Study: Police Board Doesn't Fire Many Cops | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Study: Police Board Doesn't Fire Many Cops

When Chicago's Police Superintendent wants to fire an officer for misconduct he has to get approval from the Chicago Police Board. A study being released today by the Chicago Justice Project finds that more often than not, the board overrules the superintendent and keeps cops on the force. In a city familiar with police scandals, this board of civilians is the highest level of police accountability, yet it most often works in obscurity.

George Wilford Smith is one of the few people who actually goes to Chicago Police Board meetings. He and his friend Larry Marshall claim to have attended every meeting over the last nine years and they've been at every one I've been to. Before this month's meeting, as usual, Smith sat in a chair yelling at everybody and nobody.

SMITH: Why don't the Police turn in the bad cops then and lead by example.

Smith always looks around for reactions from the many cops standing in the room.

SMITH: You get all the dirty cops out, maybe the neighborhood will cooperate with you.

Across the aisle Justina Bass sits with her Northeastern Illinois Univeristy classmates.

BASS: I think it is very crazy this man is acting like a total complete fool and misrepresenting our race, you know?
CLASSMATE: He's not with our group.

The whole scene is unfortunately laughable and it doesn't get much better. When the meeting starts, those who have signed up are invited to the mic to speak for two minutes. Robert Moore holds a camera in his right hand to videotape himself addressing the board and keeps messing with the one inch screen and soon board president Demetrius Carney tells him his two minutes are up.

CARNEY: Thanks you...
MOORE: The point is...
CARNEY: ...meeting is adjourned.
And with that George Wilford Smith resumes yelling at everyone and nobody. It's a typical Chicago Police Board meeting. Poorly attended, only 15 minutes long, seemingly useless and largely ignored.

SISKA: I'm not sure what the benefits are to keeping those meetings going as they're going.

Tracy Siska runs the Chicago Justice Project, a group he started a couple years ago as part of his Ph.D. studies at UIC. It isn't just these meetings Siska wants people to question: Today, he's releasing a study looking at 10 years of Police Board votes in police misconduct cases.

But before we get to that, a quick primer on the board. If a citizen lodges a complaint against an officer it's investigated by internal affairs or the Independent Police Review Authority depending on the allegation. Most cases are thrown out because it's the officer's word against one witness. The handful of complaints that are sustained go to the superintendent but to fire the officer he has to get the approval of the civilian board and it turn's out, that's tough.

SISKA: Basically, two-thirds of the time, they're keeping officers that the department, wants that officer fired.

Siska says one of the most egregious cases is that of William Cozzi. The officer handcuffed a man to a wheelchair and then beat him and it was all caught on tape. The superintendent sought to fire Cozzi but the board gave him a two-year suspension instead.

SISKA: The police board wasn't brought in to keep officers who beat people on videotape for no reason. Not supposed to keep them on the force.

It took an indictment from federal prosecutors to get Cozzi off the force. Siska's review of police board votes from 1999 to 2009 found that when superintendents did seek to fire sworn officers, in 20 percent of the cases, not only did the board refuse to fire them, but it didn't even discipline the officers.

SISKA: Someone, somewhere in there, that number is begging, begging the authorities to take a look at and re-tool somewhere. Now either people are being brought in there for no reason or the police board is overturning cases they shouldn't.

CARNEY: We act as an impartial body.

Demetrius Carney is the president of the police board. He says Siska's numbers don't take into account that the board's role is to act like a judge hearing all the evidence. The accused officer is like a defendant and the police department acts like a prosecutor.

CARNEY: The superintendent has to prove his case.

For example, Carney says the board overturned the superintendent a hundred percent of the time in domestic abuse cases because the evidence wasn't there to fire the officer.

CARNEY: Many times the spouse will not appear at the hearing so you don't have a witness.

That's the kind of disturbing pattern that Siska says can be identified and corrected only if the police board is forced to provide written explanations for each of its decisions. He's working with aldermen to get such an ordinance through the city council, hoping that would help restore confidence in police and the entire process.

Music Button: The Devin Kelly Organ Trio, "Night Mist Blues", from the CD First Things First, (DPK)

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