Chicago police officers received nearly 135,000 complaints over a 34-year period between 1967 and 2000, and less than 1 percent of those officers faced serious discipline, according to an analysis of thousands of recently-released records by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration released the records Wednesday under a court order.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Frank Main was one of three reporters who worked on the story. WBEZ’s Melba Lara spoke with Main Thursday.
Q: Can you break down some of the big numbers in the complaints?
A: In about 85 percent of the complaints — which was about 117,000 of them — no action was taken. Action was taken in close to 18,000 other complaints, which is about 13 percent of the total. What we found was that when officers were separated or fired, that represented about 0.4 percent of the total field of officers during that time.
What we don’t know is what the data show from 2001 to 2014 because the city provided us with a list that we can’t analyze at this point. So we are currently trying to see how we can work on those numbers.
Q: When you look at these numbers, what jumps out for you?
A: It seems to confirm reporting that has been done for the last 10 years or so, which is that it is difficult for various reasons to discipline Chicago police officers. The fact that 0.4 percent of the officers were fired did not surprise me.
The one caveat I would say about all this data is that we don’t really know how many of these complaints were valid complaints, or were B.S. that were trumped up by a gang member or somebody who just didn’t like the police officer. So it’s not unreasonable that a certain percentage of officers wouldn’t be disciplined for these complaints.
But in the end, the number is pretty low by anybody’s standards I would think.
Q: You also found in your research that there were complaints against superintendents of the police department. Can you tell us about that?
A: One thing we were able to do was search by names, so we looked at all the former police department superintendents going back to 1967, when these data began. Our current superintendent, Eddie Johnson, had eight complaints during that period. None of them were sustained. No action was taken against him.
The people who really jump out at you are the people with 60, 70, 80, 90, 100 complaints. As we know from previous reporting, those are red flags that tell you that somebody may be engaged in misconduct. These are people like Jerome Finnigan, who was a police officer that went to prison for corruption. And he had somewhere in the order of 67 complaints over that period.
Going back to the superintendents, I don’t think it blemishes their career that they had complaints. In some ways it shows that they may have been in very active units that drew complaints from people that may not have been founded.
Q: Those cops you mention that were some of the police department’s most notorious — including Jerome Finnigan, Broderick Jones and Corey Flagg — they all had more than 65 complaints against them but very few actions taken against them, correct?
A: One of the three that you mentioned did have some suspensions in his background but none of them had anything major before the feds came in and charged them with crimes.
One of the many reasons that this information is important is that the U.S. Justice Department is now looking at the Chicago Police Department to see whether its patterns and practices follow civil rights. One of the things that they dig into when they do one of these investigations is they dig into the complaints against police officers. So we are absolutely certain that the Justice Department is going to be looking or has looked at the same information we’re looking at right now.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the ‘Play’ button above to listen to the entire segment.