Chicago Cops Miss Court – A “Systemic Problem”?

Officers make arrests, then fail to appear in court, sometimes after defendants claim they were beaten or wrongly arrested.

Devonte James was sitting with his cousin on the porch of their grandmother’s West Side home early one morning in November 2013 when Chicago police showed up, handcuffed them and, amid questioning, slugged James in the face, breaking his jaw, court records allege.

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Devonte James

James, then 19, was charged with resisting arrest, and was held for a time at the Austin District police station, without medical care, according to records and interviews.

He ultimately was released and, when it came time to appear in court nearly two months later, the three officers involved in the arrest didn’t show up, resulting in the misdemeanor being dismissed.

James said the officer who cold-cocked him didn’t want "to show his face because he knows he was wrong."

Wrong or not, the officer certainly isn’t alone. A Better Government Association/FOX 32 review found that numerous Chicago police officers have missed court appearances in recent years, sometimes after making what defendants claimed were false – even abusive – arrests.

BGA/FOX 32 analyzed court filings and interviewed nearly 20 alleged victims, criminal justice experts and attorneys who say they know of dozens of instances when police officers didn’t attend court hearings at which they might have had to justify hauling in suspects.

The Chicago Sun-Times recently highlighted a case involving now-former cops who are white making a black drug suspect inside a police station pose for a photo with deer antlers on, as if he was a hunting trophy. The man’s drug charges were thrown out after the officers failed to appear in court, the newspaper reported.

Jeffrey Granich, an attorney representing James in a pending civil rights lawsuit against Chicago police, said when cops "know they’ve done wrong, they don’t show . . . the hope is that it will all go away."

"It’s a systemic problem with the CPD," attorney Craig Futterman said about court no-shows.

But the true scope of any problem isn’t clear because the Chicago Police Department has refused to release records except for a single page that mentions there were 3,026 instances from Jan. 1, 2013, to earlier this year in which an "officer’s presence was required, but officer was not in court."

The police department indicated it keeps a "database" with more information on officer court absences, but officials refused to provide the BGA with a copy, so the BGA filed a lawsuit in April claiming the department violated the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, which guarantees access to public records. That lawsuit is pending.

Late Wednesday, two weeks after the BGA started asking questions about this topic, CPD released a statement saying it "takes non-appearances very seriously, as officers who make arrests are expected to see their cases through the court process."

Officers miss court dates for a variety of reasons, many fairly innocent – from oversleeping to getting sick to mixing up calendars, according to people familiar with the court system. But legal experts also said they believe some no-shows are intended to sweep away a bogus or otherwise bad arrest, often for misdemeanors.

The police department statement indicated that officers who miss court dates for invalid reasons can face discipline – and an internal investigation if there are allegations of false arrest. However, CPD would not address specific cases outlined by the BGA and FOX.

FOX 32 News Chicago

‘A form of harassment’

Travles Lane, 57, and his son had just left the Chicago Public Library’s Legler Branch on the West Side when they witnessed a Chicago police officer manhandling a middle-age woman the afternoon of June 2, 2012, court records show.

Lane – who has worked as a community journalist – photographed the encounter and claims Chicago police then arrested him in retaliation for taking pictures, court records indicate. He was taken into custody, separated from his then-12-year-old-son and charged with misdemeanor assault.

A month later, however, when Lane appeared in court the Cook County state’s attorney’s office dismissed the charge because the officer failed to appear, according to interviews and records.

Futterman, Lane’s attorney, called it "a form of harassment," saying his client committed no crime and shouldn’t have been charged in the first place.

Lane sued the police claiming false arrest among other things, but just last month a federal jury ruled in favor of the city.

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Diana Diaz and Joshua Garrett

Joshua Garrett and wife Diana Diaz, both age 30, had a different outcome on their lawsuit against the city: They settled a civil case earlier this year and were paid $15,000 apiece, though the city admitted no wrongdoing.

The Bucktown couple was biking home after attending a concert at Pilsen’s Thalia Hall in the early hours of June 14, 2014, when Chicago police stopped them, according to court records and interviews.

Garrett and Diaz said police told them they couldn’t bike on the 1300 block of South Ashland, but a city official told a reporter that no such restriction exists.

Either way, at some point Garrett started filming the interaction with police on his cell phone, igniting a confrontation that ended with Garrett and his wife in jail. "You want to lecture me? You can lecture me now, a------," a male officer can be heard on video, apparently talking to Garrett after arresting him.

Ultimately, Garrett was charged with resisting arrest, obstruction of justice and two other misdemeanors, while Diaz was accused of resisting arrest and obstruction of traffic by a motorist, according to interviews and records.

But as was the case with Lane, the charges were dropped when police didn’t show up in court. Garrett and Diaz said they believe the officers didn’t show because they knew the charges were meritless.

On Garrett’s phone recording, the male officer can be heard indicating he’s looking forward to seeing Garrett in front of a judge.

"I’ll go to court on these clowns," the officer said, according to the recording provided by Garrett.

That officer could not be reached for comment. All of the officers involved in the cases highlighted by the BGA and FOX either couldn’t be reached or declined to comment.

James, who had his jaw wired shut for seven weeks, said when the officers in his case didn’t show it left him with mixed emotions.

"I’m angry that I had to go through what I went through and confused because I went through all that trouble and they didn’t even bother showing up," he says.

Told of the BGA/FOX 32’s findings, John Franklin, an ex-Chicago police commander and until recently the Village of Dolton police chief, said officers have a responsibility to appear in court.

"If you’re going to throw the book at somebody you should go to court. It’s part of the job," he said.

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter and Robert Herguth, and FOX 32’s Dane Placko. They can be reached at aschroedter@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9035.