Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Scandal, redemption and another year in purgatory

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.


Dana King said...

Thanks, David, and welcome from a regular reader of The Outfit. I lived in the Chicagoland area for a few years in the 90s, and based several stories there. I hope to write some more Chicago-based fiction, and these are just the kinds of things that provide grist for the mill.

I also have an active interest in "inside baseball" police stories, as I think the political and CYA machinations of a big city police force are at least as interesting, and frustrating, as the crimes the cops are paid to investigate.

Steerpike said...

Great post, David - eye-opening, interesting... a little depressing. Welcome to the Outfit. I think the stories and perspective of your experience as a Chicago journalist will really add something to the various kinds of commentary on this site.

I also hope you keep us up to date on the specific case you mentioned in your post. I'm curious, and I doubt I'm alone.

abbourgoin said...

Steerpike says it best-he's not alone. I'm very curious. Great post and welcome aboard! I look forward to hearing your perspective on things and as a fledgling writer myself, I look forward to comparing your experinces on debut novel to my own. Welcome to the Outfit!

Libby Hellmann said...

Great post, David. Thanks.. and welcome again. A good cop friend -- and writer, btw -- was put into purgatory about two years ago. I wonder if he's made it out.

Marcia said...

If your first post is any indication, you fit in quite well with this blog. I am just a reader, but am interested in the workings of a writer's mind. I look forward to your posts. Also, will be checking out your first book in December.

Sean Chercover said...

Great post, David - and welcome (officially) to The Outfit.

It's great to have you with us.

David Heinzmann said...

Thanks to all for the kind words of welcome.

Anonymous said...

Heinzmann, I hope you'll be a bit more objective here than you are in the Trib, but if your first post is any indication, I doubt it. Reading your material, one gets the feeling that police commit nothing but malfeasance, and some other group out there (maybe plumbers?) is putting their lives on the line every day in Chicago's worst neighborhoods protecting a generally ungrateful public. In this post, you say that Weis is putting previously stripped officers back on the street "because Weis decided they had been exonerated to some degree". In fact, the Jefferson Tap cops were fully exonerated and acquitted on all counts by a criminal judge after a week-plus long trial. Language is important, as you know. Omitting the acquittal information in your post and using different language like "Weis decided they had been exonerated to some degree" makes it appear capricious and vaguely sinister. I don't know why they let you on this site, but misleading and biased reporting like yours doesn't merit more exposure. Try to play it straight when you're not writing fiction, please.

abbourgoin said...

In response to anonymous....being exonerated and acquitted in a criminal court unfortunately sometimes doesn't mean a whole lot in this country. Just because they were acquitted doesn't mean that they didn't do something unbecoming of a police officer. As a former Marine, I've seen people commit acts that may not be criminal in nature, but still got discharged under other than honorable conditions. After all OJ was found not guilty of killing his wife....enough said. Remember, ethics and law are two very different and separate entities.

David Heinzmann said...

Anonymous, Iwas trying to choose my words carefully. While, a judge did acquit the Jefferson Tap officers, as you surely know, being stripped of your badge by the superintendent is part of an administrative process not tied to the criminal process. Although, the officers were found not guilty in court, the administrative investigation by the Independent Police Review Authority has a long way to go. That's all I meant. I certainly don't mean to express any bias against officers.

I have written a lot in the last couple years about police misconduct issues but those have been big issues facing the department and the city. It would be hard to ignore them.

--David Heinzmann

Barbara D'Amato said...

Welcome aboard, David.

Anonymous said...

Dave, I understand the difference between the disciplinary process and the criminal process. I just take issue with the phrasing of Weis' decision without adding the obvious reason for the decision.

All we can ask is that you tell the whole story, give us all the relevant facts and let us decide. Letting people know that the JT officers were acquitted would have given us a more accurate picture. Without it, we're left with the suggestion that Weis "unstripped" the officers for his own reasons. Add the part about the whistleblower who's still at 311, and you've painted a fairly damning portrait. The acquittal should have been mentioned, and if people like abburgoin don't think it means much, that's up to them. But people should have been told about it. I'm not even saying you did it on purpose. Maybe you weren't thinking in that direction. But a reporter's choice of what to include and omit from a story has such a dramatic impact on the perception of the story by readers, who are stuck with whatever's written on the page. I happen to know about the acquittal, but I'm not familiar with the McLaughlin case and now I'm wondering if maybe you omitted some fact about it that would alter the narrative of that story. I just don't know.

Sara Paretsky said...

Dave, I'm late catching up with last week's posts. This was great. I've been reading your coverage in the Trib and am glad you're joining us to bring your careful reporting to a new readership. Given how long it took for any charges at all to catch up with Jon Burge, and the fact that he's only been charged with perjury, not torture, I'm not optimistic for future prosecutions. P.S. I'm sure you're well used to anonymous rants by now.

Anonymous said...

Sara, it's not a rant just because it's critical of one of your bloggers. I know you want to welcome the new guy and be nice and all that, but when you're portraying facts rather than simply opining, you should be complete and accurate. I don't think that's a rant, it's just holding people accountable. Second, I hope you, and I assume Mr. Hennzmann, understand why some people need to post anonymously. There are often very specific reasons for that, as is the case here. Finally, Burge isn't being prosecuted for torture because the statute of limitations has run, not for any more nefarious reason. I love this site and I enjoy reading the opinions expressed, but when you're stating facts, you should try to get it right. (Remember what they said at the City News Bureau: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out.") If that's a rant, so be it.