Waukegan hires consultants to find out why cops extracted a boy’s false confession

Waukegan Police
A stock photo of a Waukegan police vehicle. Inventorchris / Flickr via Creative Commons
Waukegan Police
A stock photo of a Waukegan police vehicle. Inventorchris / Flickr via Creative Commons

Waukegan hires consultants to find out why cops extracted a boy’s false confession

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Detectives in north suburban Waukegan who got a boy to confess to a shooting he did not commit may yet face discipline but not before outside consultants spend “between six to nine weeks” reviewing the city’s police policies and practices, Mayor Ann B. Taylor announced Monday night.

Jensen Hughes, a Baltimore-based security consulting firm, will look at how Waukegan officers investigate, arrest, interrogate, charge and detain children, Taylor told the City Council more than a month after the city’s police pulled a 15-year-old from school, extracted the confession, charged him, and held him for two days until his family proved he was playing basketball in another town when the crime took place.

“We are not going to pre-judge the results,” Taylor said of the potential for the officers’ discipline and policy changes. “Jensen Hughes will help us understand not only what happened, but also what must change to prevent cases like this in the future.”

After the Feb. 4 shooting, according to Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart, the 15-year-old was identified in a photo lineup.

Rinehart, who watched a recording of the interrogation, told WBEZ the officers played down the consequences of confessing and that a detective assigned to be the boy’s advocate did not serve him well.

An Illinois law forbids police from lying to children during interrogations. The measure, which took effect Jan. 1, renders evidence from those interrogations inadmissible at trial but does not hold the officers liable for the lying.

Waukegan officials have not named the officers but a spokesperson for Taylor told WBEZ those cops remain on active duty and do not face discipline.

Former Waukegan Mayor Sam Cunningham criticized bringing in consultants instead of launching an investigation by the Office of Professional Standards, a Waukegan police unit.

“There must be a confidence from the citizens that we will hold [officers] accountable for these mishaps,” said Cunningham, a former Waukegan cop and longtime City Council member whom Taylor unseated from the mayor’s post last year. “I just believe that we have the skill set and the integrity in that office to get that done.”

Rinehart on Monday said his office will issue a report within the next two weeks about what happened to the boy and what prosecutors could have done better.

From now on, he said, his office will give greater scrutiny to all interrogations of children about major crimes.

That scrutiny, Rinehart said, will include watching police interrogation videos, a task made easier by new technology.

Rinehart said his office is also holding three training sessions this spring for Lake County cops about interrogating children, starting with an April session for Waukegan officers.

“The problem is the power of the confession — a lack of understanding of the power that detectives have in the interrogation room, because most people don’t believe false confessions occur,” Rinehart said.

“We have to strike at the heart of this, which is the interrogation tactics that led to a kid confessing to something he didn’t do,” Rinehart said. “If his family hadn’t brought an alibi, it’s scary to think what might have happened to him.”

Two weeks ago, Waukegan Interim Police Chief Keith Zupec told the City Council that police would quit arresting students while they are at school unless a crime has been committed there and quit interrogating children without the presence of a parent, guardian or attorney.

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about policing. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at cmitchell@wbez.org.