Police firing cases languish in Chicago law department A personnel hemorrhage since late 2020 has cut the size of Chicago's Law Department by a quarter, a WBEZ analysis of city data finds.
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Police firing cases languish in Chicago law department

Police firing cases languish in Chicago law department

Seconds after a Chicago cop lifted a man off his feet and body-slammed him on the street, Field Training Officer Mark Johnson and his partner pulled up.

The body slam, caught by a bystander's cellphone video, caused the man's head to hit a curb, according to a report by the city's Civilian Office of Police Accountability. As he lay motionless, according to the report, Johnson and his partner cuffed his hands behind his back.

Johnson, a 12-year CPD veteran during this 2019 incident, then picked up the unconscious man by the arms and the rear of the pants and carried him to a squad car, according to COPA.

From there, Johnson and his partner drove the man to the hospital without securing him in a seat, COPA found. And Johnson, according to the investigators, reported falsely that when he arrived on the scene the man was alert and responsive.

The day after the incident, CPD stripped Johnson of police powers and assigned him to a unit that handles non-emergency calls. After an investigation, COPA recommended he be fired.

More than 17 months after that recommendation, however, Johnson remains in the non-emergency unit — collecting his $103,866 salary — while the city's Law Department sits on his case without explanation. Dozens of police discharge recommendations are now languishing at that department, a COPA spokesperson said.

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The backlog comes amid Law Department staffing trouble that, according to a WBEZ analysis of city data, has shrunk the department's ranks by nearly a quarter in less than 18 months.

Ald. Matt Martin, 47th Ward, has responded with legislation aimed at compelling city attorneys to bring formal charges to the Police Board no more than 45 days after CPD and police oversight officials finalize a discharge recommendation.

"The accused officers and the public have a significant interest in the Law Department filing charges in a timely fashion, so that cases don't sit at the Law Department for months or years," Martin told WBEZ.

A bottleneck for firings

Johnson's case has cleared a number of hurdles in Chicago's Byzantine police oversight edifice. The COPA investigation took nearly a year. Then Police Supt. David Brown tried to derail COPA's dismissal recommendation. Brown proposed just a 10-day suspension.

But a Police Board member, selected randomly to review the case, sided with COPA and ruled that the proposed firing would advance to the Police Board.

At that point, it was up to the Law Department, led by Corporation Counsel Celia Meza, to draft the dismissal charges, serve them on Johnson and file them with the Police Board. More than 11 months later, those steps have not taken place and Meza's office is declining to say why.

Since early November, the Law Department has filed dismissal charges against just four officers, according to Police Board records, marking a sharp slowdown from previous months, even as COPA has stepped up its recommendations for firings. Last year COPA sought dismissals of 59 officers, nearly double the number of the previous four years combined.

Spokespersons for CPD, COPA and the Police Board said they could not provide a count of police discharge recommendations waiting at the Law Department.

Law spokesperson Kristen Cabanban did not answer either, saying that "work on Police Board cases is ongoing and charges are filed upon a full and complete review of all materials."

But Martin and some police oversight officials in Mayor Lori Lightfoot's administration say the Law Department has become a bottleneck.

"Based on my conversations to date, I think it's largely or exclusively a staffing issue," Martin said.

A shrinking staff

The Law Department has hands on nearly every aspect of city government, from zoning changes to bond transactions, from misdemeanor prosecutions to building code enforcement.

For years, the number of Law Department employees hovered around 400, according to a WBEZ analysis of city personnel data. That number began to shrink around the time Lightfoot tapped Meza to take the reins in December 2020 during a scandal involving efforts by city attorneys to hide video footage of an errant police raid on social worker Anjanette Young's home.

By last August, the department's staffing had plummeted to 352, according to the data.

City Council members caught wind. At the Law Department's annual budget hearing in October, they questioned Meza, who said the personnel hemorrhage was due partly to the pandemic.

"I recently got a resignation from an attorney," Meza said. "The letter of resignation said, 'I love this work, but I want a more flexible remote option and I found a place that will let me do that now.' "

Meza also said salaries in the Law Department had lost their edge over other big government entities.

The yearly pay for the department's assistant corporation counsels now ranges from $65,000 to $130,000, a scale in line with what Cook County pays assistant state's attorneys.

"Right now our salaries are not as competitive," Meza said. "We used to be the top. We are not anymore."

Meza told the City Council her department was doing its best to speed up hiring.

"It looks like we're actually on track," she said.

Since that hearing, however, the Law Department has kept shrinking. As of this week, according to data posted by the city's inspector general's office, the department is down to 303 employees — a 24% drop from November 2020.

For 2022, the city budgeted for 427 full-time-equivalent Law Department employees.

Openings range from filing clerks to rank-and-file attorneys to high-level managers.

The department's Labor Division, which handles the police discharge cases, last month had four vacancies among its 18 attorney positions, Cabanban wrote.

The division's respected leader, Judy Dever, last summer departed for a position at a commercial real estate company. Dever, as deputy corporation counsel, had led the division for nearly a decade.

Current and former Law Department department officials blame the exodus on the pay levels, staff demoralization from the Young scandal, and red tape around city hiring.

Deteriorating evidence

Despite the dearth of personnel, Cabanban wrote to WBEZ, "the work of the Law Department has not been disrupted and the delivery of legal service has continued through our in-house counsel and by retention of outside counsel when appropriate."

"There has been no interruption of legal services to any city department, including CPD," Cabanban wrote.

The attorney for Johnson, the field training officer recommended for discharge nearly a year ago, begged to differ.

"It is totally unfair to place a police officer in the position to have to wait for this process to play out at such a glacial pace," the attorney, Timothy Grace, wrote to WBEZ. "It is not only unfair to the officer but also unfair to the citizens of this city."

Grace also disputed that Johnson's conduct warranted the discharge recommendation in the first place, saying the officer was "simply doing his job."

In some cases, according to COPA Chief Administrator Andrea Kersten, Law Department delays can hamstring the city before the Police Board, which makes the final decision on firings after a hearing that resembles a trial.

"A lot of our key evidence deteriorates over time, particularly in cases involving civilian eyewitnesses," Kersten said.

Not every discharge case has as much video evidence as Johnson's.

"Some of our most serious cases are domestic abuse allegations and sexual misconduct allegations," Kersten said.

Getting the Law Department to move cases forward, she said, "would greatly increase our ability to have success before the Police Board and have the full complement of evidence."

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ's West Side studio about policing. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at cmitchell@wbez.org.

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