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Cases frozen as Chicago police discipline suspended in court

The ongoing battle over the future of police discipline in Chicago has reached Cook County District Court, where a judge has ordered a pause on all cases pending before the Chicago Police Board as attorneys for both the city and the Fraternal Order of Police polish their arguments. at least until February 24.

The highest profile of the currently discontinued cases stems from the 2021 shooting death of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Little Village. The Chicago Police Department filed an administrative lawsuit last year against Officer Eric Stillman, seeking to fire him for his role in the shooting.

Stillman’s evidentiary hearing before the Police Board was scheduled for last week.

But the case is just one of 20 pending before the Police Board, a 6-year-old body that has historically served as an arbiter of the most serious cases of misconduct by CPD officers.

Along with Stillman, five other officers are also accused of using improper deadly force. Four face allegations of domestic violence or abuse. The three are accused of evading the city’s Covid-19 vaccine policy.

Seven other cases run the gamut. An officer allegedly tested positive for cocaine during a random drug screening at CPD headquarters. A sergeant is accused of making repeated unwanted sexual advances toward a woman at a brewery in Beverly. Another sergeant allegedly lied to investigators with the Civilian Office of Police Accountability about witnessing another officer punch a detained teenager in the head.

Evidentiary hearings have already concluded in three of the 20 cases, but the judge’s order prohibits the board from taking action on the 17 cases or any of the other 17 cases that currently remain temporarily in limbo.

Cook County court records show several officers currently facing administrative charges have left CPD in recent months. In the past, if an officer resigned from the department during an ongoing case with the Police Board, the department would drop the charges.

The board’s next public meeting is scheduled for Feb. 22.

The ongoing fight over the discipline policy arose from contract negotiations between the city and the union last summer. Edwin Benn, the independent arbitrator who oversaw the deliberations, gave the union an award that gives officers accused of serious misconduct the option of having their cases decided by a third party behind closed doors. Benn explained that CPD officers have this right as members of the public sector labor union.

The agreement between the city and the union called for a one-time $2,500 bonus as well as a raise of about 20% for officers over four years. Beyond that, the agreement creates a new “People’s Court” where more minor police disciplinary cases could be decided by an arbitrator in a single day.

The agreement also paved the way for a new rotation of homicide detectives aimed at improving the department’s homicide investigation rate, which remains near 50% through 2023.

The ratification of the agreement was split into two votes: one for the quickly adopted economic package and the other for the arbitration award. Before the arbitration award was first rejected in December, the city’s chief labor counsel, James Franczek, warned that overturning Benn’s decision would be a steep hill to climb.

“The standards for overturning an arbitrator’s decision are limited and very challenging,” Franczek told city councillors.

Last August, months before the tentative agreement was due before the City Council, FOP attorneys attempted to remove 22 pending cases from the Police Board’s docket. That effort fizzled after a month, but union attorney Tim Grace, who frequently represents officers at Police Board hearings, argued that Benn’s arbitration decision was strict.

“We all know where this is going: arbitration,” Grace said at the time. “Officers will have the right to choose between the Police Board and arbitration. “I think we’re going to see a lot of cases before the Police Board in the future, but I think there will be some police officers who want arbitration.”

The City Council last week postponed another vote on the arbitration award at the behest of Mayor Brandon Johnson’s allies, but it was unclear whether the mayor and his city council supporters would again be able to muster the 30 votes needed to defeat the award.

Immediately after the adjournment motion, FOP President John Catanzara and the FOP delegation he was sitting with in the council chambers stood up to leave. He paused and turned toward Johnson as he walked out. “I’ll see you in court at 2:30,” Catanzara said. “I dare you to come, mayor.”

At an afternoon hearing with city and FOP attorneys, Cook County Circuit Judge Michael Mullen agreed with both sides in the case to suspend all Police Board action until the next status update, scheduled for the last week of February. last City Council vote until then.

Benn’s decision will stand unless the City Council votes on arbitration in February or Johnson and his allies can’t get 30 votes to reject arbitration by the end of next month. This means 20 officers facing charges will have the opportunity to seek arbitration. The next meeting of the City Council will be held on February 16.

Meanwhile, the Police Board, with its future in doubt, now operates under the leadership of attorney Kyle Cooper, who was elected to replace Ghian Foreman as board president late last year.

After the judge issued the decision to pause board proceedings, Cooper once again called on the City Council to oppose Benn’s award to the union.

Video footage from Officer Eric Stillman’s body camera shows action not seen on the body camera after Adam Toledo threw a handgun behind a fence on March 29, 2021. (Civil Police Accountability Office)

“At this critical juncture, I once again urge the City Council to reject Judge Benn’s decision,” Cooper said in a statement last week. “Allowing the order to stand would shroud the Toledo case and other allegations of serious police misconduct in secrecy. Such an outcome would further erode trust between law enforcement and our citizens and undermine our collective efforts to create a more accountable and transparent policing system in Chicago .”

Beyond the Police Board, the wrongful death lawsuit filed by Adam Toledo’s family against the city and Stillman is also pending in Cook County Circuit Court. Court records show that the city and attorneys for the teen’s family argued over the validity and admissibility of the records stored on Toledo’s cell phone.

“Even if (Toledo) did not have his cellphone with him at the time of the shooting, evidence from the days before and early hours of the day of the incident, including when it was missing, is discoverable and highly relevant,” City said. lawyers wrote in a recent filing.

The next hearing in this case is scheduled for February 23, according to court records.

Police Board cases are resolved similarly to criminal cases, but the board becomes involved in only the most serious cases of misconduct — situations where the chief requests that an officer be suspended for at least one year or fired from CPD.

An evidentiary hearing is scheduled after the investigator filed administrative charges against an officer. Hearings usually last one to four days and include witness testimony and evidence, but are not overseen by a judge. Instead, a hearing officer oversees the matter to make sure procedure is followed, a role Cooper held before becoming chairman of the board.

New Chicago Police Board chairman Kyle Cooper (center) and police Chief Larry Snelling (right) meet before the monthly Chicago Police Board meeting on Dec. 21, 2023.  (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
New Chicago Police Board Chairman Kyle Cooper (center) and police Chief Larry Snelling (right) meet before the monthly Chicago Police Board meeting on Dec. 21, 2023. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

Evidentiary hearings are recorded on audio and video, and nine members of the Police Board review the footage and hearing transcripts before voting on whether an officer is guilty of charges. If an officer is found guilty by a majority of the board members, the board will impose the penalty.

The entire process, from the time an officer is appointed to the board’s final decision, typically takes several months, if not longer, to complete. If the board votes to remove an officer, the officer may appeal to the Cook County Circuit Court.

AD Quig of the Chicago Tribune contributed.

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