Discipline eased for cops in former Rep. Bobby Rush’s office amid looting

Mayor Lori Lightfoot vowed accountability for the officers, but the penalties have been softened or eliminated, mostly in arbitration.

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U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush looks on June 11, 2020, as Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot condemns police officers caught on surveillance video lounging in the congressman’s campaign office during looting that devastated swaths of the city.

Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

A few days after protests and looting engulfed Chicago following George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police in 2020, Mayor Lori Lightfoot held a news conference at City Hall with Police Supt. David Brown and U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush.

They projected images from surveillance video showing uniformed police officers inside Rush’s campaign office on the South Side during the unrest.

Lightfoot said they were “having a little hangout for themselves while small businesses on the South Side were getting looted and burned.”

Rush said some of the officers had their feet up, one was asleep on his couch, and some “even had the unmitigated gall to go and make coffee for themselves and to pop popcorn — my popcorn — in my microwave.”

Cops across the city had worked extended shifts and their days off had been canceled, but the mayor vowed “the strongest possible action” against the officers.

Brown called the incident a “seminal moment” and promised “strict discipline.”

Three years later, Lightfoot has been unseated, Brown has resigned, Rush has retired from Congress and — outside public view — punishment for the 18 officers caught inside Rush’s office has been watered down, according to records obtained by WBEZ.

Arbitrators who make the final decisions on police union grievances have reduced or eliminated suspensions for 14 of the cops and tossed out a reprimand for another. Discipline for two other officers stalled when they left city employment. And the city has settled with the lieutenant in charge of the officers that night, slashing his 30-day suspension to eight days.

Altogether, 141 CPD-ordered suspension days for the officers have been chopped to 33 days, according to the records, obtained under Illinois’ open-records law.

Arbitrations that weaken or throw out CPD-ordered punishments are par for the course, the city’s inspector general found in a 2021 report. Some experts in law and policing say the arbitration mechanism, in its current form, stymies officer accountability and harms public safety.

“The system works like a ‘get out of jail free’ card for police officers,” said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who heads a civil rights and police accountability project for the school. “Everyone is less safe when officers are allowed impunity.”

Suspensions for police bosses slashed

The officers in the incident normally worked in a Southwest Side patrol district, according to police records. On May 31, 2020, however, they were ordered to work a 12-hour shift starting at 7 p.m. at Guaranteed Rate Field, a police staging area during the unrest. Around 7:45 p.m., they were loaded onto a CTA bus that brought them to quell looting at a Jewel Osco supermarket on 87th Street near the Dan Ryan Expressway.

At about 9 p.m., a bus took them to clear out looters from a strip mall near Garfield Boulevard and Wentworth Avenue. That job took less than an hour, according to police records. But officers said their food and water for the shift were stolen, the bus drove away, and temperatures were dropping.

The mall included Rush’s office, which was unlocked and had a broken window, according to police records. The cops entered around 12:40 a.m. and stayed for about four hours.

An investigation by CPD’s Bureau of Internal Affairs concluded the officers broke a rule against bringing “discredit” to the department. Officers were accused of entering and remaining without authorization, sleeping on duty, using the congressman’s phone, consuming his popcorn and coffee, and leaving the office in disarray.

Three supervisors — Donald Jones Jr., the lieutenant, and Anil Hamid and Glenn Polanek, both sergeants — faced additional charges of “inattention to duty” for failing to address the misconduct.

But unions for the officers challenged the charges and punishments through grievance procedures spelled out in their contracts — procedures in which an arbitrator has the final word.

An arbitrator found the 15-day suspensions ordered for the sergeants were “punitive rather than seeking to correct.” He shortened the suspensions to five days each.

Penalties for other cops eased or tossed

The arbitration hearing for 13 of the rank-and-file cops took place March 24 at the Chicago office of their union, the Fraternal Order of Police. The name of the arbitrator was redacted in CPD’s response to WBEZ’s open-records request.

The arbitrator found the officers who slept on duty “were not loafing” but merely “emotionally and physically exhausted.”

According to the decision, Brown’s suspension orders — ranging from five to 10 days — were “excessive and inappropriate.”

The arbitrator pointed to a 2021 report by Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson’s office that ripped the Police Department’s lack of preparation for the riots and wrote, “The record clearly established they stood with their fellow officers to protect the city.”

For seven officers, the arbitrator reduced the suspensions to durations between one and 5 days. For the remaining six cops, the arbitrator tossed out their punishments and ordered their records to be expunged.

The FOP quoted from that arbitration ruling in its member newsletter and touted the results as “examples of how we are able to reduce disciplinary action by the department.”

But Rush, informed of the grievance outcomes by WBEZ, called them a step backward for the city.

“Justice was sacrificed at the altar of Chicago’s sacred police bureaucracy,” said Rush, a former Black Panther Party leader. “None of it bodes well for trusting the Chicago Police Department and the city of Chicago’s commitment to provide responsible public safety.”

Financial incentives

Another 2021 report by the city inspector general’s office looked at more than three years of CPD disciplinary cases, including 370 in which one of the unions filed a grievance against discipline. In more than 78% of those, the discipline was reduced or eliminated, usually by an arbitrator.

Under the unions’ contracts with the city, the sides have equal say in selecting each case’s arbitrator. The IG’s office found that 90% of the completed arbitrations were assigned to just three arbitrators.

Critics say the selection process sets up financial incentives for arbitrators to issue split decisions and to dilute discipline.

“It’s a cash cow for them,” Futterman, the law professor, said. “They’re not going to get business unless they keep the unions happy.”

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