HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States

Office of Professional Standards
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The Office of Professional Standards (OPS) was created in 1974. It is part of the 13,500-member police department but is staffed by civilians. The office is headed by a chief administrator who is appointed by the mayor and works for thepolice superintendent. It has approximately sixty-five investigators who may be ex-police officers but not from the Chicago police department.73 According to OPS, the police department is required to notify OPS when they receive complaints directly, and the police stations must be accessible to complainants.74 All excessive force complaints, shootings by police, deaths in custody and domestic disputes involving officers are investigated by OPS. The department does not have a special team to deal with shootings by officers; homicide detectives work with OPS on shooting investigations (although critics claim OPS often simply adopts the homicide investigation's findings as its own). The OPS files a report with the Police Board monthly, and those reports are available to the public.

The office received more than 3,000 excessive force complaints a year during both 1996 and 1997.75 This is a high rate of excessive force complaints; for example, New York City's police force is the subject of a similar number of excessive force complaints annually, yet is triple the size of Chicago's. A representative of the department told Human Rights Watch that one explanation for the high rate of complaints is that each complaint made to OPS is counted, whether or not the complainant signs a complaint or submits one in writing at all.76

The OPS claims to sustain approximately 10 percent of investigated complaints.77 The OPS chief administrator reviews investigations and recommendsdiscipline up to thirty days' suspension.78 The police superintendent may order discipline of up to five days' suspension, and the officer may not appeal; when the discipline is six to thirty days' suspension, the officer may appeal to the Police Board.79 If the discipline is more than thirty days' suspension or dismissal, the Police Board hears the case.80 In 1992, in response to police-union complaints about the disciplinary charges against Commander Burge (See above), who was brought up on charges nine years after he allegedly tortured Andrew Wilson, a five-year statute of limitations on administrative proceedings was established through state legislation.81

The Police Board, composed of nine civilians appointed by the mayor, often exonerates officers brought before it for serious disciplinary sanctions, or reduces the penalties against the officers.82 According to press reports, more than half of the officers the superintendent tried to fire over a five-year period ending in late 1997 were either acquitted or had their sentences reduced.83 In its own defense, the board contends that it is presented with weak cases that cannot be upheld. In 1996, during which more than 3,000 complaints against the police were filed with OPS, the board decided six cases in which the superintendent sought dismissal based on excessive force charges: in one case a firing was reduced to a suspension, in another the charges were withdrawn (which usually means an officer resigned before a case washeard), and four officers were found not guilty.84 The board usually does not explain the reasoning behind its rulings.85

For its part, the Police Board blamed former Superintendent Rodriguez for not taking brutality cases seriously enough. The board also blamed OPS for delays. The board's president claimed, "it is so bogged down in OPS that we're losing credibility."86 And the Commission on Police Integrity found that the disciplinary system was thwarted by long delays between an incident and the imposition of a sanction due to multiple appeals.87 The Commission called for streamlining this process so that arbitration does not take place years after an incident, thus requiring the department to locate and seek cooperation from witnesses who may have observed an incident years earlier.88

Many community activists and attorneys who represent victims of police abuse in civil suits do not hold the OPS in high regard.89 They claim that the OPS staff is often rude to complainants, conducts sloppy investigations, and places an enormous burden on complainants to prove their cases. Said one attorney who often represents alleged victims in civil lawsuits against the police force, "If the police officer denies it, you're out of luck."90 There is a perception among community activists that the OPS is biased in favor of the police generally and is particularly vulnerable to pressure by the police union. The code of silence among officers is strong duringOPS reviews, as officers routinely claim no knowledge of alleged excessive force.

The vast majority of cases investigated by OPS are found "not sustained," meaning that the OPS could not determine whether or not the incident took place as alleged by the complainant.91 OPS Chief Administrator Gayle Shines claims the reason for the small percentage of sustained cases " that a lot of these cases are one-on-one."92 Because cases are so rarely sustained, police abuse experts and even the commander of the Internal Affairs Division have recommended using "not sustained" complaints to gauge whether certain officers against whom repeated complaints are filed should receive training, counseling or other special attention.

