THE WATCHDOGS: Even being seen with gang member sends 1,000s to jail

When the police pulled over the white Buick Regal he was riding in, Roderick Franklin told them he “was just getting a ride to have Easter breakfast.”

The officers didn’t dispute that. They arrested him anyway.

The cops — members of a “saturation” team working to suppress violence in West Humboldt Park — said they pulled over the car in April 2014 because its taillights weren’t working.

But when the police checked the names of everyone in the car, they learned that Franklin, a 45-year-old who struggled with a heroin habit, was on parole for drug possession. And they said one of the other passengers was a “self-admitted” member of the Four Corner Hustlers street gang.

To the officers, that meant Franklin had committed a crime just by sitting in the car: “unlawful contact” with a gang member while on parole. In Illinois, that’s an offense punishable by up to a year behind bars, even if no other crimes or gang activity occurred.

Under pressure to reduce gun violence, the Chicago Police Department has increasingly used the parole-violation law as a tool to get convicted felons off the street – though in many cases they’ve been accused of nothing other than being around neighbors or long-time acquaintances, the Chicago Sun-Times found.

UPDATE: Rauner signs bill to end arrests for parolees just for being seen with gang members, Aug. 23, 2017

Just a few years ago, the police in Chicago almost never locked anyone up for violating probation or parole. Now, they do it several times a day, on average.

From 2001 through 2012, the police made a total of 96 arrests for parole violations, city data show.

The number then rose to 338 in a single year, 2013. Then, it surged to 1,978 in 2015.

Arrests for all types of crimes plummeted last year after the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video led to more scrutiny of the police. But Chicago cops still remain on pace this year to arrest more than 900 people for parole violations.

“It’s a way to get them off the street” and also to make it easier for the police to keep tabs on gangs, says one veteran cop who spoke only on the condition that his name not be used.

He also offers a reason for the sudden rise in parole arrests, pointing out that it began after the city decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2012: “We can’t get them for weed anymore.”

The police have interpreted gang “contact” broadly. In some neighborhoods that have a large population of parolees, police have arrested people nearly everywhere — walking down the street, standing in a yard, talking with neighbors, sitting on a porch and riding in a car — for no criminal conduct other than having contact with a gang member, records show.

Some police reports don’t even name the gang member involved in the illegal contact. Others don’t say what their gang affiliations were, even though those associations were the reason given for the arrests.

And the definition of gang membership is also fluid. The police say people they pick up routinely admit their gang associations. In other cases, officers determine that though street investigations, then log the information into a department database.

Defense lawyers and others say the police often label people as being in a gang based solely on where they live.

The police defend their use of the gang-contact law, saying it helps them get dangerous repeat offenders off the streets.

“State law prohibits parolees from having contact with other convicted felons or documented gang members, and the community wants to ensure parolees are in compliance with the terms of their release and not engaging in criminal activities,” police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi says.

Others argue that the law is vague and applied unfairly.

“It’s like a trap,” says state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a North Side Democrat who has proposed changes to the law.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy has introduced a bill that would change the gang-contact law to prohibit parolees from “street gang-related activity” rather than just any contact with a gang member. | Jacob Wittich / Sun-Times

Cassidy says the law restricts the movements of people trying to find work and turn their lives around after leaving prison. She says she’s heard of people concerned even about accepting a ride to work with a member of their own family for fear that could result in their arrest.

Cassidy also says the law does little to hinder gangs. “It doesn’t make us any safer because it doesn’t take anyone off the street who was doing a crime,” she says.

No one was admitted to state prison last year for the offense, according to Nicole Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections. Though police say they usually contact the parole officers of those they arrest, Wilson says IDOC officials rarely hear about allegations of unlawful gang contact.

“It has been IDOC’s policy to attempt to work with individuals in the community first, utilizing re-incarceration as a last resort,” Wilson says.

The Sun-Times also found:

• That arrests were concentrated on the South Side and on the West Side in neighborhoods with large populations of parolees, frequent gun violence and regular police stops. Tops was the 16th Ward, centered in Englewood on the South Side. That was followed by the 37th Ward (West), 15th (South), 28th (West), 20th (South) and 17th (South).

• From 2011 through November 2016, there were nearly 3,000 convictions in Cook County for street gang contact while on bail, probation, or parole, according to court records obtained by the Sun-Times.

• The number of convictions soared from 17 in 2011 to 1,033 in 2015.

