Chicago police refuse to make a single call on strange police video

May 8, 2012

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WBEZ/Robert Wildeboer
A police pod camera on the west side of Chicago

The Chicago Police Department is refusing to make any inquiries into a somewhat strange police video obtained by WBEZ. The footage shows a police blue light camera seemingly being diverted from an area where officers are rushing in to make arrests. WBEZ reported on the suspicious video several months ago and has repeatedly asked for more information, but the department has simply refused.

The footage comes from one of the police pod cameras, the blue light cameras put up in high crime neighborhoods. It shows the camera on a methodical, preprogrammed tour where it does a 360-degree rotation every minute. Then a call goes into the police precinct about a disturbance on the street. An officer somewhere takes control of the camera and ends up pointing it down the sidewalk and into some tree branches where nothing is visible. Ten minutes later when the camera returns to its regular rotation, there are no less than 19 police cars on the street, and all those officers, the arrests they made using force, none of it is caught on tape. So the question one at least has to ask is, Did an officer intentionally divert the camera?

Several months ago when I was first reporting on this video I put that question – and several others --to Jonathan Lewin, who’s in charge of technology for the Chicago Police Department. His first answer kind of set the tone for the interview.

“Well, without talking specifically about this case or any specific details about this video clip, I’ll talk in general about cameras and how they work,” said Lewin.

Lewin was able to provide a lot of helpful information about the camera technology, but he wouldn’t talk about this particular video and he repeatedly made that clear saying, “And again I’m not talking about this case in particular but...” or, “and again I don’t know what happened in this case but….”

So Lewin wouldn’t talk about this footage, but he says there is oversight to make sure the cameras are not abused. Officers who control the cameras have user IDs and passwords. Lewin says, “All the usage is logged so, as in this case, any action that a camera operator takes is recorded and can then be reviewed later by a supervisor.”

So according to Lewin it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out who was controlling the camera that night.

After I interviewed Cmdr. Lewin I talked to the former head of the Chicago police, Jody Weis.

“Clearly there are some questions and somebody needs to ask those and find out how did this happen and then if it was intentionally diverted, okay, now we have to figure ways that that can’t happen,” Weis said.

Weis said when he was superintendent, he had trouble with cops turning off the cameras in their cars, and then when they’d get in accidents there would be no footage to prove anything one way or the other.

Over the past few months, I have been asking the department to find out what happened in this pod camera case, how this camera ended up pointed towards the trees, who moved it there and why. I wasn’t getting answers from the department’s press office, so I once brought the issue up with Superintendent Garry McCarthy when he was leaving our studios. McCarthy said there could be a completely innocent explanation. Perhaps the officer got called away from the controls and that’s why the camera was focused on nothing at all. I told him our listeners would like to know that, and if there’s a less innocent reason our listeners would like to know that as well. McCarthy told me to follow up with the press office.

After several more weeks and a number of inquiries on my part, police spokeswoman Maureen Biggane emailed me a statement saying the department stood by the information given by Cmdr. Lewin. But of course Cmdr. Lewin didn’t give me any information specific to this video; he talked simply in general terms.

In her written statement, Biggane also said, “An investigation was not conducted related to the use of the camera because there was no indication of improper use.” She said the department did not make a single call to check out what happened here.

Attorney Torri Hamilton said she is not terribly surprised by this lack of follow up.

She said it’s just one more example of the police department refusing to aggressively investigate potential misconduct. “They have something very easy they can look into and make a determination what happened here and they just don’t.  I don’t know why. Wouldn’t they want to know that?  Shouldn’t they want to know that?” asks Hamilton.

Hamilton is an attorney in Chicago, and she worked on the case that unearthed this police video. She’s been a Cook County prosecutor, and she was a senior supervising attorney for the City of Chicago’s law department where she defended police officers. Now she spends much of her time suing those officers and from all those experiences, she’s concluded that Chicago has a broken police accountability and disciplinary system. And it’s not that she’s just anti-cop. Hamilton says her mom was a police officer.

“My mom was a police officer that actually believed in doing things the way you’re supposed to do them and she actually believed in the constitution,” she said.

Hamilton said she thinks police officers think of themselves as warriors in the “trenches” doing a dangerous job together.

“And this is all true stuff, but where things go off the rails is when that leads to a mentality that therefore, they can bend the rules,” said Hamilton.

Hamilton said that trench mentality prevents good officers from reporting the misdeeds of the bad officers. And it means the bad cops don’t get weeded out. Hamilton said she sees the same officers named in lawsuits over and over.

“In a corporation this would never occur.  It would just, it would never happen.,” said Hamilton. “The shareholders would never allow for the corporation to not remove this problem, and yet here in the city of Chicago we have to watch as our city does not do anything about these repeat offender police officers, again and again and again, and it’s disheartening.”

In a recent investigation by the Chicago Reporter, journalist Angela Caputo went through court records and found that of 441 cases in which the city paid out money in three-year period, one third of them involved repeaters. In fact, numerous officers were named in at least five cases. Caputo writes that one percent of the police department was responsible for 25 percent of the court payouts.

Attorney Torri Hamilton said when officers are named in several lawsuits, then the disciplinary system is broken. She said she recognizes that people make frivolous complaints against officers, but most of those get winnowed down by the time they get to court.

“When a complaint makes it as far as a lawsuit, an attorney has looked at it and has decided to take a chance on it and if a police officer has multiple, multiple lawsuits, it’s been my experience then when you then get the police officer’s complaint history, it’s large, there’s a lot of complaints against that police officer that never led to a lawsuit,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said there is a small group of officers in Chicago, about 600, who have racked up multiple complaints. She said it’s not that they’re making all of the arrests while the other 10,000 cops on the force do nothing. She said they’re getting repeated complaints because they’re doing something wrong and the department refuses to address the problem.