Former police Cmdr. Jon Burge | Sun-Times files
Chicago’s municipal finances are so precarious, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has shuttered schools, police stations and mental health clinics to save money.
But there’s one area that’s seen spending skyrocket: Police misconduct claims.
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Over the past decade, the City of Chicago has spent more than $500 million on police-related settlements, judgments, legal fees and other costs – a staggering sum that raises new questions about the adequacy of training and oversight in the Chicago Police Department, according to a months-long review by the Better Government Association.
In 2013 alone, the city shelled out $84.6 million – the largest annual payout in the decade analyzed by the BGA, and more than triple the $27.3 million the city had initially projected to spend last year.
* Doesn’t include payments to outside attorneys who defended city in police-misconduct related matters. The City of Chicago couldn’t provide year-by-year breakdown of defense attorney spending; data from People’s Law Office, which looked at city records from 2004 to 2012. Sources: City of Chicago, People’s Law Office
“That blows me away,” Ald. Nicholas Sposato (36th) said when told of the BGA’s findings. “It’d be huge for the city not to have to spend that money. It would mean jobs and fixing up infrastructure.”
Police misconduct-related costs will keep rising, too, with nearly 500 lawsuits still pending.
What’s more, criminal justice experts say new lawsuits will surely keep filling the pipeline until the city addresses a so-called “code of silence” – where officers refuse to tell on each other for misbehavior – and a flawed disciplinary system that together allow misconduct to prosper.
In all, the BGA found a total of $521.3 million has been spent to handle police misconduct-related lawsuits from 2004 to present day.
The true cost, though, is even higher, as the BGA counted settlements and judgments, legal bills and other fees – but not less tangible expenses related to, say, insurance premiums, in-house lawyers and investigators, and the cost of incarcerating innocents.
While the BGA focused on the impact on taxpayer pocketbooks, it’s important to acknowledge the emotional toll of these types of cases – on those mistreated by police as well as on officers wrongly accused of misconduct.
In a related investigation in 2011, the BGA and the Center on Wrongful Convictions found wrongful convictions had not only ruined countless lives, but also cost Illinois taxpayers $214 million in legal settlements, lawyer fees and incarceration costs over a more-than-two-decade period.
What Does A Half-Billion Dollars Buy?
That kind of money:
- Nearly covers the $600 million contribution that state law requires Chicago to make next year to its underfunded police and fire pension funds.
- Could build five high schools like the state-of-the-art building the city recently developed in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. The 212,000-square-foot school has space for 1,200 students and includes five computer labs, six science labs, a gymnasium and an indoor swimming pool.
- Could pay for the repaving of 500 miles of arterial streets, based on a city spokesman’s estimate of it costing $1 million per road mile.
- Could cover the cost of building 33 libraries like the one scheduled to open this summer in the Albany Park neighborhood. The 16,300-square-foot building includes a landscaped reading garden and 38 public computer terminals.
The most recent BGA investigation looked not only at lawsuits and payments involving wrongful convictions — including 19 that were profiled in the 2011 BGA story — but also allegations of brutality, false arrest and more.
In all, the BGA found 1,611 misconduct-related lawsuits had been filed against Chicago police from 2009 to 2013, a majority alleging excessive force. (An exact number for years 2004 to 2008 was not available.) Other suits involved false arrest, wrongful death, police shootings and injuries from accidents caused by police car chases.
Public records show the city paid $391.5 million in settlements and judgments over the last decade. More than a quarter, or $110.3 million, was related to 24 wrongful-conviction lawsuits. A dozen of those 24 involved now-imprisoned former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge, whose detectives were accused of torturing confessions out of mostly black male suspects over many years. Overall, the city has paid alleged victims of Burge detectives more than $57 million, records show.
Additionally, the city paid $49.8 million in plaintiff attorney fees and other costs related to all misconduct claims during the decade analyzed by the BGA, according to documents obtained from the Emanuel administration under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
That’s on top of the estimated $80 million spent on outside defense attorneys who represented the city in police misconduct cases, says G. Flint Taylor, a founding partner of Chicago-based civil rights firm People’s Law Office.
The BGA had asked the city for records showing its defense attorney payments over the last decade, but an Emanuel spokeswoman says the bills couldn’t be isolated. She couldn’t confirm or deny Taylor’s accounting, which he says looked at defense counsel spending from 2004 to 2012.
