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Shaw Thoughts

I’ve been communicating with many of you for nearly 40 years as a newspaper reporter, a political correspondent on TV, a radio commentator and now as executive director of the Better Government Association, an anti-corruption civic watchdog organization.

I know what good and bad government look like, who’s using your hard-earned tax dollars wisely (and who’s not), and what we can rightfully demand of our elected and appointed officials to reform government that is broken at virtually every level. I know where the bodies are buried, how to ask the tough questions and how to hold errant public officials’ feet to the fire.

This is where I’ll be posting pieces and producing videos that help you understand what’s going on in the governments around you, what we think about it and what should be done to make it better. After all, that’s who we are: The Better Government Association.

But we can’t do it alone. I can talk the talk, but you have to walk the walk with me and rest of us at the BGA. I hope this blog can inform, motivate and direct our campaign for better government. It’s our right. And their responsibility.

 

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Former police Cmdr. Jon Burge | Sun-Times files

In Chicago, the term "police brutality" is inextricably linked to former Cmdr. Jon Burge's sadistic South Side homicide squad, which imposed extreme measures, including torture, to extract false confessions from dozens of suspects.

Burge's "Midnight Crew" may be the most visible symbol of excessive force, but from a legal and fiscal standpoint they're actually a relatively small part of a shockingly pervasive citywide problem uncovered by a Better Government Association investigation the Sun-Times published a week ago.

Brutality-related lawsuits have cost Chicago taxpayers $521 million over the last decade — that's more than half a billion dollars — and Burge's team accounts only for about 15 percent of that staggering figure.

In 2013 alone, the city paid out $84.6 million in settlements, judgments, legal fees and other expenses, more than triple the budgeted amount.

That's a huge expenditure for a city with billions of dollars in unfunded pension obligations, and a budget crisis severe enough to force mental health clinic shutdowns, reduced library hours and higher fees for water, parking and other services.

We're not suggesting victims of police brutality don't deserve to be compensated — in some cases no amount of money can make up for ruined lives and lost loved ones — but at a time when Mayor Rahm Emanuel is contemplating painful tax and fee increases to deal with the pension crisis, the budget impact of police misconduct is huge.

The half-billion spent on these cases could have built five state-of-the-art high schools and more than 30 libraries, repaved 500 miles of arterial streets, or paid off a big chunk of the pension bill.

An Emanuel spokesman says the city is dealing with the problem of excessive force by expanding police training, and hoping to discourage lawsuits by taking more cases to trial instead of settling out of court.

Obviously, the mayor doesn't want alleged victims to view City Hall as an ATM, but with nearly 500 misconduct-related cases still pending, the image is unavoidable, and more seven-figure payouts seem inevitable.

Chicago, sadly, is beating the competition in a race it doesn't want to win.

Los Angeles, which has a similar-sized police force, paid out $20 million in brutality-related legal claims last year, less than a quarter of Chicago's outlay.

The last time Chicago spent less than that was $18.5 million in 2005.

Philadelphia, with a force half the size of Chicago's, shelled out $9 million.

New York City's last available payout figure is $152 million, almost double last year's Chicago number, but its population and police force are three times as large.

Just to be clear, many brutality claims are fabricated, and most of Chicago's 12,500 cops do good work and never face misconduct charges, despite the violence they confront on a daily basis in too many neighborhoods.

But criminal justice experts say the department has deep-seated problems, including a tendency to circle the wagons and protect officers who misbehave, a reluctance to punish serial brutalizers, and a "code of silence" that encourages cops not to report rogue colleagues.

Until that culture changes, experts say, bad behavior will continue, and so will super-sized payments to victims and lawyers.

Silence may be golden in some places.

But when it enables police misconduct, it's intolerable, unaffordable and in desperate need of major reform.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097.

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It’s been more than three decades since one of Chicago’s most brutal murders.

On an August night in 1983, two men entered a West Rogers Park home through a window, murdered Dean Pueschel, and raped and murdered his wife, JoEllen Heinrich Pueschel.

Their 11-year-old son, Ricky, was stabbed, beaten with his own baseball bat, and left for dead. Amazingly, he survived.

Last year, the Pueschel and Heinrich families had to revisit the nightmare when the case against Jerry Mahaffey, one of the men convicted of the crime, was sent back to court by the state commission that reviews brutality allegations against former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge’s old homicide unit.

Mahaffey said he was beaten and forced to confess by Burge’s detectives, and the state’s Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission thought there was enough evidence of abuse to send the case back to court.

