It’s an Old World tradition in an old-school western suburb.
But if the Melrose Park faithful are looking for a place to direct their prayers these days, they might want to consider their municipal government, particularly their police force.
The department has never been terribly normal. The last police chief, Vito Scavo, went to prison for corruption. And for decades, the agency was best known not for any law enforcement prowess, but for deep mob connections.
As such, recent allegations and revelations – more on them in a bit – might not seem as bad by comparison, but Melrose Park’s 25,000 residents have reason to worry nonetheless.
After all, their dollars are at stake, and they need to be able to trust in the integrity of their first responders.
A few things the Better Government Association has come across:
- A Melrose Park cop, who’s already suing the village in federal court claiming racial discrimination, sent a letter to the Illinois attorney general in June claiming a “senior” police official in town waived “false burglar alarm fees” – charged to local businesses – “in exchange for donations . . . for the police official’s personal use.”
Village officials say there doesn’t appear to be merit to the accusation – that the cop making the claim is trying to throw stones in a new venue because his lawsuit is about to be thrown out of court – but a spokeswoman for the attorney general confirms receipt of the letter and says the agency plans to “give it a thorough review.”
- Also in June, another Melrose Park cop got so drunk and “verbally and physically aggressive” while off-duty at a Franklin Park community festival he had to be restrained and sent to a hospital, police confirmed. He was with his young child at the time.
Franklin Park officials refuse to say whether the officer was armed. Melrose Park police say he was not. Whatever the case, no charges were filed and he kept his job, though he ended up with counseling.
- The village’s “duty-disability” program – through which injured cops are allowed to leave the force but still collect part of their salary if they’re deemed too disabled to do police work – has been so poorly managed, the police pension board neglected to make two recipients submit to annual medical checks to verify their eligibility, according to state regulators.
It’s worth noting the pension fund – subsidized by local taxpayers – is only about 35 percent funded these days, meaning there’s a lot of cash leaving, but not a lot coming in.
All of these findings come in the wake of previous disclosures about:
- Three federal discrimination lawsuits filed by the above-mentioned cop and two fellow Melrose Park officers. Among other things, the suits accuse co-workers of a litany of misdeeds, from enlisting the services of a prostitute to stealing a golf cart and accidentally firing a service weapon. The village is fighting the cases and predicts they will be tossed out of court.
- Several Melrose Park cops starting a motorcycle “club.” Turns out members wore patches showing support for the Outlaws, a biker group the federal government has portrayed as a sometimes-violent “criminal enterprise.”
- The 2012 murder of a retired Melrose Park police sergeant at his home in the suburb. Although we hear there’s been recent progress, the case remains unsolved. Part of the slow going might have to do with the fact the crime scene wasn’t properly secured when the body was discovered last year, leading to evidence being trampled.
As troubling as much of this is, we were stunned to learn about another legal situation that, in a way, puts everything else into perspective.
|Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico / www.melrosepark.org|
Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico and his police chief, Sam Pitassi, filed court papers this past spring to compel an online news site to turn over the electronic identities of those anonymously posting nasty things about them. Some of the anonymous posters are believed to be current or former Melrose Park cops. The “verified petition for discovery” is considered a precursor to a defamation lawsuit.
|Melrose Park police chief Sam Pitassi / www.melroseparkpd.com|
The petition gives the impression the municipal government is involved in this action: “Now comes Ronald M. Serpico and Samuel Pitassi (Petitioners) and Melrose Park by and through their attorney…”
Serpico and Pitassi, however, insist tax money won’t be used to pay the tab.
Either way, we have to ask: Really? This is what they are spending their energy on?
They both tell us they’re not going to take it when their families and their characters are attacked. We get that. And while we can’t speak to the veracity of the claims raised on the site, we understand it’s never fun to be ridiculed – fairly or unfairly. But they’re also public figures, and their petition feels like a witch-hunt.
Here’s a thought for Melrose Park officials: Concentrate on the vast problems within your municipal realm – a good start would be more professionalism and less politics – and maybe there won’t be such acrimony on the web.
That’s something to pray for.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth and Patrick Rehkamp, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 821-9030.