Michael Smith was elected to the Dixmoor village board when he was still a teenager, an unusual feat even in a community of only 3,650 people.
These days, Smith, 24, is known for something besides that early taste of politics: His repeated run-ins with the cops.
In the last two years Smith has been charged on three separate occasions with theft, battery, resisting arrest and more. Two cases are still pending, including one that alleges he threatened to beat up Dixmoor’s police chief.
Given that history, Public Eye was surprised to learn that since last fall Smith has been working as a part-time unarmed security guard at taxpayer-supported South Suburban College. In that role, Smith’s responsibilities include patrolling the South Holland campus, assisting with crowd control, and helping students and visitors with directions or information, a college spokesman says in an email.
Smith has worked more than 552 hours since his October 2013 hiring. He has been paid $7,900, or $14.38 an hour, records show.
“According to South Suburban policy, I can’t talk to the media,” says Smith, referring us to the college spokesman. “I can’t give out any information.”
So why was he hired? And whose call was it?
Thornton Township Supervisor Frank Zuccarelli is chairman of the South Suburban College board, and Dixmoor falls within Thornton Township. Public Eye has been told he has a lot of influence when it comes to hiring at the college. But it couldn’t be determined if his clout aided Smith.
Zuccarelli didn’t return messages.
The school spokesman, Pat Rush, says via email that Smith didn’t receive special treatment. Rather, he was hired because of his “extensive security experience” and a background check was performed prior to his hiring, Rush says.
Smith was sentenced to probation in 2012 after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor theft charge, related to an incident in which he stole gasoline.
The college knew about this but “did not feel that minor incident should preclude Mr. Smith for the part-time position he sought,” Rush says.
Smith allegedly tried to pass himself off as a Dixmoor cop so he could pump – but not pay for – $15 worth of gas at a south suburban station, where village employees filled their work vehicles.
He was later indicted on charges of official misconduct, forgery and theft.
Smith pleaded guilty to stealing the gasoline and on Nov. 30, 2012, was sentenced to two years of probation, a spokeswoman for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office says in an email.
Smith, who was elected to the village board a week shy of his 19th birthday, resigned from the board around the same time he was sentenced. He ran again in 2013 and won his seat back but apparently his troubles have continued.
Authorities charged Smith with misdemeanor aggravated assault for allegedly threatening Dixmoor Police Chief Ronald Burge after a public meeting, telling him “I’m gonna [expletive] you up,” according to a copy of the March 27, 2014, incident report.
Smith reportedly became “very agitated and excited” during the meeting, where the rehiring of a Dixmoor police officer was discussed.
Burge, who declined to comment when we reached him, signed a criminal complaint against Smith. His next court date is Sept. 4.
Another pending case involves an alleged battery from 2013, according to records and interviews.
Higher Ed Holster
Don Manning is the big gun at South Suburban College, serving as president of the community college since 2012.
And he keeps a .357 Magnum in his school office.
That’s because, we came to find, he’s not only the college’s top administrator, he’s a police officer – though our research raises questions about whether he should be serving as a cop.
Records show he’s a part-time member of the college’s police force, which is tasked with protecting the school’s 12,000 students and 600 employees.
In an interview, Manning admits he’s never patrolled the hallways, arrested a suspect or even made a traffic stop on campus.
So what does he do exactly to be licensed to carry a gun and badge?
“I’m there to augment the police department if I have to in an emergency,” he says.
So then why did South Suburban report to a state regulatory agency that Manning spent 539 hours last year performing police-related duties?
That time was spent meeting with South Suburban Police Chief Leonard Chiaro, Manning says, a puzzling reply given that he would probably do that anyway as he is Chiaro’s boss.
The situation seemed questionable enough that we reached out to the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, the government agency that certifies cops in Illinois. Without the agency’s blessing, you can’t carry a gun and a badge and act like a police officer.
They told us there’s nothing illegal about Manning’s status, so long as he completes his annual firearms qualification, which he has done, though they did say he shouldn’t have a gun and a badge if he isn’t actually performing law enforcement duties. Also, they note that he should be able to further document the hours he reported working as a cop, something Manning was unable to do.
Regardless, Manning says he’s not getting paid anything additional for his police status, and he isn’t misleading anyone – that this isn’t a case of a politically connected person undeservedly getting a badge.
“I’ve been working closely with the police chief,” he says.
This column – a new regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing on the Chicago Sun-Times’ political portal Early & Often – was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter, who can be reached at email@example.com or (312) 821-9035.