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Police-related suits cost city more than $500 million since ’04

Former Chicago Police Cmdr. JBurge  |  Sun-Times files

Former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge | Sun-Times files

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Updated: May 5, 2014 8:53AM

Chicago’s municipal finances are so precarious, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has shuttered schools, police stations and mental health clinics to save money.

But there’s one area that’s seen spending skyrocket: Police misconduct claims.

Over the past decade, the City of Chicago has spent more than $500 million on police-related settlements, judgments, legal fees and other costs — raising new questions about the adequacy of training and oversight in the Chicago Police Department, according to a review by the Better Government Association.

In 2013 alone, the city shelled out $84.6 million — the largest annual payout in the decade analyzed by the BGA, and more than triple the $27.3 million the city had initially projected to spend last year.

“That blows me away,” Ald. Nicholas Sposato (36th) said when told of the BGA’s findings. “It’d be huge for the city not to have to spend that money. It would mean jobs and fixing up infrastructure.”

With nearly 500 such lawsuits pending, criminal justice experts say new lawsuits will surely keep filling the pipeline until the city addresses a so-called “code of silence” — where officers refuse to report colleague misbehavior — and a flawed disciplinary system that together allow misconduct to continue.

In all, the BGA found more than $521.3 million has been spent to handle police misconduct-related lawsuits from 2004 to the present day. The true cost, though, is even higher, as the BGA counted settlements and judgments, legal bills and other fees — but not less tangible expenses related to, say, insurance premiums, investigators and the cost of incarcerating innocents.

In all, the BGA found 1,611 misconduct-related lawsuits had been filed against Chicago police from 2009 to 2013, a majority alleging excessive force.

Public records show the city paid $391.5 million in settlements and judgments over the last decade. More than a quarter, or $110.3 million, was related to 24 wrongful-conviction lawsuits. A dozen of those 24 involved now-imprisoned former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge, whose detectives were accused of torturing confessions out of mostly black male suspects over many years. Overall, the city has paid alleged victims of Burge detectives more than $57 million, records show.

As for last year’s $84.6 million tab — more than the previous two years combined — a city spokeswoman says Emanuel inherited a large volume of police misconduct cases from his predecessor, ex-Mayor Richard M. Daley, when Emanuel took office in May 2011.

The city is working to reduce the number of new lawsuits, including more police officer training, the spokeswoman says in an email.

But that’s not enough: The city must remedy a department-wide code of silence that protects officers, and a flawed disciplinary system that doesn’t punish as often or as severely as it should, says University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman, who has co-authored a report on Chicago police misconduct.

“Until that changes we’re going to continue to pay out money,” he says, adding the department needs to do a better job identifying and disciplining officers with multiple misconduct complaints.

The Independent Police Review Authority, the $8-million-a-year government agency tasked with investigating complaints of brutality and other misconduct involving Chicago Police, has reviewed a total of 16,020 complaints, according to a BGA analysis.

A third were dropped because a victim or witness didn’t sign an affidavit, as required by state law. Of the remaining 10,682 complaints, only 4 percent have been “sustained.” Nearly half, or 5,270, were “not sustained” or “unfounded,” the BGA found.

Nationally, an average of between 6 percent and 20 percent of citizen-initiated complaints are sustained, says police consultant Lou Reiter, a retired Los Angeles police deputy chief who’s testified as an expert witness in Chicago police misconduct lawsuits.

Chicago falls short because “they’re not doing a reasonable investigation of all complaints,” Reiter says.

IPRA spokesman Larry Merritt says every complaint is taken seriously; last year nearly 12 percent of complaints were sustained, he said.

“We believe a vast majority of officers act appropriately,” police spokesman Adam Collins says. “At the same time we believe it’s important to discipline any individual who’s involved in any act of wrongdoing.”

There are about 12,500 sworn Chicago cops.

While multimillion dollar settlements dominate the headlines, they’re not a reflection of the job that a vast majority of the city’s sworn officers do, says Pat Camden, spokesman for Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7.

Most cops work their entire careers and never get sued, he says, adding even ones that do often face frivolous allegations.

“We live in a litigious society,” Camden says. “Anybody can sue anybody.”

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter.

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