Curiosities Abound, But MWRD Insists Hiring Process Is Sound

Denis Lawlor’s stint as a Chicago cop ended, in effect, with a bang, as a copy of his official CPD personnel file reveals.

Denis Lawlor’s stint as a Chicago cop ended, in effect, with a bang, as a copy of his official CPD personnel file reveals.

"On November 22, 1995, while off duty, he committed the offense of reckless discharge of a firearm" – or, put another way, "he discharged his firearm without lawful justification," according to police records we obtained after making a request under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Lawlor also "attempted to conceal his involvement" by "removing evidence . . . from the scene of the shooting."

He also "failed to notify" authorities about firing his gun, and "disobeyed General Order #92-3, Section III, C, by carrying his weapon knowing that there was a likelihood that he was going to be consuming alcoholic beverages or after he had already consumed alcoholic beverages."

So he was fired in 1997, records show.

We’re not interested so much in Lawlor’s CPD career as we are in how he ended up in police work again – at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Chicago, the old Sanitary District, which hired him as a cop in 2011.

MWRD officials insisted they didn’t know about Lawlor’s troubles at CPD when they hired him, and that their vetting process didn’t uncover his CPD termination.

And yet they also insist, incredibly, that their employment vetting process is good.

These days Lawlor is in the process of being fired from MWRD, following an incident earlier this year in which he was recorded over a police radio bragging about drinking, sleeping and otherwise slacking on the job. Also on the recording, he threw around racial slurs and noted how everyone at MWRD was clouted into the agency – no matter that there are rules designed to ensure qualifications, not politics, guide hiring at the taxpayer-supported agency.

Perhaps the bright side of all this is that the recording shined a light on MWRD’s otherwise murky inner workings, particularly the alleged influence of politics and connections on hiring and possibly promotions.

Not that we are now expecting much in terms of reform from MWRD, which claims everything at the sanitation and flood-control agency is rosy, that there’s no need for an inspector general rooting out problems, no need to look and see whether anyone else over there has a questionable background that was missed during the hiring process, etc.

Take a look at the email exchange we recently had with an agency spokeswoman:

Q: Is MWRD embarrassed that it hired someone with this kind of background?
A: As we discussed before, the MWRD has a rigorous testing process for candidates to qualify for MWRD positions. The candidate in question passed through this process.

Q: Might there be other officers on your force that have problems in their backgrounds that your agency failed to uncover before hiring?
A: The MWRD’s hiring process is appropriate for all positions and sets a standard for other public agencies.

Q: Are you reviewing all officer backgrounds in light of the Lawlor situation? If not, why not?
A: We will continue to conduct appropriate pre-hiring screenings and follow legal protocols regarding background checks.

Q: How many officers are on your police force?
A: 62

Q: Why do you have your own police force?
A: The MWRD operates critical public infrastructure. Security of infrastructure has been elevated since 9/11.

Q: Is it necessary that MWRD has its own police force?
A: See above

Q: Do you believe that MWRD’s police force has officers who were hired based on clout rather than qualifications?
A: No.

Q: In light of the Lawlor situation, is MWRD going back to check on previous police hires to make sure there’s not some trouble in backgrounds of police officers that was missed in the screening process?

A: No.

Q: If not, why not?
A: As previously stated, the MWRD conducts appropriate pre-hiring screenings and follows legal protocols regarding background checks. As I’m sure you understand, there are laws governing screening processes.

Q: Are you saying MWRD could not have checked Lawlor’s CPD background, that there was some legal barrier preventing MWRD or its screening consultant from doing what I did – submitting a FOIA – or enlisting some other method to check to see why he was fired?
A: I believe we have exhausted this subject. Thanks.

We reached out to Lawlor’s attorney to get his side of things, but the lawyer declined comment.

This blog entry was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth, who can be reached at rherguth@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9030.