Not Just A Chicago Thing
The City of Chicago isn't the only municipality in Cook County with mounting expenses related to police misconduct.
The suburbs are seeing their fair share – with more than $40 million expended on misconduct lawsuits over five or so years alone, the Better Government Association found in a months-long survey of every community in Cook County.
In all, the BGA found those suburbs were sued 629 times and paid $29.4 million in damages, and $13.4 million for defense attorneys and other costs – for total payments of $42.8 million from 2008 through mid-2013.
Here is what each municipality in suburban Cook County has paid in police misconduct-related damages, legal fees and other costs since 2008.
Sources: Municipalities, court records | * Town didn't provide data
The true cost is likely much higher as three towns — Des Plaines, Dolton and Riverdale — were collectively sued nearly 60 times but wouldn't turn over misconduct-related financial records to the BGA. Another 27 communities could not or would not identify how much was spent on defense attorneys.
The BGA submitted Illinois Freedom of Information Act requests to the city and 132 Cook County suburbs seeking copies of police misconduct lawsuits, as well as records showing what each town paid in damages and legal fees.
The BGA found a majority of the suburban complaints alleged false arrest and brutality, with plaintiffs seeking compensation for broken jaws, concussions and other injuries. A small number accused police of killing or Tasering unarmed people.
Among the revelations:
- A majority of the lawsuits were concentrated in a block of 15 towns that include Chicago Heights, Elgin, Evanston and Park Forest. In all, those 15 towns accounted for 325, or just over half, of all suits filed.
- Five suburbs were each sued more than two dozen times. Harvey led the way with 37 lawsuits followed by Berwyn and Dolton, each with 29, and Calumet City, Cicero and Markham, each with 28, records show.
- Cicero paid $12.7 million, the most of any Cook County suburb, followed by Harvey ($6.8 million), Markham ($1.8 million), Maywood ($1.4 million) and Blue Island ($1.4 million), records show.
The total tab is dwarfed by the more than $300 million the city of Chicago has expended over roughly the same five-and-a-half year span. (The city has spent more than $500 million over the past decade, the BGA found.)
But the impact of suburban misconduct is still measurable, especially for cash-strapped towns that have faced dozens of lawsuits, and spent upwards of a million dollars on settlements, attorneys and court costs. In many cases, insurance covers some of the fees but a trail of suits and large settlements causes premiums to spike — so taxpayers still feel the pain.
Experts say there's a hidden cost, too, one that can't be economically quantified. A pattern of misconduct breeds distrust and anger and undercuts crime-fighting efforts of the good cops, says David Bradford, executive director of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety.
"People lose faith in the police and faith in the system," he says.
Notable suits involve three fatal police shootings in Calumet City, all of which are pending, and vicious beatings of unarmed men in Streamwood and Dolton, both of which resulted in cash settlements and criminal charges against the officers involved, according to interviews and public records.
The 600-plus lawsuits allege deplorable conduct but criminal justice experts caution that not every suit has merit. Many are dropped or dismissed, while others are settled for a few thousand dollars, if only to avoid a more costly court fight.
RELATED STORY: Beyond Burge
The City of Chicago has spent more than half a billion dollars for police misconduct-related claims over the past decade or so – and only a fraction of those payouts involve tortuous ex-police Cmdr. Jon Burge.
"It was my way of getting back at them," says Brandon Dunlap, 23, who sued the City of Harvey after he was allegedly punched and "kicked five or six times in the ribs" by three police officers in November 2010. Harvey settled the case for $9,500 in 2012.
Six municipalities have been sued more than two dozen times since 2008.
Sources: Municipalities, court records
Ted Street, president of Illinois Fraternal Order of Police State Lodge, describes misconduct lawsuits as "allegations until proven to the contrary."
He says he'd support penalties for people who knowingly file frivolous lawsuits against police.
"Taxpayer dollars are being wasted," he adds. "There's nothing more frustrating for the rank-and-file officer" than defending himself or herself against meritless complaints.
But there can be patterns of trouble.
A total of nine officers in Berwyn, Dolton, Harvey and Markham, among the towns with the most lawsuits, have each been named in four or more legal complaints. Seven of the officers are still working for their respective towns.
Only two, both from Markham, are off the streets.
One is former Deputy Chief Tony Dubois, named in eight lawsuits since 2008. He pleaded guilty late last year to a charge of making a false statement to the FBI and is awaiting sentencing. The other, Darryl Starks, named in four suits, has been on unpaid leave since authorities charged him with stealing money from a local business during a burglary investigation. The case is still pending.
Experts say union protections can make it challenging to dismiss an officer, even one that's been named in numerous complaints that are found to be sustained. But those protections – and the actions of a few so-called bad apples – aren't the only reason a particular department faces repeated misconduct allegations.
Eight Cook County suburbs reported paying more than $1 million in police misconduct-related damages, legal fees and other costs since 2008.
Sources: Municipalities, court records
"It's a management and leadership issue," says William Terrill, an associate criminal justice professor at Michigan State University. Too many "departments aren't holding people accountable. They treat [misconduct] as a natural course of business."
Dolton Mayor Riley Rogers, who was elected last year, agrees officers need to be held accountable, the reason last year he named former Chicago Police Cmdr. John Franklin to lead his historically troubled department.
"He's put these guys on notice," Rogers says. "They've been told, 'Before you swing you better think about it.'"