Chicago police fail to register sex offenders 601 times in just three months

May 28, 2014

(WBEZ/Robert Wildeboer)
Men line up outside Chicago Police Department Headquarters in February, hoping to register as the law requires.

Updated June 6, 6 p.m.

On February 13 of this year, Bruce Harley went to the Chicago Police Department Headquarters to register as a sex offender. He was one of 22 people who were turned away that day because the office was simply too busy. That’s according to police records. A month later, on March 21, Bruce Harley was approached by Chicago police officers on the West Side of Chicago.

According to an arrest report, Harley wasn’t doing anything illegal but was “loitering in an area known for narcotic activity.” Officers ran Harley’s name and found he had failed to register. Harley told the officers he had tried to register on February 13 but had been turned away. He was arrested anyway and is now in the Cook County Jail, where it costs taxpayers $52,000 a year to house him.

I first heard about sex offenders being prevented from registering a few months ago. I spent several days waiting in line with offenders outside the criminal registration office at Chicago police headquarters. I couldn’t believe it when officers came out of the office and told dozens of men who had been waiting for hours that they might as well go home because the office was too busy to register them all. Then the officers warned the men that they could be arrested for failing to register even though they’d just waited for hours in line to do just that.

I went back several times and saw the same scenario play out.

'Setting people up to be violated'

“It’s like they’re purposely setting people up to be violated to go back to jail.  You can’t conclude nothing else but that,” said Reggie White as he tried to help his brother register back in February.

Another frustrated man who just gave his name as Terry said, “We’re the guys that are trying to do the right thing. We’re showing up here, we’re trying to do the right thing; we’re trying to follow the law to the letter of what’s on that piece of paper and they turn us away and say, sorry, but you can still be arrested. Yeah, well, how are we supposed to feel?”

Police records detail the failure

As officers turned offenders away, they wrote down the names of the offenders who had shown up. Using the Freedom of Information Act, WBEZ got copies of those lists. The lists have fields for name, date, time, several other things and then one space for “reason for being turned away.” In the first three months of this year the office turned people away 601 times, and in that space for the reason it put “capacity.”

In the first three months of this year the office turned people away 601 times and in that space for the reason it said, “capacity.” On some days, like January 14th for example, no one was turned away. But on February 14, 31 people were turned away because the office was at “capacity.” On March 4, 34 people were turned away; on  the 5th, 27 people; on the 6th, 26 people.

A semi-reluctant advocate

“These registrants try and follow the law. They try and report and register and fulfill their duties but the police department doesn’t let them and the police department isn’t fulfilling their responsibility to the public,” said attorney Patrick Morrissey in a recent interview in the lobby of the Cook County criminal court building at 26th and California. He had just come from a hearing where he was representing a sex offender who is currently in the Cook County Jail for failing to register.

A year and a half ago Morrissey was in his law office when he got a call from a sex offender who was having trouble registering with the Chicago Police Department. Morrissey was outraged, though his boss, who happens to also be his dad, was not too interested in getting involved in the issue. Morrissey pushed ahead anyway.

“By the City of Chicago refusing to register people and causing them to walk the streets unregistered subject to arrest, is unconscionable,” said Morrissey. “You know it doesn’t only harm these people who have to register and who are subject to arrest, but it harms the public because it detracts from what this law is about, about keeping track of people.”

It’s also costly, not for the police department, but for the taxpayers who have to fund the county jail where it costs $52,000 a year to house inmates. Morrissey has a client who went to the Chicago police registration office and was turned away and then later arrested for failing to register.

“He was in the Cook County Jail from about July of 2011 until April of 2014,” said Morrissey. “I think there’s a lot of people who are currently in the Cook County Jail on a failure to register charge.”

Morrissey is right. According to the Cook County Sheriff’s office, on April 25 of this year, there were 190 people in the jail on failure to register charges.

One of them was Bruce Harley, the guy I mentioned at the top of the story, who wasn’t doing anything illegal but was approached by police, and when they ran his name they found he had failed to register even though he’d tried to register.

In another example of penny wise but pound foolish, on January 22, police records show that Jerome Sanders, a homeless man, was turned away from the registration office because, not surprisingly, he didn’t have the hundred dollar fee sex offenders have to pay once a year. He was arrested less than two weeks later, February 3, for failure to register and is in the county jail, where he’s costing taxpayers $143 a day.

Or take Larry Hill. He went to police headquarters March 4, 5, 6 and 7. The records show that each time the Chicago police refused to register him because they were too busy. Finally on March 10 he made it into the office and he was arrested because something called an investigative alert had been issued for him. The Chicago police had been looking for this guy and for a week he’d been standing in a line outside CPD headquarters.

In the original version of this story we had one more example here of a man named Robert Mitchell who was turned away from the registration office because he was deaf and needed sign language assistance. According to Cook County records a Robert Mitchell was in jail in late April. WBEZ identified two dozen cases in which men who were turned away from CPD’s registration office and later turned up in jail. WBEZ brought all those cases to CPD and repeatedly asked before our story aired for information and reaction to those cases,  but got no information on the cases until several days after our story was published. The Chicago Police Department provided documents on only three cases. It did provide records showing that there are two Robert Mitchells and the one who was deaf, who was indeed turned away from the registration office, has not been arrested. He returned to the registration office and successfully registered. We regret the error. Over the last few months CPD has provided little information to WBEZ  as we have sought to report on this story.  CPD spokesperson Adam Collins has now promised an interview with the deputy chief in charge of the registration office.

Little information and some misinformation from Chicago Police

For several months WBEZ has repeatedly requested an interview with Police Supt. Garry McCarthy to have a substantive and thoughtful discussion about this complicated issue and for several months, he has refused, and he continues to refuse. Instead of insightful conversations we’ve gotten dismissive emails. We’ve also gotten written statements containing misleading information that minimizes the extent of the problem.

For example, in February, department spokesman Adam Collins sent us a 14-sentence statement saying the police department proactively sends the names of registrants who were turned away to the “Illinois State Police so they know the individual came in to register and he or she should not be subject to arrest.”

According to Tracie Newton with the Illinois State Police, which maintains the sex offender registration, that list from CPD is absolutely useless. Newton says CPD just started sending lists over one day without any discussion or explanation and there’s nothing in the statutes that allows the state police to do anything with the lists.

This past week, Collins sent another email statement saying the department is expanding the registration office and construction should be done by August. Collins provided no details about how much the project will cost or whether there will be additional officers detailed to that section. He also provided no explanation for the hundreds of men that have been turned away from the registration office and have been arrested or are subject to arrest.