Suspended MWRD Cop ‘Asset To The Midnight Shift’

We wrote a story in March about a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District police officer who was recorded blabbing about how little work he does, how employees sleep and drink on the job, how politics permeates hiring. And this cop also had some not-so-pleasant words for African Americans and women – using the "n" word and the "c" word, for instance.

This cop, who we now know to be Denis Lawlor, was showing a new colleague around an MWRD facility in Stickney earlier this year, blathering away, apparently not realizing his hand-held police radio was keyed "on," thereby broadcasting his remarks over a State Police radio frequency. Everything was recorded, and MWRD ended up with a copy of Lawlor’s remarks and is in the process of firing him from his $76,000-a-year job.

Click here to read our past coverage, including how we had to sue MWRD – which is funded by taxpayers, and handles sanitation and flood-control for much of the Chicago region – to get a copy of the recording.

We’ve remained curious about several things, including how Lawlor got hired at MWRD in the first place. After all, FOX 32’s Dane Placko reported that Lawlor, before joining MWRD, had been a Chicago cop, but left after an incident in which he allegedly fired his gun at or near a college dorm while visiting a relative.

Is this true? And, if so, did MWRD know about it before hiring him?

Seeking answers, we recently tried to get a hold of Lawlor, but he declined through an attorney to comment. We also sought copies of Lawlor’s personnel files from MWRD and the Chicago Police Department.

CPD has so far failed to turn anything over – violating the Illinois Freedom of Information Act in the process, for that state law requires public agencies such as the police department to respond within five business days, or 10 at the most. We submitted our request May 14. Here we are in late June.

MWRD turned over its Lawlor personnel file – with a number of sections blacked out – and reading through the paperwork you’d think Lawlor was the second coming.

"Officer Lawlor’s initiative, professionalism, and quality of work have helped the Police section maintain a strong security posture," said one performance review, apparently from 2013. "Officer Lawlor has shown good judgment when handling situations and his diligence can be seen in the way he carries out his daily assignments."

Lawlor was marked as "highly effective," which is defined as "exceeds the expectations for this job" with performance that "sets an example for others to follow."

He’s also "an asset to the midnight shift."

MWRD records indicate Lawlor worked at CPD from 1994 to 1997, and that he ultimately was "discharged," though there’s no indication as to why. He was hired by MWRD in 2011 (and records show he’s been paid a lot of overtime since then – more than $67,000 in total, including $27,000 in 2014 alone.)

We contacted MWRD to clarify a few points. Below is an edited transcript of our email exchanges:

Q: Has Lawlor now been fired for the radio incident, or is that still pending? Status?

A: Mr. Lawlor is on unpaid suspension pending discharge. The District filed charges with the civil service board on 3/3/15, and the suspension is extended by law until the CSB rules on the charges. The case is next set for status on 8/19/15.

Q: Did you guys find out how he was hired in the first place, whether someone clouted him in? If so, what was found, who’s the clout? Did his hiring break any rules?

A: The District’s hiring procedures are governed by statute. The District administers exams for every Civil Service classification. Police Officer is a civil service classification subject to the examination process. Candidates must pass the exam to make an eligible list. These lists are organized into three categories – "A", "B" and "C" – according to exam performance. Those eligible for hire first are in the "A" category. When the "A" category has fewer than 5 names, the candidates on the "B" list are reachable. When there are fewer than 5 candidates remaining in the A and B categories combined, the "C" candidates are reachable. Mr. Lawlor was placed in the A category according to his exam score.

Q: You didn't really answer my question: Did Lawlor's hiring break any rules? Did someone clout him in?

A: Our answer was very clear. The process we use does not allow for clout hiring. No rules were broken.

Q: When he was hired, did someone know that he was fired from CPD?

A: No. . . . A background check was run on Mr. Lawlor and showed no convictions and no indication that he had been terminated for performance issues by CPD.

Q: When did MWRD learn that Lawlor had been fired by CPD?

A: The MWRD discovered this discharge after the employee requested vacation credit in 2014.

Q: Should MWRD have known sooner? Why did MWRD not know sooner?

A: The MWRD followed all appropriate pre-hiring screening throughout Mr. Lawlor’s hiring process.

Q: Why did a background check uncover no CPD issues?

A: As stated earlier, the background check did not specifically identify this issue. The background check verifies employment history and criminal history. No issues arose with this standard check.

Q: Bottom line: Should Lawlor have ever been hired knowing what you know now?

A: We’re not going to speculate on this issue.

Q: Lawlor’s performance reviews seemed stellar. So was he a great employee who screwed up, were these reviews badly done and oversight poor – how can you explain such good employee reviews for a guy who professed to do so little work?

A: When Mr. Lawlor’s violations of the District’s policies and rules were discovered, the District took prompt action.

Q: Did I read his file right that he was a field training officer – so he was a trainer and role model for other officers there?

A: A field training officer is not a job title, it is an assignment directed to all police officers over time. They all share in this responsibility.

Q: Doesn’t this incident illustrate that MWRD could use an inspector general?

A: No. In fact, this is a question that was posed to our external auditor this year. Our auditor reviewed the checks and balances that we have in place and determined an IG would not be recommended.

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