of misconduct. … Until I see them, [it’s tough to say] whether it’s fair or whether it’s warranted at all,” Angelo said.

The Breathalyzer was administered to McNicholas by the Chicago Fire Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau. Chicago Police officers were on the scene of the crash on LaSalle Street just off Lake Shore Drive for about two hours but never administered a field sobriety test.

Unlike Illinois State Police, Chicago Police officers do not carry Breathalyzers in their squad cars. If a Breathalyzer is administered, it has to be done at the district station. That was not done in McNicholas’ case.

McNicholas was ticketed for negligent driving. Two months later, the Police Department belatedly agreed to charge McNicholas with misdemeanor DUI.

The lesser charge was filed one day after the Cook County State’s Attorney declined to charge McNicholas with felony DUI.

The state’s attorney’s office had concluded that the accident did not meet the “legal elements of a felony DUI, including “prior convictions and great bodily harm.”

On the day the belated charge was filed, Guglielmi refused to confirm that police officers on the scene of the crash had failed to administer tests to McNicholas much less explain why.

But, he maintained that if officers gave McNicholas a pass, “I can assure you that, if that is the case, they’ll be in trouble with [Police Supt. Eddie] Johnson. Johnson won’t tolerate that.”

The crash that sent City Hall scrambling into an all-too-familiar damage-control mode happened about 12:50 a.m.

McNicholas was driving his Fire Department SUV west on LaSalle Drive just off Lake Shore when another vehicle cut him off, police said. The SUV swerved to avoid a collision, went over a curb and struck a utility pole. No one was hurt, but the vehicle was heavily damaged.

Instead of calling 911 and having the conversation recorded, sources said McNicholas called a “black phone” at the 911 center that is not recorded.

The call taker immediately noticed that the deputy commissioner sounded as if he had been drinking and followed protocol by dispatching a battalion chief and deputy district chief along with police officers, sources said.

McNicholas was well known to the call takers. His father once served as a Fire Alarm office supervisor. His son is a police officer.

When a Breathalyzer was administered at 4:32 a.m. at Fire Department headquarters, McNicholas had a blood-alcohol level of 0.154 —nearly twice the legal limit, officials have said.

The Fire Department has as close to a zero-tolerance policy as it can get. Any department member whose blood-alcohol level exceeds 0.02 — which is possible after just one or two cocktails — is considered “under the influence” of alcohol.

That’s why McNicholas, who resigned as deputy commissioner after the crash, agreed to a “full separation” from the Chicago Fire Department after taking the Breathalyzer that is mandatory after all accidents involving Fire Department vehicles.

The state standard for charging a motorist with DUI is 0.08. Since police officers on the scene never tested McNicholas for that standard, he was not immediately charged with DUI.

The failure by police officers to administer either a field sobriety test or a Breathalyzer to McNicholas raised questions about whether McNicholas was given preferential treatment by police.

It came at a time when Johnson was struggling to regain public trust shattered by the video of white Police Officer Jason Van Dyke pumping 16 rounds into the body of black teenager Laquan McDonald.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has acknowledged that there is a code of silence in the Police Department as evidenced by some of Van Dyke’s fellow officers tailoring their stories to match his. They claimed McDonald was aggressively moving toward Van Dyke with a knife in his hand when he was walking away or already on the ground.

Internal Affairs set out to determine whether that code of silence extended to the Fire Department.

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