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Marijuana use, rap sheets mean more wannabe Chicago cops get rejected on appeal

Applicants to be Chicago cops who initially get rejected are having a harder time winning appeals to be put on the police eligibility list than in the past. Here, police officers attend a graduation and promotion ceremony at Navy Pier. | Getty Images

Rejected applicants to become Chicago cops are having a harder time winning appeals to be placed on the police eligibility list than in the past, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis has found.

The city’s Human Resources Board rules on appeals from applicants rejected because of problems in their backgrounds. From 2005 to 2007, the three-member board appointed by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley ruled in favor of one-third of those who filed appeals.

But the board now seems to be taking a tougher stance. Reviewing decisions that the current board, appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, made in the appeals of the 90 Chicago Police Department candidates rejected this year during the current police-hiring binge, the Sun-Times found that 13 percent of the board’s decisions through September resulted in a candidate being placed on the eligibility list.

“I think the police are being a lot stricter,” says Salvador Cicero, chairman of the board.

Salvador Cicero, chairman of the city’s Human Resources Board. | Cicero Vargas Law Firm
Salvador Cicero, chairman of the city’s Human Resources Board. | Cicero Vargas Law Firm

The tougher stance on rejected applicants’ appeals is happening at a time Emanuel is trying add 1,000 cops over the number the city had two years ago.

In the mid-2000s, clout seemed to reign in the appeals process, according to a Sun-Times analysis done in 2008. At that time, rejected police applicants armed with letters of recommendation from elected officials, high-level cops and business people were likely to win their appeals.

More than a decade later, clout appears to play less of a role. A who’s-who of Chicago’s elite wrote recommendation letters for rejected police candidates whose appeals were heard this year. There were letters from two current and one former Chicago aldermen, two Chicago police commanders and a former deputy chief, a former head of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in Chicago, suburban mayors and police chiefs, as well as even department store heir Marshall Field V and restaurateur Richard Melman.

Only two of those 15 clout-heavy candidates were successful in appealing their rejections, board records show.

“I do not place any weight on whether someone was recommended by somebody,” Cicero says.

One thing hasn’t changed: Rejected police candidates who have attorneys work on their appeals have a far better chance of winning a favorable decision from the board than those who represent themselves. This year, seven of the 21 candidates with attorneys were returned to the eligibility list, compared with five of the 69 without lawyers.

The Sun-Times’ review also found that the Chicago Police Department’s screening process weeded out plenty of applicants who previously had gotten hired by other government agencies. Of the 90 rejected candidates whose cases have been decided this year, at least 25 were on a public payroll. The Human Resources Board found in favor of only three of them.

They included:

  • A special education classroom assistant for the Chicago Public Schools who admitted smoking marijuana three times in college in 2013 and using Adderall without a prescription. Also, he’d been arrested on a domestic battery charge in college. His lawyer persuaded the board that his client shouldn’t be disqualified because his pot smoking wasn’t within two years of his application in 2016, his Adderall use was “isolated” and the domestic battery charge was dismissed. Among those writing letters supporting the candidate were then-Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd).
  • A CPS mentor for at-risk high school dropouts who was arrested about 20 years ago, accused of taking part in a beating, riding in a stolen car, possessing crack cocaine and pushing someone during a squabble. She wasn’t convicted of any of those crimes. The board accepted her statement that none of that happened, despite police reports that were filed.
  • A Chicago charter high school teacher who initially was rejected for having a $23,000 debt and saying on her application that the police had never questioned her in a criminal investigation. A hearing officer for the board found that her debt for medical expenses was “reasonable,” though other candidates with less debt have lost appeals over that. The hearing officer also said he believed the teacher that she didn’t think being “interviewed” was the same as being “investigated.” In 2007, the Chicago police and child-welfare officials had interviewed her about an allegation she had sexually abused a student. She was never charged.

Of those who lost their appeals this year, at least nine worked for other law enforcement agencies, and there were three additional CPS employees, including a teacher who admitted selling $10 of pot as a teenager, board records show.

Others who appealed their rejections included a CTA train operator on the Blue Line, two Stateville correctional officers, a state prison guard in Indiana, a Chicago aviation security officer at O’Hare Airport, a federal Transportation Security Administration worker at O’Hare and several Chicago traffic aides.

The problems discovered in their backgrounds included having been arrested for theft, burglary, driving under the influence and, in the case of one Illinois correctional officer, stabbing her boyfriend during an argument.

Frank Main / Sun-Times
Frank Main / Sun-Times

Many admitted prior drug use. The CTA employee was rejected after admitting she sold marijuana in 2013 when she was struggling financially after a divorce. At a hearing, she said she couldn’t remember how many times she’d sold pot. The woman is continuing to operate a CTA train, records show.

One of the rejected candidates opted not to continue his appeal. He previously had been fired from a suburban police department. In a letter to the board, he said he “put my law enforcement career behind me” and accepted a job with the Cubs.

In July, Cicero, the chairman of the Human Resources Board, told the City Council’s Committee on Workforce Development that the police department has quietly relaxed its hiring standards to eliminate past marijuana use as an automatic disqualifier.

Since July, though, the board has continued to reject people who have admitted smoking marijuana. In September, one man lost his appeal after admitting he smoked marijuana just once within three years of filling out his personal history questionnaire. During a hearing on the man’s case, Special Assistant Corporation Counsel Sanaa Khan said the man’s pot use was a “mandatory disqualification.”

“The CPD is very strict when it comes to usage after they have started the application process,” Khan told the hearing officer.

The man, a counselor at a family services agency, told the board, “This incident back in 2014 does not define the person that I am today.”

In September, an Illinois correctional officer lost his appeal after he was found to have used marijuana more than 200 times in three years. And a woman who said on her personal history questionnaire that she smoked marijuana a single time, in 2012, but in a later interview said the year that happened was 2013 was found to have provided false information and lost her appeal, too, board records show.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (left) with Mayor Rahm Emanuel before a Chicago City Council meeting in 2015. | AP
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (left) with Mayor Rahm Emanuel before a Chicago City Council meeting in 2015. | AP

In December, the mayor opened the possibility of allowing candidates with minor drug and criminal offenses to be hired by the police department. And in July, Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the Chicago City Council’s Black Caucus, said he wanted the city to relax its hiring standards, saying, “I don’t want youthful indiscretions to be a prohibiting factor for being able to serve on the police department.

But Cicero says he and the other two board members haven’t gotten any instructions from City Hall on how tough they should be on candidates. They decide each case on its merits, he says.

The board agreed to place one rejected applicant on the hiring eligibility list despite a criminal conviction for pleading guilty in 2000 to stealing a pair of shoes. He had told a hearing officer, “I didn’t purposely go with the intention to steal.” The board decided his crime didn’t indicate he had a “propensity for dishonestly.”

In recent years, the police department has increasingly challenged the board’s decisions to restore rejected applicants to the eligibility list, Cicero says.

Beginning with former Supt. Garry McCarthy, who held that post from 2011 to 2015, the department’s appeals to the Cook County circuit court have been rising, he says.

“The circuit court has reversed us quite a few times,” Cicero says. “Nobody represents our point of view.”

He says the city’s recent hiring spree poses a challenge for his board. He hopes to hire two new hearing officers to address a growing number of appeals to the board from rejected police candidates.


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