Public officials around the country are grappling with how to handle police officers accused of using deadly force without justification. In New York City, it’s an officer whose chokehold led to the death of a 43-year-old man in July. In Cleveland, it’s a cop who fatally shot a 12-year-old last month. In Ferguson, Missouri, tempers are still hot about the August shooting death of an unarmed 18-year-old.
Then there’s Chicago. Since 2007, according to city records, police gunfire has killed at least 116 people and injured another 258. The city’s Independent Police Review Authority, the agency in charge of investigating those shootings, has not found a single one to be unjustified.
Now a WBEZ investigation raises questions about just how independent the agency is. City records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that IPRA’s management now includes six former cops — officials who have spent most of their career in sworn law enforcement. Those include the agency’s top three leaders.
“Complaints may be seen not through the eyes of the citizen but through the eyes of a police officer,” said Paula Tillman, a former IPRA investigative supervisor who was a Chicago cop herself in the 1970s and 1980s. “The investigations can be engineered so that they have a tilt toward law enforcement and not what the citizen is trying to say.”
Tillman, who left IPRA in 2012, said she noticed a tilt in some of those shooting probes.
Experts say a paucity of sustained excessive-force complaints is not unusual for a police-oversight agency, even in a big city. But it was not supposed to be that way in Chicago.
“One misconduct [incident] is one too many and I think people want openness — transparency from the police department,” Mayor Richard M. Daley said in 2007 when he announced the formation of IPRA in response to a series of scandals, most memorably a video recording that showed a beefy off-duty cop named Anthony Abbate beating up a petite bartender who had refused to serve him.
Previously, police-brutality complaints against Chicago cops were handled by the Office of Professional Standards, a unit of the police department itself.
Daley moved the agency under his direct supervision and gave it subpoena power. He also kept civilians in charge of IPRA to counter what he called “the perception” that investigations into alleged police misconduct were tainted by cops.
Seven years later, that perception still dogs the agency. But IPRA Chief Administrator Scott Ando, a former high-ranking U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent, told WBEZ he had no bias that would favor an officer who pulls the trigger.
Besides Ando, IPRA’s leadership includes First Deputy Chief Administrator Steven Mitchell, another former top DEA agent, and Deputy Chief Administrator Steven Hirsch, a former criminal investigation chief of the Illinois Department of Revenue. IPRA investigative supervisors include former Chicago police Cmdr. Lorenzo Davis, former high-ranking DEA agent David Marzullo, and Joshua Hunt, a former homicide detective in Savannah, Georgia.
Ando said he had hired former cops because of their expertise in everything from management to investigation to police procedures. Plus, he pointed out, those former cops are part of a 90-member staff.
“We also have 11 attorneys,” Ando said, including several with a background in criminal defense. “When you get to the investigative ranks, the vast majority have come from inspector-general offices, corporate-security firms [and] background investigations.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who tapped Ando to head IPRA last year, did not answer WBEZ when we asked whether the agency’s management shift conflicted with its oversight mission. He referred our questions to IPRA, whose spokesman sent a statement praising the agency’s “balanced workforce” and listing recent community outreach efforts, including a new brochure and the creation of a satellite office and an advisory board.
Ando said he and the other former cops on his staff have helped IPRA increase its rate of sustained police-misconduct complaints.
One recent IPRA investigation led to Cook County felony charges against a police district commander, Glenn Evans, for allegedly inserting the barrel of his handgun down a 22-year-old’s throat last year while pressing a Taser to his crotch and threatening to kill him — a case revealed by WBEZ. (Ando in April recommended that Supt. Garry McCarthy strip Evans of police powers. But McCarthy, backed by Emanuel, did not remove Evans from the command post until the charges were brought more than four months later.)
Ando said the former cops on his staff have also been crucial in reducing a case backlog. “The average investigator — not that long ago, maybe 18-24 months ago — had a caseload of 35 on average,” he said. “Now they’re down to about 15. It gives us time to really work correctly and diligently on the ones that deserve the greatest attention — the most serious allegations.”
Samuel Walker, a University of Nebraska at Omaha criminologist, says it is common for the independence of police-oversight agencies to erode. He said police unions sometimes convince politicians to curb an agency’s powers. Or, as in Chicago, the mayor allows former cops to take the lead.
“They make the argument that somebody with a law-enforcement background is going to better understand policing and be able to do a better job of assessing complaints,” Walker said.
But he thinks this argument only goes so far. “Public perception of independence is critically important in terms of the credibility of the agency,” Walker said. “As you staff it with people with law-enforcement backgrounds, you’re going to create distrust.”
That distrust, Walker said, means police brutality may go unreported and unpunished.