As for last year’s $84.6 million tab – more than the previous two years combined – the city spokeswoman says Emanuel is essentially paying for the sins of the past, as he inherited a large volume of police misconduct cases from his predecessor, ex-Mayor Richard M. Daley, when Emanuel took office in May 2011.
Going forward, the city has taken steps to reduce costs and the number of new lawsuits that include additional police officer training, trying and winning more cases, versus settling, and referring fewer cases to outside counsel – 47 last year, versus 205 in 2010, the spokeswoman says in an email.
“There is no better way to reduce the city’s legal expenses than to reduce the risk that a lawsuit will be filed in the first place,” she says.
RELATED STORY: Not Just A Chicago – Thing Police misconduct allegations span suburban departments, too, and are costing taxpayers in those towns a pretty penny.
But those and other steps may not go far enough, experts say.
Real reform won’t occur until the city remedies a department-wide code of silence that protects officers who commit wrongdoing, and a flawed disciplinary system that doesn’t punish as often or as severely as it should, says University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman, who has co-authored a report on Chicago police misconduct.
“Until that changes we’re going to continue to pay out money,” he says, adding the department needs to do a better poor job identifying and disciplining officers with multiple misconduct complaints. The practice now, he says, is to handle each officer complaint in a bubble, with little or no consideration for a “pattern” of problems. That means problems fester, complaints rise and lawsuits mount.
In Chicago, the Independent Police Review Authority is the government agency tasked with investigating complaints of brutality and other misconduct. Founded in 2007, the IPRA – with an annual budget of more than $8 million – has reviewed a total of 16,020 complaints, according to a BGA analysis.
A third, or 5,338, were dropped because a victim or witness didn’t sign an affidavit, as required by state law. But of the remaining 10,682 complaints, only 4 percent, or 418, have been “sustained.” Nearly half, or 5,270, were “not sustained” or “unfounded,” the BGA found.
Nationally, an average of between 6 percent and 20 percent of citizen-initiated complaints are sustained, says police consultant Lou Reiter, who has testified as an expert witness in numerous Chicago police misconduct lawsuits.
Chicago falls short because “they’re not doing a reasonable investigation of all complaints,” says Reiter, a retired Los Angeles Police Department deputy chief. “They’re going through the motions” and need to, among other things, make a greater effort to get victim and witness affidavits signed instead of simply letting those cases drift away.
If that were to change, he says the number of sustained complaints could rise.
IPRA spokesman Larry Merritt says every complaint is taken seriously and he notes that last year nearly 12 percent of complaints were sustained.
There are roughly 12,500 sworn Chicago cops.
“We believe a vast majority of officers act appropriately,” police spokesman Adam Collins says. “At the same time we believe it’s important to discipline any individual who’s involved in any act of wrongdoing.”
In the meantime, the city continues to pay victims though often the money is of little consolation.
Take Alton Logan, for example. The 60-year-old spent 26 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit because, as he alleged in a 2009 federal lawsuit, Burge and other Area 2 detectives covered up evidence that would’ve exonerated him.
“It can never bring back the life I lost,” Logan says of the $10.25 million the city paid last year to settle his lawsuit.
Besides Logan, the city paid $1 million or more in damages and other fees to resolve 12 misconduct-related lawsuits last year, up from eight in 2012, records show.
Notable payments in 2013 include:
- $15 million to compensate a California woman who was raped and severely injured in May 2006 after Chicago police ignored signs that she had mental issues and released her from custody in a violent South Side neighborhood where she was subsequently attacked. The total settlement of $22.5 million was among the largest for a single victim in city history; insurance covered a third, or $7.5 million.
- $4.5 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit involving Rekia Boyd. Off-duty Det. Dante Servin fatally wounded the unarmed Boyd, 22, in March 2012. Servin has pleaded not guilty to a charge of involuntary manslaughter.
- $4.1 million to compensate the family of 29-year-old Flint Farmer who was fatally wounded by Officer Gildardo Sierra in June 2011. It was Sierra’s second fatal shooting in six months.
Those and other multi-million-dollar settlements dominate the headlines, but it’s not a reflection of the job that a vast majority of the city’s sworn officers do, says Pat Camden, spokesman for Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7.
Most cops work their entire careers and never get sued, he says, adding even ones that do often face frivolous allegations.
“We live in a litigious society,” Camden says. “Anybody can sue anybody.”