OPS does not have subpoena power, does not hold public hearings and, if it makes policy recommendations, they are not made public.93 The OPS does not publish a detailed report on its work, key findings, or important trends in abuse complaints; the report that it makes public contains only tallies of complaints, investigative findings (unfounded, exonerated, not sustained, or sustained), and disciplinary action recommended (reprimands, suspensions, and separations). The OPS does not provide any information regarding the subject officer or complainant, such as race, age, or gender, or the district where the incident took place or where the officer involved is assigned. OPS staff explain that funding has not been available for computerization of its work, and that everything is done by hand, making a comprehensive public report unfeasible.94

73 Telephone interview with Carmen Cristia, Coordinator of Operations, OPS, October 22, 1997.

74 Interview with Gayle Shines, Chief Administrator, OPS, August 24, 1995.

75 Telephone interview, Carmen Cristia, OPS, October 22, 1997 and OPS memorandum to the police superintendent, dated October 6, 1997. Steve Mills, "Brutality complaints about cops on decline," Chicago Tribune, January 13, 1998. That article noted that the number of complaints dropped slightly, from 3,138 in 1996 to 3,115 in 1997.

76 Telephone interview, Don Zoufal, general counsel, Chicago Police Department, January 22, 1998.

77 Ibid. According to press reports, the 1996 sustained rate for excessive force complaints was 8 percent. Michelle Roberts, "A heavy burden of proof," Chicago Sun-Times, October 9, 1997. Information provided by OPS to Human Rights Watch did not include totals for 1997, as requested, but the 1995 sustained rate provided was also 8 percent. According to press reports, about 10 percent of complaints investigated during 1997 were sustained. Mills, "Brutality complaints about cops," Chicago Tribune, January 13, 1998. Police abuse experts contend that the sustained rate includes allegations that are part of excessive force complaints but not directly related to excessive force itself; theyfurther contend that after appeals and arbitration, sustained complaints actually acted upon are much lower than 8 to 10 percent.

78 Only prior complaints that were sustained are considered in disciplinary recommendations, and five years after investigations are completed OPS purges all non-sustained complaints from its files, in accordance with the police union's contract.

79 Telephone interview, Don Zoufal, general counsel, CPD, January 22, 1998.

80 Anything less than dismissal may be arbitrated. Telephone interview, Don Zoufal, general counsel, CPD, January 22, 1998.

81 Conroy, "Town without pity," Chicago Reader.

82 Steve Mills, "Lax discipline for cop brutality fuels distrust," Chicago Tribune, November 12, 1997.

83 Ibid.

84 Ibid.

85 According to press reports, the Police Board members who decide cases do not necessarily hear the case, instead relying on transcripts and help from the hearing officer. Mills, "Cops try to...," Chicago Tribune.

86 Ibid.

87 Office of International Criminal Justice, University of Illinois, Chicago, Report of the Commission on Police Integrity, November 1997.

88 Ibid.

89 The OPS's reputation was not helped when an OPS investigator was found guilty of misdemeanor theft in 1996 yet remained employed by the OPS after a thirty-day suspension. The investigator denied stealing items, despite a videotape showing the theft. Steve Mills, "Cop prober's shoplifting conviction disclosed," Chicago Tribune, October 21, 1997.

90 Telephone interview, attorney Standish Willis, August 24, 1995.

91 The OPS uses a preponderance of the evidence legal standard.

92 Roberts, "A heavy burden...," Chicago Sun-Times.

93 Telephone interview, Carmen Cristia, OPS, October 22, 1997.

94 IAD and OPS will not allow complainants to view investigative files without obtaining a subpoena. Telephone inquiry, IAD and OPS representatives, December 17, 1997.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch