Public Records Plumb The Depths Of Illinois Law Enforcement's Accountability Black Hole
from the regular-rogues-gallery-of-[lol]-public-servants dept
The Chicago Police Department isn’t willing to police itself. That much is apparent from the actions of its officers, which includes the department setting up an inner city “black site” where arrestees were separated from the rights and representation in order to coerce confessions.
Nonexistent oversight has led directly to horrific outcomes, like unjustified killings and — in just one jaw-dropping stat — 100 misconduct accusations resulting from a single SWAT team raid of a wrong address.
Will it ever get better? It seems unlikely. In Illinois, police accountability isn’t even an afterthought. Some reforms were passed earlier this year but with a large concession to police departments: a partial burial of officers’ misconduct records.
At the same time that the 2021 law expanded the information in the misconduct database and required local departments to check it, a last minute amendment closed the database to the public and courts.
That loophole is on pg. 669 of the text. It reads: “The database, documents, materials or other information in the possession or control of the Board that are obtained by or disclosed to the Board pursuant to this subsection shall be confidential by law and privileged and shall not be subject to discovery or admissible in evidence in any private civil action.”
That’s a pretty big loophole. There’s a workaround, but it requires parties to approach individual law enforcement agencies to obtain these records, rather than simply get them from the state’s Training Standards Board, which is charged with collecting them from all over the state. A little secrecy goes a long way. Records can still be obtained, but it all but makes it impossible for outsiders to quantify how much misconduct is being reported across the state or how much of that misconduct is resulting in punishment.
That’s the way the police like it. Cops in the state — especially in Chicago — are tough on crime… unless it’s criminal acts or rights violations committed by officers. The Pulitzer Center has obtained a number of records from across the state via public records requests, which shows how often officers walk away from sustained allegations and criminal charges.
Eighty-one Chicago police officers lost their badges over the past 20 years, but only after being investigated for 1,706 previous offenses – an average of 21 accusations per officer.
When law enforcement agencies say some horrible thing in the news is the result of a “bad apple,” they’re referring to officers like these ones. But agencies are obviously fine with having bad apples floating around their barrels. Bad apples create more bad apples. The simplest thing to do would be to send these officers packing when it becomes apparent they can’t be trusted. Somehow, it is always anyone but police officials pointing out the worst of the worst, months or years after sustained damage has been done.
This is what Illinois residents’ tax dollars are paying for:
From 2000 to 2020 law enforcement officers in Illinois kept their badges even if they engaged in domestic abuse, sexual harassment, racism, perjury, most misdemeanors and other offenses unbecoming of a police officer.
Over the entire year of 2020, Illinois decertified two officers – one for theft and the other for an offense labeled “other,” an ambiguous category occasionally used in the state’s decertification records.
From Jan. 1, 2000, to Jan. 1, 2021, Illinois decertified 347 officers, an average of fewer than 17 a year.
But that’s not even the worst of it. This is:
[Norberto] Rodriguez held on to his police license for almost a decade after he went to prison on a 52-month sentence for transporting four kilos of heroin. The state decertification board said Chicago officials failed to notify them of the conviction.
Chicago police investigated Rodriguez for domestic abuse three times during the 1990s and he was suspended or asked to take an unpaid leave for a total of 48 days. In 1992, the department investigated him for assault/battery, an allegation the department sustained.
In 1997 prosecutors charged him with the attempted murder of his wife, Irma, for shooting her in an argument. These charges were dropped, but the department fired him.
Rodriguez killed his wife, Irma, in 2009, and a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder in 2017.
The twist? His police certification wasn’t revoked until two years after he murdered his wife. And he held onto it for nine years after he pled guilty to federal drug charges and for twenty years after he was fired by the PD.
The Chicago PD has employed two officers who murdered their spouses.
[Rafael] Balbontin was decertified in 2007 for a “felony.” Before this, Chicago police investigated him for “murder/manslaughter” in 2005, which the department later changed in its final complaint category to a “domestic altercation,” for which it fired him.
The “domestic altercation” was in 2005 when Balbontin stabbed his wife, Arcelia, to death in her home. He was later convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
The PD can’t even bring itself to acknowledge the actual crime committed by its officer. A “domestic altercation” can result in murder, but murder is never just a “domestic altercation”… unless it has to be documented in an officer’s employment record.
And bad cops (there are plenty listed in this report) were free to bounce around the state, infecting other agencies after being (in very rare cases) fired or forced to resign. It wasn’t until this year that the state’s law enforcement agencies were required to perform background checks and verify prospective officers were still certified. Agencies were always free to approach the state’s law enforcement training board to check on officers’ certifications. But they never did.
In response to a FOIA request, the board acknowledged it had no record of a local department requesting the certification status of an officer from 2000 to 2019.
The board excused this lack of interest in its certification records by pointing out agencies could get the same information from the Professional Misconduct Database that was created in 2019. Most agencies couldn’t be bothered to do that either.
This database was used 48 times in its first year of operation but never by the Chicago Police Department as of December 2020, according to a FOIA request.
Don’t ask, don’t tell: law enforcement edition. This is how the Chicago PD (and others in the state) came to employ (for years on end) rapists, fraudsters, extortionists, domestic abusers, actual murderers, and officers with misconduct rap sheets longer than the criminal records of the people they arrested. If accountability begins at home, the state’s police agencies stepped out to buy a pack of smokes shortly after formation and never looked back.