Police Discipline Agency Won't Tackle the Tough Cases

The Chicago City Council established the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) with high expectations that IPRA would help reverse a culture of citizen abuse and officer impunity in the Chicago Police Department. As we approach the seventh anniversary of IPRA's creation, it's apparent the agency has flopped.

Calls to revamp the police department's broken disciplinary process reached a crescendo in 2007 after drunken off-duty police officer Anthony Abbate was caught on video pummeling a female bartender who had refused to continue serving him. Critics (I was among them) demanded reforms, pointing to widespread allegations that Chicago police officers physically and verbally abused citizens on the streets; mistreated and abused suspects and witnesses in their custody; and almost never faced punishment or other repercussions.

The City Council created IPRA to reform this broken system. Disciplinary review under IPRA was taken out of the police chain of command. IPRA was given subpoena power. IPRA was required to report periodically to the public on its activities. An outside director was hired.

But in practice little changed and IPRA today is no better than the system it replaced. Like its predecessor, IPRA rarely "sustains" allegations against police officers in the many cases in which citizens claim they have been abused by on-duty police officers. And, also like its predecessor, IPRA routinely ducks the important cases -- in particular, cases where officer misconduct caused innocent citizens to spend years or decades in prison for crimes they didn't commit.

Recently, IPRA issued its required quarterly report. The report included a self-congratulatory announcement that IPRA had "sustained" 80 complaints of officer misconduct, more sustained cases than in the previous three quarters combined.

But close review of the sustained cases reveals IPRA conducting business as usual. Over half of the sustained complaints were for domestic violence or other off-duty misconduct. Altercations between police officers always get strict scrutiny, and five of the sustained complaints were for exchanges of profanities or punches involving just police. Inattention to duty (typically the accidental discharge of a firearm or a taser) drew sustained findings in about a quarter of the cases. Most of the time, in cases involving allegations of police abuse of citizens, IPRA rejected the substantive allegations and imposed token discipline for technical violations, such as failing to complete paperwork. Of the 80 cases, less than a handful included a sustained finding that an officer had committed misconduct in the line of duty directed at a Chicago citizen.

Measured against the total universe of allegations, the rate of sustained findings is miniscule when an on-duty officer was accused of abusing a citizen. IPRA imposes discipline in less than 2 percent of those cases. A police officer who mistreats a citizen while on the job can be virtually assured he won't face discipline.

Worse, IPRA continues to ignore the important cases. For example, last November, IRPA refused to sustain charges against the police officers accused of railroading Robert Wilson for a crime he didn't commit.

Wilson (whom I represented) was coerced into confessing to the brutal slashing of a nurse on Chicago's south side, convicted and sent to prison, where he remained for over eight years until he was exonerated. The case against Wilson fell apart when the nurse victim recanted her identification. Police had hidden the fact that the attack on the nurse was part of a pattern of knife attacks committed over the course of several weeks by a mentally ill man. The nurse victim revealed that police showed her a highly suggestive photo lineup shortly after the attack, as she lay in her hospital bed.

IPRA had to decide whether to impose discipline on the police officers who were responsible for Mr. Wilson's wrongful conviction. IPRA's files included Wilson's sworn testimony describing how he was beaten and intimidated into confessing, the nurse victim's sworn testimony describing how she was improperly manipulated into her false identification of Wilson, the sworn testimony of the mentally ill man admitting that he was the one who committed the crime, and Wilson's official Certificate of Innocence. IPRA also knew that officer James O'Brien, who conducted the interrogation of Wilson, had a record of being accused of beating and coercing suspects. O'Brien had worked for Jon Burge, the police commander who was sent to prison for lying about torture of suspects in his custody.

If all that weren't enough, IPRA also knew that in March 2012, the City of Chicago had agreed to pay Wilson $3.6 million to settle his civil rights claim against the accused officers. Still, IPRA found that the available evidence "was not sufficient to either prove or disprove" that the accused officers had coerced Wilson's confession and manipulated the nurse's ID. Case dismissed.

The decision in Wilson's case wasn't a surprise. The Chicago Police have never disciplined any of the police officers involved in the scores of cases in which a Chicago Police investigation has been determined to have caused a wrongful conviction.

Small wonder that Chicago has earned the moniker "False Confession Capital of the United States." Every police officer in the city knows he can beat a confession from a suspect and get away with it.