by David Heinzmann
Lately, Chicago Police Supt. Jody Weis has been sending a lot of cops who’ve been in trouble back to the streets.
Over the last several weeks at least eight officers who had been stripped of their badges because of links to headline-grabbing scandals—three connected to the Special Operations Section investigation and five who had been involved in the Jefferson Tap videotaped bar beating—have been given their careers back after two years in limbo because Weis decided they had been exonerated to some degree.
This flurry of reinstatements made me wonder if Weis had also tapped Bridget McLaughlin on the shoulder and sent her back to her job as an investigator in the Internal Affairs Division.
So I checked. Nope. She’s still answering phones in the police department’s 311 call center—a purgatory where officers living under a cloud are sent to do no further harm while their fates are decided.
The problem with McLaughlin’s case is that she’s never been accused of doing anything wrong. In fact, several police insiders regard her as something of a whistle-blower in the SOS fiasco. Back in 2004 she was assigned to investigate an allegation that a few of the SOS officers had falsely arrested two Mexican-immigrant factory workers, and then robbed their houses and terrorized their families while the men were in custody. When McLaughlin looked into the case, she found that the same group of cops had hundreds of allegations of almost identical crimes. False arrests. Home invasion. Robbery. But the department had cleared them in almost every case.
She was troubled enough to write a memo to her bosses documenting the number of cases and suggesting that there sure seemed to a pattern there—maybe there was something to all these allegations.
A few days after she wrote that memo, McLaughlin’s boss stripped her of her badge and sent her to the 311 call center. She’s been there ever since. Two years later, Cook County prosecutors charged seven SOS officers with hundreds of crimes just like those in McLaughlin’s memo. Several more officers have been implicated in the crimes, and the feds are still investigating whether there was a cover-up to protect the cops.
Anyway, in 2007 I got hold of McLaughlin’s memo, and a similar one written a few months later by another Internal Affairs investigator, and wrote a few stories for the Tribune revealing what had happened. When I asked police brass back then why McLaughlin was stripped of her badge, they denied she’d been punished for suggesting bosses had been looking the other way, but they acknowledged she was marooned in the 311 call center for “personnel reasons,” not disciplinary reasons.
So, a veteran investigator who’s never been accused of misconduct is in her fifth year answering phone calls that aren’t important enough to merit dialing 911. I’m still trying to make sense of that case.
Much of what I’ve done as a reporter at the Tribune over the last few years has been picking at stories like this one, digging, looking for sources, and trying to explain what’s really going on. Over time, I hope, Tribune readers have a more complex understanding of crime in Chicago.
For all the misery in the newspaper business these days, the job is still a privilege and a profound responsibility. It can also be a real kick in the pants. A couple years ago I spent a whole week crisscrossing the city and banging on doors to track down a list of prostitutes and crack addicts who’d spent the same 24-hour stretch in a South Side women’s lockup. And a few months ago I had a front row seat in a federal courtroom when the arrested governor of Illinois walked in wearing a track suit and looking more than a little out of sorts. I can’t think of another job that affords that variety of experience.
So, every couple weeks on this blog I hope to share some of the color and context that I’ve picked up along the way. Maybe readers find it interesting. Or maybe I’ll be voted off this island in a month. I’ll also be filling you in on my experiences as a first-time novelist. As Libby noted a couple weeks ago, my book, A Word to the Wise comes out in December. While the other nine members of The Outfit are all vets with multiple titles on the shelf, this is my first time out. Many of you will be able to relate, I’m sure.
I hope to have a conversation about crime and writing and whatever else is on readers’ minds. The more comments and questions, the better. I’m really thrilled to be involved and still can’t believe this crew asked me to join them.
Lastly, a plug for my reporter colleague Jeff Coen and for the wonderful Centuries & Sleuths bookstore in Forest Park. Jeff will be there Saturday at 2 p.m. talking and signing copies of his book about the historic Family Secrets mob trial. Don’t miss it.