Editorial: Chicago cops with histories of lying, making false reports, remain on the force. Why?

Tribune Content Agency

If a police officer cannot be trusted, then there’s really no reason for that cop to remain on the force. That’s the thrust of a new report from the city’s primary watchdog revealing serious credibility fissures at the Chicago Police Department.

The Chicago Office of Inspector General found that more than a hundred Chicago Police Department officers gave false information during criminal investigations. In many cases, the officers’ behavior — and how it was handled by the department and its oversight bodies — speaks to CPD’s persistent culture of cover-up. The report cites cops who lied about witnessing excessive force used by fellow officers, lied about verbally abusing Black youths with racist language and harassing Black youths, and filed false police reports.

CPD’s stated policy, Inspector General Deborah Witzburg reported, is to terminate officers who have been found to make false police reports or statements. More often than not, however, the department’s response was far too lenient.

In one 2019 instance, an officer witnessed a fellow cop slam an intoxicated individual to the ground, causing the person’s head to hit the curb. Video footage showed that the man was clearly unconscious, but the witnessing officer stated repeatedly that the victim remained conscious and was “alert and/or responsive.” It’s the kind of “code of silence” behavior that should get an officer fired, but instead the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), which investigates CPD rules violations by officers, recommended a 90-day suspension.

In another case, an officer who handcuffed a youth after a 2017 fight outside a school punched the youth while other officers at the scene watched. One of the officers, a sergeant, repeatedly denied seeing his fellow cop strike the youth. The sergeant should have been fired — but instead was given a 60-day suspension by COPA.

Is firing a cop for lying too harsh?

No, it’s not, principally because these aren’t little white lies. These officers were lying about police brutality, about racist treatment of Black youths, and doing so on police reports and to officials with the department’s internal affairs division along with COPA and the Police Board. Officers who lie compromise prosecutions of criminal cases and make the city even more vulnerable to lawsuits and multimillion-dollar settlements and judgments.

Most of all, officer untruthfulness erodes the already fragile trust that communities, particularly those in Black and brown neighborhoods, have in law enforcement. When that trust fades, violent neighborhoods become even more unsafe.

It’s not just the lying that’s the problem. Law enforcement in Chicago is structured to sweep officer credibility issues under the rug.

Witzburg found that the department doesn’t keep track which officers have been deemed guilty of conveying false information either in writing or orally, a violation of what CPD calls Rule 14. In some cases, officers were found guilty of lying but had those findings erased from their disciplinary histories.

Some cops guilty of Rule 14 violations ended up getting promoted or assigned to high-profile duties such as work on tactical or gang teams, or the department’s FBI task force.

The department pushed back on Witzburg’s recommendation that officers who have been found guilty of Rule 14 violations should be fired. CPD says it has to abide by police union agreements that give officers due process rights to defend themselves against recommended discipline. That’s as it should be, but if the ultimate finding is that an officer deliberately lied about material evidence in an investigation or on a report, we find it hard to see any room for second chances.

Both COPA and the Police Board suggested that Witzburg lobby the City Council to change the law so that any officer who is found guilty of violating Rule 14 be fired. That’s a sound, straightforward suggestion that the City Council should adopt.

But there’s an even deeper problem here. Witzburg’s findings reinforce the need for CPD, the City Council and Mayor Brandon Johnson to unequivocally commit to solving the long-standing lack of trust that minority communities have in Chicago law enforcement. That keeps citizens in those communities from cooperating with police to solve violent crime, and it perpetuates a toxic “us vs. them” mindset.

Lack of trust also is at the core of the consent decree, the federally mandated slate of reforms that overhaul training, supervision and accountability at the department. It’s the consent decree that mandated Witzburg’s investigation into CPD’s enforcement of Rule 14.

If Chicagoans need a reminder of the damage done by fabricated information, look no further than the saga of now-former police Detective Reynaldo Guevara, whose alleged misconduct included claims of manipulating witnesses and fabricating evidence, and led to the overturning of more than 30 convictions since 2016.

Guevara has never been charged and has repeatedly pleaded the Fifth when confronted with the allegations. His actions have cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements and legal costs. The harm to people who went to prison because of the disgraced Chicago detective is incalculable.

Earlier this year, one alleged victim, David Lugo, talked to reporters about not being there for relatives who had died while he was in prison. “I did 26 years in prison due to Guevara,” Lugo said. “I lost my mother, my sister, my brother, cousins, and other family members.”

Johnson’s task of forging newfound trust in CPD is a formidable one. He can start by ensuring that whoever becomes the new Chicago police superintendent is someone committed to zero tolerance for fabrication, and determined to uncouple the department from its entrenched habit of circling the wagons whenever critical reforms are suggested.