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When is jail guard force brutal and excessive?

Guard Branden Norise strikes Cook County Jail inmate Randall Brown, as captured in a 2013 video. (BGA website)

Jails are tough places — filled with inmates who are frequently angry, aggressive and unpredictable.

That poses daunting challenges for guards who have to use the right amount of muscle to keep the peace.

So what’s appropriate force — the physical steps necessary, and justifiable, to control a volatile situation?

And what’s excessive — brutal and injurious?

OPINION

Those questions, which have been swirling around the Chicago Police Department for months, also surfaced during a recent Better Government Association investigation of excessive force complaints, and how they’re handled, at the Cook County Jail.

“Exhibit A” is a video of a 2013 incident, and maybe you’ll have an opinion after you check it out on our website.

Here’s a quick summary: A burly guard, Branden Norise, walks into a holding cell, where a smaller inmate, Randall Brown, is standing near the door.

An exchange of words quickly escalates to jostling before Norise knocks Brown to the floor and begins pummeling the curled up inmate with a series of punches and kicks to the head, then puts on handcuffs and calls for assistance.

It looks violent and feels excessive, and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who manages the jail, agrees, referring the incident to State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s office for criminal prosecution.

But Norise is never charged, and three years later he’s still on the job at a taxpayer-funded salary of $57,000.

So what happened?

Alvarez, whose handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting contributed to her March primary defeat, decided not to charge Norise because, a spokeswoman says:

“Video showed the detainee was the initial aggressor and punched the officer twice before the officer struck back.”

At the administrative level, Dart placed Norise on unpaid leave and recommended firing after his internal affairs unit determined the guard had used excessive force.

At a hearing of the Merit Board, the sheriff’s disciplinary panel, a supervisor said Norise punched and kicked Brown “approximately five to seven additional times that were not warranted.”

Norise told the board he kept going because he didn’t “feel he had control” of Brown, and the board cleared him of any wrongdoing, finding his actions didn’t violate department rules.

Dart is challenging the decision in court, and if he loses Norise will receive an estimated $117,000 in back pay.

We wondered if this case is typical of systemic abuse and a lack of accountability at the jail, as it’s been for decades at CPD, or an outlier — an anomaly?

BGA investigators found:

+ Nearly 1,100 excessive force complaints were filed against jail personnel over the past seven years — about three per week.

+ 99 of them, or nine percent, were sustained by internal affairs.

+ 46, or four percent, resulted in suspensions of a day to a month.

+ But only four jail officers have been terminated by the Merit Board, and just six have faced criminal prosecution.

Our findings, and the confusing twists in the Norise case, tell me it’s time for an evaluation of disciplinary procedures at the jail, including a review of a Merit Board that is either scrupulously protecting the rights of guards unjustly targeted by Dart, or protecting rogue guards to the dismay of Dart and his staff.

County jail may not grab headlines like CPD, but many of the issues are similar, and we should keep shining a bright light on this often overlooked institution too, regardless of who you think made the right call in the altercation video.

Andy Shaw is president & CEO of the Better Government Association

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Follow Andy Shaw on Twitter: Follow @andyshawbga