• Seventy-eight percent of those convicted were African-American. Their average age was 25, though more than two dozen were older than 50 — including a 65-year-old man on parole for drug possession.

• Those convicted spent an average of three days in jail, though 23 men spent a month or more locked up.

All of those arrested for having illegal gang contact are convicted felons, and some of them were accused of engaging in what the police said was obvious gang activity. In April 2014, for instance, officers arrested a convicted burglar after they said they saw him leave a party in West Englewood thrown by a faction of the Gangster Disciples. He spent two days in jail.

Other cases are less clearcut. In 2015 and 2016, for example, the police zeroed in on a group of men they said grew up together in Austin and were members of the Four Corner Hustlers. The men said they were unfairly punished for where they lived.

Their arrests began in January 2015. That’s when police pulled over a Pontiac Grand Prix at Central and Hirsch for a “minor traffic violation,” though their report didn’t say what the violation was.

The passenger, 21-year-old DeMarrio Wyatt, was on parole for residential burglary, and the cops said the driver, who wasn’t named, was listed as a Four Corner Hustlers member in their gang database. Wyatt was arrested for unlawful gang contact. After sitting in jail for two days, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to the time he’d already served.

That April, Sergio Johnson, a friend of Wyatt, was stopped after officers said he was backing into a parking space too fast. On parole at the time for illegal gun possession, Johnson was arrested for having someone from the Four Corner Hustlers with him in the car.

Eight days later, the same cops arrested both Johnson and Wyatt, saying they appeared to be picking up bags off the ground, though no drugs were found.

In July 2015, the police stopped Johnson again. Their report doesn’t give a reason except that there had been violence in the area. They told Johnson he was under arrest for contact with gang members.

“I live here,” Johnson told the cops. “I cannot avoid these dudes.”

He went to jail for two days.

By mid-2016, Johnson had been arrested six times in a year and a half for unlawful gang contacts. Wyatt had been arrested eight times.

Within months last year, the men were charged in separate gun-possession cases. Wyatt’s was dismissed. Johnson’s is still open.

Attorney Keith Thiel: Gang contact law is “a reason to pull people over.”

Keith Thiel, the lawyer who defended Wyatt in his gun case, says he’s noticed the increase in arrests for gang contacts. Thiel suspects it’s a way for police to claim they have probable cause to stop and search people.

“It’s kind of like tinted windows — it’s a reason to pull people over,” Thiel says. “The problem I have is: How do you know they’re still in a gang? It also strikes me as potentially unconstitutional, like a violation of freedom of assembly. It’s just another weapon in the [police] arsenal, though I’m not sure how many more they need.”

Before he was paroled last fall, Edward Williams says he was warned by corrections officials to avoid even casual interactions with gang members or others on parole — which would include thousands of people who live near him on the West Side.

“They said I couldn’t be around any friends if they’re on probation or parole,” says Williams, 35, convicted last year of fleeing a police officer in Will County. “They said we could be talking about a job or anything, even getting back on track, and the police can arrest you for that.”

Now that he’s home, Williams says he’s focused on trying to find a job and that he tries to stick close to his family. But even that could be a problem.

State Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago: “I think the term ‘gang’ or ‘street gang’ still just triggers a negative, punitive line of thinking.” | Sun-Times files

“I have a cousin on parole,” he says. “Am I not supposed to talk to my cousin? Like at a family gathering or something?”

Cassidy’s proposal to change the gang-contact law would prohibit parolees from “street gang-related activity” rather than just any contact with a gang member.

Another bill, introduced by state Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, would provide exceptions for “pro-social” activities such as church services, volunteering or family events. Slaughter’s bill appears to have a greater chance of advancing in Springfield, with Cassidy and 14 other Democrats signing on as cosponsors.

But Slaughter, who represents a South Side district, says it will be a challenge to convince other lawmakers: “I think the term ‘gang’ or ‘street gang’ still just triggers a negative, punitive line of thinking.”

“Society wants it both ways,” says Frederick Seaton, who works with shooting victims and their families for the Institute for Nonviolence, a West Side organization. “Society wants us to be tough on crime — and respect people’s civil rights. So that’s a sticky one.”

Frederick Seaton: “Society wants us to be tough on crime — and respect people’s civil rights.” | John Sturdy / Chicago Reader

RELATED STORY: THE WATCHDOGS: Boom in parolees hits Chicago’s West Side, June 26, 2016

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Previously from Chicago News