Police Lawsuits Adding Up
Jesse Barrera left his cousin's house on an unusually balmy night in October. He drove northbound on Homan Avenue and got blocked in traffic.
BARRERA: Then I started to get impatient after about 5-10 minutes, somewhere in that time frame, I started to beat my horn.
He says he didn't realize he was honking at plain-clothed police officers.
BARRERA: And when I did that, they came charging at me and pretty much dragged me out of my car and cuffed me and started beating me up and everything. I was just an innocent bystander waiting in traffic and dragged out of my car and got beaten down by three police officers.
Bloody and bruised, Barrera went to a police station to file a report. Then he got a lawyer and filed a lawsuit. Barrera just got word that the city has settled for $50,000. The majority of police settlement cases aren't million-dollar whoppers-they're smaller cases like this one-and get settled for fifty or twenty or five thousand dollars. They're often labeled as "violation of civil rights." It's a term that encompasses a variety of allegations such as illegal search and seizure; false arrest, malicious prosecution and extended detention. There's also excessive force. Sometimes there are hundreds of such cases each year.
HORWITZ: If you turn back the clock ten to fifteen years ago, you'll see there was very little reported relative to police misconduct because quite frankly, people wouldn't believe in it.
Blake Horwitz represents Barrera. The lawyer has made his lot in police misconduct cases and says he has won $19 million for clients in Chicago.
HORWITZ: Today's jury people may question, is this police officer telling the truth? Is the mere fact that he's a police officer, does that mean I'm going to believe him?
He says today's judges are also less reticent to believe officers would engage in misconduct. Over at the city of Chicago Law Department, Karen Seimetz says she has noticed more police misconduct cases coming to her office. However…
SEIMETZ: One shouldn't suppose because a lawsuit's been settled that's because we believe somehow that the officer did something wrong.
It may simply be a case that's a combination of factors. Not the least of which is the expense of taking a case to trial. But she insists the settlements aren't a cause for alarm or concern given the high pressure situations officers face.
SEIMETZ: Again, the police department is our largest client because they have 13,000 employees who are out in the streets on a daily basis dealing with the public, in high pressure situations. Not the same as someone in Streets and Sans who's maybe going to get into an accident.
It's true that other big city police departments - such as New York - wrack up large settlement bills and chalk it up to "the cost of doing business." But Chicago's rate of disciplining offending officers accused of misconduct is among the lowest in the country. A University of Chicago Law School study [pdf] found that between 2002 and 2004, civilians filed more than 10,000 complaints of excessive force, illegal searches, racial abuse and sexual abuse. Only 19 of those complaints led to a suspension of a week or more. And that's why some activists are convinced lawsuits are the best way to fight back against brutality. Ra Chaka is part of the Justice Center in a storefront Roseland building. The paralegal passes out leaflets here, in Englewood, Humboldt Park and other communities.
CHAKA: It was important because there's a lot of violence and a lot of stuff going on in this community and the police just occupy us. Every time you're driving down the street you the police got somebody up against the wall or up against the car.
The center's been open about five months. Chaka's helped several people weigh whether to file a lawsuit. Taxpayers will be paying even more to settle police misconduct cases in the near future. Victims of police torture linked to the notorious former commander Jon Burge have yet to receive their million-dollar checks. It's a situation that's raising questions about what law enforcement itself thinks about police misconduct and what can be done.
I'm Natalie Moore, Chicago Public Radio.
And this is Robert Wildeboer. So, as we just heard, the city of Chicago settles lots of small lawsuits against police every year and they add up. So one of the questions is, does anyone actually look at the facts behind these lawsuits after they're settled or is that the end the line? Case closed.
ROSENZWEIG: I see lawsuits as a very important source of information.
That's Ilana Rosenzweig. She's the Chief administrator of the Independent Police Review Authority. Her staff investigates complaints against officers. If you like symbolism, her office is high up in a building overlooking the 5 story Police headquarters a couple blocks east on 35th street.
ROSENZWEIG: Every settlement should be looked at to determine what can be learned from it.
Rosenzweig says there may be some evidence in a lawsuit that can help an investigation she's doing, or maybe becomes the basis for her starting one. This isn't new for her. She did similar work as a lawyer for the L-A county sheriff's department. She always has two questions. The first is did the officer violate department policies? In other words, did the officer do something wrong. Did he or she use unnecessary force or violate someone's rights? Do they need to be punished?
ROSENZWEIG: If they didn't violate their policy or training then the second question is, even though it wasn't a violation of policy or training, is that the ideal way to have done business? And if not, should policy and training be changed? Rosenzweig says her office has been looking at settlements tghe city has made though she adds they're not fully stafed and that limits how many cases they can review. But not everyone agrees that these five, ten and twenty thousand dollar cases are even worth a second look.
DONAHUE: I'm President Mark Donahue and I'm president of the Fraternal Order of Police Chicago, Lodge 7.
Donahue's union represents more than 11,000 Chicago cops. He says many of the lawsuits filed against cops are simply opportunistic. He says understands the city can sometimes save money by just settling a lawsuit but he doesn't like that practice.
DONAHUE: Well in principal what you're doing is rewarding someone for bringing a frivolous act against the city, the department, and the individual, and as I said these are not people, generally speaking, that are the stalwarts of our community.
I've talked to officers who agree and think the city should fight such cases to preserve the honor of the department. But I also talked to one guy who actually had a case filed against him and he was glad the city settled. He insists he was innocent but he didn't want to roll the dice with a trial because, given recent police scandals, he thinks the jury might have sided with the plaintiffs over the police. But there's another thing. If he's found guilty, the plaintiff could then go on to sue him personally and the officer could lose his house, his car and his savings. That's something Donahue doesn't even want to talk about. Seriously. He won't talk about it.
DONAHUE: You know I don't, it's. Even in discussing this issue are we not opening up the potential for someone out there to be hearing this and thinking that hey this is a great idea and maybe we'll do this a little more frequency.
WILDEBOER: I don't know but I'm guessing that lawyers are already familiar that it's an option.
DONAHUE: I'm sure the lawyers are familiar but I'm not sure that the people in the community are familiar so I think it's probably not a good idea for us to be dwelling too much on this issue.
Donahue says police can't be bogged down worrying about lawsuits. He says they need to focus on protecting themselves and the community.
I'm Robert Wildeboer, Chicago Public Radio.