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EDITORIAL: Four ways to fix police contract and avoid another Englewood Four

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In the case of the Englewood Four, the “powerful evidence” is not where the police union thinks it is.

On Monday, the Fraternal Order of Police’s second vice president, Martin Preib, argued there is “powerful evidence” that four Englewood men were “involved” as teenagers in the 1994 rape and murder of a prostitute, even though all four men, after long stints in prison, have been cleared by the courts.

EDITORIAL

Preib’s arguments, though, were remarkably weak. They served only to illustrate where the real problem lies: Chicago must demand major reforms in the collective bargaining agreement it is now negotiating with the FOP to help prevent future miscarriages of justice.

The courts have found that the Englewood Four — Michael Saunders, Vincent Thames, Harold Richardson and Terrill Swift — were coerced into confessing to the murder. They spent up to 17 years in prison before they were cleared by DNA evidence that pointed to convicted murdered and sex offender Johnny “Maniac” Douglas, who was shot to death in 2008.

On Monday, the City Council’s Finance Committee authorized a $31 million settlement to the four men.

On Monday, though, Preib was eager to relitigate the case. He argued, in an address to the City Council, that when the police found a mop handle and a shovel that Swift had said were used in the crime “right where Swift said [they] were” in a lagoon, it proved the police were right all along to conclude the men were guilty.

No evidence has ever connected those items, which were part of a large amount of debris in the lagoon, to the crime. Swift says he pointed to the lagoon only because detectives urged him to do so. And a skeptical judge said he wasn’t even convinced the decomposing stick offered as evidence had ever been part of a mop.

It was not his intent, but Preib reminded us all of why it is so important that the police not leap to conclusions or cut corners.

Few people seriously believe the police routinely frame people that they think are innocent. The problem occurs when police or prosecutors become convinced that a suspect is, in fact, flat-out guilty and go too far to build an iron-clad case. They may — and there is a mountain of proof that this happens — pressure suspects into making false statements, misrepresent evidence and shade their testimony on the stand. It’s called “testilying.”

The Coalition for Accountability in Police Contracts, which includes the ACLU and other groups, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Police Accountability Task Force and a U.S. Justice Department report all have outlined reforms that should be written into the next police contract. Chicago then will be in a better position to investigate allegations of inappropriate police conduct, and be better able to weed out the relatively few bad cops who engage in repeated misconduct.

  • People should be able to make anonymous complaints about police misbehavior, for example, without the requirement of a sworn affidavit or having their name turned over before an officer is questioned about an allegation. The current rules discourage people from coming forward because they fear retaliation.
  • The city should not allow police officers to wait 24 hours before providing a statement after a police-involved shooting and should not allow officers to amend their statements after reviewing video or audio evidence. Also, a ban on rewards for whistle-blowing officers should be excised from the contract. That’s no way to ensure accurate internal investigations.
  • The city should eliminate rules that hide habitual police misconduct. It should be acceptable to use past disciplinary records in investigating complaints. A provision that requires the destruction of police misconduct records should be eliminated. It should no longer be necessary for the police superintendent to authorize action on complaints that are five years old or older.
  • The new collective bargaining agreement also should do away with limitations on how interrogators can ask questions of officers when they are investigating police misconduct.

The police union’s job is to negotiate the best contract it can for its members.

The city’s job is negotiate a contract that serves all of its citizens — police and civilians alike.

Better police work begins with greater community trust, and we only wish the FOP would reflect more on how to make that happen.

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