Chicago Cop With Long Complaint History Heads Busy Police District

Ogden District
A Chicago police car outside the Ogden District at 3315 W. Ogden Ave. on Feb. 17, 2017. Chip Mitchell / WBEZ
Ogden District
A Chicago police car outside the Ogden District at 3315 W. Ogden Ave. on Feb. 17, 2017. Chip Mitchell / WBEZ

Chicago Cop With Long Complaint History Heads Busy Police District

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Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson has a busy West Side district under the command of a cop with a long history of misconduct allegations, a WBEZ analysis of police records shows.

Cmdr. James Sanchez has been a subject of at least 90 formal complaints since joining the force in 1985, according to the records, obtained through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. Most of those complaints alleged excessive force or improper searches.

Sanchez, who was promoted by Johnson to commander last August, has nearly twice as many complaints as any of the department’s other 21 district commanders — and about five times their average.

Sanchez was also the lead detective in a murder case that led to a $750,000 city settlement with a man acquitted after spending three years in jail on charges of committing the crime.

And Sanchez had ties to Jerome Finnigan, a Chicago cop sent to federal prison for corruption and a murder-for-hire plot.

The promotion has University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman wondering whether Johnson considered Sanchez’s complaints.

“Those should be red flags,” said Futterman, who has spent more than a decade battling in court for the release of CPD misconduct records. “Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.”

The promotion put Sanchez in charge of more than 300 officers in the police department’s Ogden District, which includes some of the city’s most violent areas. Announcing the promotion, CPD called it “part of (Johnson’s) pledge to rebuild trust between the department and the community.”

Frank Giancamilli, a police department spokesman, declined WBEZ requests to interview Johnson about Sanchez’s promotion.

Giancamilli said in a statement that Johnson “takes into consideration the full background of potential command-staff promotional candidates.”

“This includes Cmdr. Sanchez, who was appointed based upon the superintendent’s confidence in his ability to reduce crime and build community partnerships in the (Ogden) district,” the statement said.

Big settlement

Two of the complaints accused Sanchez of wrongdoing related to a 2002 murder investigation in the Little Village neighborhood.

Sanchez, a detective at the time, led the investigation and talked to witnesses who implicated José López, a 23-year-old with a criminal history.

López was also a known gang member, according to attorney Elizabeth Mazur, who represented him later.

“Probably, as the police see it, these guys are all just a bunch of gang bangers, causing trouble out on the street,” Mazur said. “And if José didn’t do this one thing, maybe he did something else that the police think he ought to be in jail for. So, if they can implicate José López, that’s good enough.”

Ogden District police Cmdr. James Sanchez (right) watches a basketball game at the Chicago Westside Christian School on Jan. 25, 2017. (Twitter/Chicago CAPS 10)

But the police story did not hold up in court. One of the witnesses fit the shooter’s physical description and actually led Sanchez to the murder weapon, according to court records, but the detectives did not consider that man a suspect.

López’s attorneys alleged that the detectives coerced two other key witnesses.

A Cook County jury acquitted López in 2005. By then, he had spent three years in the county jail on the charges.

López sued Sanchez and other detectives and accused them of framing him. The suit went to trial in 2011, and 10 of the 12 jurors sided with López.

There was no retrial because the city agreed to the $750,000 settlement with López.

The police department points out that the deal did not include an admission of police guilt.

A CPD investigation of the López arrest did not find Sanchez at fault, according to the police data. Sanchez was not disciplined.

Ties to corrupt cop

Sanchez’s ties to Finnigan, the imprisoned officer, include 16 misconduct complaints that focused on them both. The complaints spanned four years beginning in 1994, when they started working together in the department’s elite Special Operations Section (SOS).

Half of those complaints alleged excessive force, according to police records. Other complaints alleged warrantless searches, verbal abuse, theft or other wrongdoing.

The police department did not find either Sanchez or Finnigan at fault in any of the 16 complaints.

The department moved Sanchez to another police unit in 1998. Finnigan remained in SOS and became a leader of rogue cops in the unit.

“They targeted Latinos in particular, breaking into their homes, falsely arresting them, kidnapping people, so they could rob them,” said Futterman, the attorney. “There were lots of complaints but nobody was connecting the dots. Nobody was looking at them. That was going on for years.”

Federal prosecutors charged Finnigan and another SOS member with making unlawful stops, searches and arrests — and with stealing cash and narcotics — in locations across the city from 2003 to 2007.

Finnigan pleaded guilty to robbery and tax evasion and to planning a hit on a fellow cop who he believed was working with his case’s investigators. He was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison.

Ten other SOS officers were also convicted. The scandal led the police department to disband SOS.

CPD said Sanchez was not one of the SOS officers under investigation.

‘On the street with his guys’

Only three of Sanchez’s 90 misconduct complaints have led to findings against him, according to police records. None have led to punishment more severe than a three-day suspension.

Although Sanchez far exceeds current district commanders in complaints, he has fewer than the 113 Glenn Evans had when Supt. Garry McCarthy promoted him to command the Grand Crossing District in 2012.

Two years later, Evans faced felony charges for allegedly putting his pistol into a suspect’s mouth. A Cook County judge acquitted him in 2015.

A police department spokesman did not answer whether Johnson knew about Sanchez’s complaints before making the promotion.

But the department said complaints against officers are fully investigated and, if substantiated, those cops are held accountable.

That is not what the U.S. Department of Justice found during a yearlong investigation of CPD following the 2015 release of a video showing a white officer fatally shooting black teen Laquan McDonald.

“Our investigation confirmed that CPD’s accountability systems are broadly ineffective at deterring or detecting misconduct and at holding officers accountable when they violate the law or CPD policy,” the DOJ reported last month.

Sanchez declined to comment when reached by WBEZ.

Giancamilli, the police spokesman, referred further questions about Sanchez to Ald. Michael Scott Jr., whose 24th Ward covers part of the Ogden District, where Sanchez works.

“He’s on the street with his guys,” Scott said of Sanchez. “The morale is up a little bit. They’re recovering weapons at an amazing clip. He’s out at incidents that happened in the ward. He is instituting strategies to help reduce the gun violence.”

Scott said Sanchez’s complaint tally might have to do with his assignments over the years. The alderman noted that Sanchez was a lieutenant in a gang investigation unit before his promotion to commander.

Futterman, the attorney, said he has heard that defense before. 

“You work in places with higher crime, you have more contact with people, no one likes to be searched, no one likes to be arrested, you get complaints,” he said. “But it’s a rare occasion when someone who is searched or arrested actually goes out and files a complaint. And the vast majority of those officers haven’t accumulated extraordinary numbers of complaints.”

If Johnson did not look into Sanchez’s complaint history before promoting him, Futterman said, the superintendent “was not doing his job.”

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1.

Investigative reporting and in-depth journalism at WBEZ is made possible in part with support from Doris and Howard Conant.