Chicago Police Miss the Message about the Cost of Wrongful Convictions

Mayor-elect Emanuel has made a point of vowing to make Chicago a cost efficient city. The role of the Chicago Police Department in wrongful convictions is costing the city tens of millions of dollars.
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When he takes over as mayor next month, Rahm Emanuel is expected to appoint a new superintendent of police, and he will likely also install someone new as corporation counsel, the head of the city's law department. He would do well to insist that these two talk with each other.

Chicago cops have been involved in too many investigations that led to false charges against innocent suspects: James Newsome, falsely convicted of murder; Leroy Orange, Aaron Patterson, Madison Hobley and Stanley Howard, all tortured by Jon Burge's detectives into confessing to crimes they didn't commit; John Willis, imprisoned for nearly a decade on false rape charges; Corethian Bell, bullied and beaten into falsely confessing to the murder of his own mother; Ronald Jones, sent to death row for a murder he didn't commit; Jerry Miller, whose false imprisonment lasted two and a half decades; the two young boys who were falsely accused of raping and killing Ryan Harris. And that's only a small sampling of the Chicago miscarriages of justice that have come to light in recent years.

Many of these cases have led to lawsuits in which police officers were accused of trampling on the constitution and railroading the innocent into false charges, convictions or long prison sentences. These suits haven't been cheap for the city. The total of the verdicts or settlements just in the cases listed above is over $45 million. The total cost to the city from Chicago Police civil rights violations that caused wrongful convictions -- including the city's payments to expensive outside lawyers to defend some of these suits -- is approximately a staggering $125 million.

That's not a trivial sum of money. It's enough to equip and train a lot of additional police officers, to facilitate community policing efforts focused on neighborhoods where improved relationships with the police are desperately needed, and to leave money to spare for education and job training for young people from those same neighborhoods. Or, the city could skip the good works and trim 10% off the City's $1 billion budget deficit.

The Roderick MacArthur Justice Center started representing plaintiffs in wrongful conviction civil rights suits in part because we naively believed those cases had the potential to help reform the Chicago Police Department. If the police had to face significant costs in the form of large verdicts or settlements from their misconduct, we figured, they would have an incentive to change the practices that caused the miscarriages of justice in order to avoid similar payments in the future.

It hasn't worked out that way.

The city had to pay out a $15 million verdict to James Newsome who was misidentified as a murderer after Chicago Police detectives unconstitutionally manipulated three witnesses during a lineup. But that hasn't changed the way the police handle lineups and photo arrays. To the contrary, Chicago has successfully led the opposition to reform eyewitness identification procedures in the State of Illinois. The same flawed procedures that produced Newsome's wrongful conviction are still in use today.

The cost to the city of defending and then settling lawsuits arising out of the Jon Burge scandal is over $33 million and there is reason to believe that number will go much higher. And yet most of the detectives who committed the acts of torture were never so much as reprimanded. Many of those detectives still serve in the police department -- and face no adverse consequences when they periodically invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination rather than answer questions about their past interrogation practices. The detectives who coerced Corethian Bell into making a false confession in 2006 never got in trouble either, despite a seven figure settlement in that case.

Chicago Police employees hid exonerating evidence from John Willis for years as he continued to serve prison time unjustly for a series of rapes he didn't commit. The multi-million dollar settlement in the Willis case -- and hefty payouts in the other cases in which the police concealed exculpatory evidence -- hasn't led to any meaningful internal investigations or changes in the way police handle evidence.

Mayor-elect Emanuel has made a point of vowing to make Chicago a cost efficient city. Maybe the superintendent of police hasn't gotten the message that the role of the Chicago Police Department in wrongful convictions is costing the city tens of millions of dollars. So, for starters, the new mayor could insist that the city's top cop and the city's top lawyer sit down for a visit. Somebody has to let the superintendent of police know that, going forward, it will be cheaper to start building a truly professional police department than to continue with the status quo.

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