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Settlements in cases against cops cost taxpayers — and police themselves

Updated: February 16, 2013 6:31AM

By my rough calculations, the city of Chicago could have hired at least 300 more police officers this year with the $33 million it will instead pay to clean up two of the department’s biggest messes.

That’s not a criticism of the Emanuel Administration’s decision to settle the two lawsuits at the center of the expected payouts.

Rather, it’s another way of measuring the high stakes of poor police work — for Chicago taxpayers and for the police themselves.

There’s a steep price to be paid for sending a mentally-ill young woman into harm’s way without regard for her safety and another for sending the wrong man to prison for murder.

This comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the cases of Christina Eilman and Alton Logan, for whom the city has each long delayed (some say stalled) its day of reckoning.

It was May 2006 when Eilman’s shocking story was first revealed, the sense of outrage it engendered tempered only slightly by the passage of time.

The then-21-year-old California woman, a former UCLA student, was abducted and sexually assaulted before falling from a seventh floor of the CHA high-rise where she had been taken — all this after police arrested her at Midway Airport for creating a disturbance with her bizarre behavior, only to release her from a police lockup at 51st and Wentworth into an unfamiliar neighborhood without ever taking her to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. She had a history of bipolar disorder.

Eilman suffered a devastating brain injury in the fall and is expected to be severely impaired — both mentally and physically — for the rest of her life.

There were racial overtones to the case — a blonde white girl set upon by African-American gang members — that undoubtedly heightened public reaction. After Eilman’s parents filed suit on her behalf, it was mainly a question of how much, not if, the city would pay.

Yet the city kept exacerbating the situation, first blocking the release of potentially embarrassing sworn statements by officers involved in her arrest, and later appealing a judge’s refusal to dismiss the case, adding another delay with little likelihood of success.

Given the $100 million Eilman’s parents initially sought, the $22.5 million the city will pay her is probably a bargain.

The Logan case was another outrage, although one sadly more familiar at this point, involving former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his crew of detectives.

Logan was 28 when sentenced to life in prison for the 1982 shooting of security guard Lloyd Wickliffe during a robbery at a McDonald’s restaurant on the South Side.

Logan was released in 2008 after defense lawyers for convicted cop killer Andrew Wilson revealed following Wilson’s death that he had confessed to them years earlier of killing Wickliffe, but that legal ethics had prohibited them from coming forward sooner.

Unlike most of the men wrongfully convicted in cases involving Burge, he did not claim to have been tortured into confessing.

Instead, he accused Burge and his cohorts of concealing evidence that would have exonerated him: namely that Wilson had been caught with Wickliffe’s gun.

Of course, there were racial overtones in the Burge cases, too, with white police officers mistreating African-American defendants.

Logan settled for $10.25 million as compensation for his 26 years in prison, a fraction of the more than $50 million in lawsuit settlements and legal fees that Burge has cost the city.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether the respective payouts were fair.

But I’m confident most Chicago taxpayers — all other things being equal and these failures not having occurred — would rather have the combined $32.75 million available for other uses, such as trying to reduce the gun violence.

There’s no telling whether Mayor Rahm Emanuel would have used that money to shore up police staffing levels. The mayor insists Police Supt. Garry McCarthy has told him he has all the officers he needs.

But I know the police themselves believe they need additional officers helping them on the street, and they know better than I how far $32.75 million could go.

It is a tremendous responsibility we entrust to our police, and a heavy burden also, to do the job right.

The police who failed Christina Eilman and Alton Logan may have cost their brethren as well.

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