Updated February 24, 10:35 a.m.
Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson’s explanation for putting an officer with 90 misconduct complaints in command of a busy West Side district is not sitting well with some experts appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to study the city’s police-discipline system.
“The number of complaints here certainly raises some red flags,” said former federal prosecutor Sergio Acosta, who served on Emanuel’s Police Accountability Task Force.
Cmdr. James Sanchez’s complaint tally was first reported by WBEZ on Tuesday. Two of the complaints focused on his role as lead detective in a murder investigation that led to a $750,000 city settlement with an alleged gang member who claimed the police had framed him for the crime.
After the WBEZ report, Johnson defended the promotion.
“He has the support of the community, he’s done a phenomenal job during his career, and he has my support,” Johnson said. “The fact that you have an allegation doesn’t mean you’re automatically guilty of something. That’s why it’s investigated. So, because they are not sustained allegations, that should not hold him back or anyone else.”
But the task force concluded last year that “every stage” of the city’s police-discipline system is “plagued by serious structural and procedural flaws that make real accountability nearly impossible.” The U.S. Department of Justice echoed that conclusion last month when it unveiled its own report on how the police department systematically violated the Constitutional rights of citizens.
Ron Safer, a former top official of the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago, said CPD needs to be more careful with its promotions. He said officers face a “crisis state in lack of confidence” since the 2015 release of a video showing a white cop fatally shooting black teen Laquan McDonald.
“I agree 100 percent with the superintendent when he says a complaint does not equal misconduct, just like an arrest does not equal a conviction, but would you appoint someone who was arrested 90 times to a position of trust in your organization?” said Safer, who identified flaws in the police-discipline system in a 2014 report commissioned by Emanuel’s office.
“You have to be scrupulous in scrubbing somebody’s background, making sure that you know that this is somebody who is not only above reproach but appears above reproach and will restore people’s faith in law enforcement,” Safer said.
Acosta said he is troubled not only by Sanchez’s large number of complaints but by a WBEZ finding that 16 of the beefs against him also alleged misconduct by imprisoned former cop Jerome Finnigan.
Acosta called Finnigan “one of the most corrupt police officers in the history of the Chicago Police Department” and noted that Finnigan, like Sanchez, had a long history of complaints for which he had almost never been punished by the department.
Finnigan pleaded guilty to robbery and tax evasion and to planning a hit on a fellow cop. Those crimes took place after he worked with Sanchez.
Johnson promoted Sanchez to commander last August and put him in charge of the department’s Ogden District, which includes parts of the North Lawndale and Little Village neighborhoods.
Ald. Ricardo Muñoz, whose 22nd Ward is mostly within the district, said Sanchez has impressed him for more than a decade.
“He’s a good officer, he’s a good commander, and he’s done a really good job,” Muñoz said. “I’m comfortable in knowing that the large majority of complaints against him were unfounded.”
On Wednesday, Emanuel said Sanchez has done well as a commander against his district’s gun violence, burglaries and robberies.
Asked later how promoting an officer with so many complaints fits the city’s goal of building community trust in the police, Emanuel’s office emailed a statement: “The mayor does not get involved with personnel matters or promotional decisions of the (police) department. He knows how seriously the superintendent takes (the task of) identifying the command staff that will best serve the unique needs of the district.”
Police Board President Lori Lightfoot, who chaired the mayor’s task force, said in an email that she believes that “deference should be given to the superintendent’s promotion decisions.”
“The superintendent invariably has more complete information and, ultimately, he wears the jacket for any success or failure of his promotion decisions,” Lightfoot wrote.
But Lightfoot added that high numbers of complaints, “whether sustained or not, rightfully raise questions.”
Joseph Ferguson, the city’s inspector general, said Sanchez’s complaint tally and his ties to Finnigan beg police department scrutiny far more rigorous than “relying solely on surface-level statistics,” such as the number of complaints for which Sanchez was found at fault.
“We don’t know that’s what happened here,” said Ferguson, who served with Acosta and Lightfoot on the mayor’s task force. “But if that is what happened here, that could be problematic in light of these red flags and particularly in light of the findings of the task force and the Department of Justice.”
Ferguson said a police watchdog unit the city is setting up within the inspector general’s office “will be watching” whether the police department is identifying red flags in complaint histories and then “looking under the hood, especially when we have numbers like this (for officers) in leadership positions in the department.”