Monday, September 21, 2009

The endgame is in sight

By David Heinzmann

A cop sent me a text message last Thursday morning asking whether I’d heard that some former Special Operation Section officers had just turned themselves in at the First District station. Immediately, I knew this would blow up my day at the Trib, where I and three other reporters have been busting our butts working on stories about Chicago’s Olympic bid.

I don’t cover the Chicago Police Department anymore, but this SOS scandal was a nearly full-time job for a couple years, and it’s not finished, so it’s still my case to cover.

Three years ago when the SOS scandal broke, there were seven cops charged with running a robbery and home invasion ring that netted them hundreds of thousands of dollars. They started out ripping off drug dealers—allegedly—but ended up preying on anybody who kept cash on hand and would think twice about complaining to the authorities (Read: undocumented Mexicans.)

I knew the case was big when I first heard all the charges back in September 2006. But the detail that really illustrated the magnitude of the SOS scandal was the news a few weeks into the case that more than a dozen officers were cooperating with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s investigation, including testifying before a grand jury.

Getting cops to testify against each other is no easy task. Getting a dozen to do it means something enormous is going on. Eventually the U.S. attorney and the FBI took over the SOS investigation.

So that text message last week was my first sign that the investigation is finally coming to a head. A couple hours later we were able to report that some of those dozen or so cooperating cops were finally surfacing.,0,5318911.story They all made deals with prosecutors back in 2006 that once the investigation was complete, they’d be charged in the case, plead guilty and get lenient sentences in exchange for their cooperation.

Four of them closed their deals last week—getting charged on Thursday and pleading guilty on Friday. Six months in jail, probation for a few years, their pensions gone. We hear there may be more in the coming weeks, and then the federal indictments will finally start coming down in the case. If there are convictions in federal court the sentences are likely to run into decades.,0,1659077.story

It’s hard for a scandal to hold the public’s attention very long in this day and age, and Chicago has more than its share of malfeasance and corruption to offer new distractions. But this SOS mess is really a monster of a case. Its tentacles cost the last superintendent his job, prompted Mayor Daley to bring in an ex-FBI honcho whom the rank and file really hate. The case also has waylaid the careers of several cops who didn’t really do anything wrong.

I wrote about it here a couple months ago when some of the cops who got caught up in the fringes of the case got their badges back after two years of humiliating desk jobs. But the internal affairs investigator who tried to blow the whistle on the scandal back in 2004—Bridget McLaughlin--remains stripped of her police powers and answering phones for reasons that have never been clear.

The feds got into the case because there was some evidence that police brass were covering up for the SOS officers, ignoring the fact that over several years hundreds of people were making almost identical complaints—Officer Jerry Finnigan and others on his team were arresting them without cause, and then ransacking their cars and homes looking for drugs, guns and money. They’d write phony police reports to make it all look OK, and if they found money most of it would disappear.

One night Finnigan and two of the men who pleaded guilty last week caught a drug dealer with $450,000 in cash. They split it three ways—each man taking home $150,000 in cash that night, according to the two officers’ confessions. More than twice their annual salaries for each of them. In cash. In one night.

When I was writing about SOS regularly, people would always come up to me and say, “Do you watch ‘The Shield’? This is just like ‘The Shield.’” I never really watched the “The Shield” but I know the TV show was loosely based on the Rampart scandal in the LAPD. And I know that this SOS scandal is sort of like Rampart. Only bigger.

Most of the time their victims were Hispanic gang members, but somewhere along the way they started preying on people who weren’t crooks. Many of the court documents I’ve combed through show immigrant laborers, pulled over and handcuffed and then interrogated about where they kept cash. While they were held, some of the officers would ransack their houses while their families looked on in terror. They’d take cash, tools, anything of value. It went on for years.

Whenever I dig too deep into the SOS stuff, I have to take a step back and think about some of the cops I’ve met over the years covering the beat. The cops who are working side jobs and scrounging for overtime to pay Catholic school tuition.

I think of the cops who work in some of the most violent neighborhoods in America, the ones who show up at one murder scene after another trying solve crimes, trying restore some sense of law and order to the streets of Chicago. They’re the ones who see the drug money, who make the arrests and have the chance to stick a little in their pockets, but instead make sure every penny of it gets inventoried at the end of the night.

They’re the cops who say they’re fed up with this city, the hypocrisy and the corruption and the completely debased lives led by too many of its residents. They say they’ve had and they’re thinking about taking a soft job on some suburban department. Or moving out West.

But at the end of the day I know most of them can’t really imagine leaving this mess—and the job--behind. It’s the only family they’ve got.


Libby Hellmann said...

What a thought-provoking, horrifying, and ultimately sad post, Dave. Really amazing. Thank you.

Barbara D'Amato said...

It's so hard getting your head around the police thing. My best friend, the late Hugh Holton, was a fine police officer, and there are many, many others. Some are good friends to me still. The bad ones make them look bad, and they know it but hate to say so. I wish we could change the blue code of silence.

Sara Paretsky said...

David, Thanks for taking the time to write this--you're swamped, I know, and yet this is an important post