But the commission didn’t tell the Heinrich and Pueschel families about the Mahaffey hearing, so their first inkling came in a call from a reporter.

"That didn’t really sit too well with us," said Joe Heinrich, JoEllen’s brother. "The victims are always an afterthought in this state."

The Torture Commission was created by the Legislature in 2009 with the best of intentions: Review cases of inmates who may have been coerced by the Burge unit into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit.

The law requires the commission to notify victims’ families when they’re revisiting old cases, but too often that doesn’t happen.

The Illinois Auditor General reports the commission didn’t notify families of upcoming hearings in 9 of the 15 cases they reviewed, and failed to tell any of them about the ensuing decisions.

That’s a problem.

Those families may not want to re-open old wounds — that’s their choice — but they deserve to be informed, not blindsided.

The Torture Commission’s new executive director, Barry Miller, is committed to "proper documentation and victim notification," a spokesman says, and that’s encouraging.

To that end, the commission pulled the Mahaffey case back from court to give it another look after the Heinrich and Pueschel families complained.

That was in January, and this time the families got to testify.

The commission hasn’t released its latest decision yet, but the case caught the attention of Illinois Sen. Minority Leader Christine Radogno, who is pushing legislation that would strengthen the commission’s obligation to notify victims’ families, and even give them a seat on the commission.

"It’s unfortunate we even have to do it, but since we do, we need to make sure everybody’s voices are heard," Radogno says.

Commission member Len Cavise, a DePaul University law professor, questions the value of adding a victims’ representative who might not understand the law.

"I don’t think the bill is a particularly positive addition," says Cavise.

No one condones police brutality, and we should do everything possible to overturn wrongful convictions coerced with excessive force.

But as lawmakers look at ways to improve the workings of the commission, it’s worth considering the addition of a victim’s family member.

In the end, a balanced, transparent process serves everyone fairly — the cops, the incarcerated, and the families of the victims — and that should be the goal of this commission.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097.

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A few months after I joined the Better Government Association in 2009, one of our most civically and politically engaged board members, Chicago lawyer Scott Hodes, urged me to make the issue of term limits for elected officials in Illinois a cause célèbre for the BGA.

He argued it was an easy reform for the general public to understand, and polling indicated strong support from a vast majority of Illinois voters who were clearly fed up with rampant government corruption and dysfunction.

Hodes also viewed term limits as a perfect soapbox for our then-struggling watchdog organization to stand on for much-needed visibility.

My previous experience as a political reporter at ABC 7 left me skeptical about the efficacy of term limits as a reform elixir, but I agreed to raise the issue at a subsequent BGA board meeting.

That produced a robust discussion about the potential benefits of mandatory political turnover — an influx of fresh faces with new ideas and selfless approaches to public service — and the downside of forcibly replacing effective veteran lawmakers with naïve rookies who'd have to learn the ropes from career lobbyists and other insiders.

Predictably, there was no consensus, so we agreed not to take sides.

But we dedicated a BGA "Idea Forum" to a mini-debate on term limits in 2010, with political scientist and former Chicago alderman Dick Simpson arguing in favor, and the late reform leader, ex-state official Dawn Clark Netsch, opposed.

It was lively, informative and — again, no surprise — ultimately inconclusive.

Since then we've heard even louder calls for term limits from a restive electorate, and seen new polls reaffirming its appeal — more than 70 percent give it a thumbs-up — so last fall we started planning a half-day term limits symposium with our colleagues at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at SIU in Carbondale and the Union League Club of Chicago.

We were initially aiming for February here in Chicago, but when Republican Bruce Rauner announced that term limits would be a centerpiece of his campaign for governor, we decided to wait until after the March 18 primary to separate our event from the politics of a race Rauner eventually won.

So now we're good to go on April 7, and if you'd like to join us — a $15 ticket includes a continental breakfast and lunch — sign up on the BGA website.

We've invited Rauner and Gov. Pat Quinn to share their views, or send their running mates. We'll hear from former Gov. Jim Edgar, and several experts will discuss the specifics: How term limits work in other states; whether they've produced better government; and possible scenarios here in Illinois.

We already know there's a Rauner-backed petition drive under way to place a term limits referendum on the November ballot, and we'll see where that goes.

Separately, the CHANGE Illinois coalition is pushing an election reform agenda that would, among other things, let voters decide whether to de-politicize the legislative redistricting process.

Those efforts, along with a push to downsize government bureaucracies — that includes the BGA's "Smart Streamlining" initiative — collectively represent a stellar challenge to the status quo and business as usual in Illinois government.

Reform is definitely on the front burner this year, and its warmth is promising.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097.

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