Monday, November 09, 2009

The happiest place on earth

By David Heinzmann

Whenever I walk up the sprawling front steps of the Cook County Criminal Courts Building, I murmur to myself that this is the happiest place on earth. That’s stolen from my friend Jeff Coen who would call it that whenever something particularly medieval happened within the walls of that giant meatgrinder of American justice in the years that he covered 26th and Cal for the Tribune. Then I remove my belt, empty my pockets and make my way through the metal detectors. When I entered last week I headed up to courtroom 301 to check on a case.

The little courtrooms are especially gloomy, with their low ceilings, cramped rows of gallery benches and tinted glass walling off the public from the actual court proceedings. I sat down among a dozen Hispanic and black women who were waiting for a glimpse of their sons and boyfriends in custody. On the other side of the aisle were several people in bright blue t-shirts emblazoned with some kind of Chicago Police Department logo. One of the women, a middle-aged blond who sounded like she was used to running an office, seemed to be in charge.

Every so often a deferential young prosecutor would step through the glass doors and say, “Now, you know this is just a status date? Nothing will really happen today.”

The blond woman kept answering knowingly. “Yes, we know. We’ve been following this from the beginning.”

It turned out they were there for two young women charged with defacing the police memorial near Soldier Field, and this crowd was coming to every court date to make sure the judge saw them out there, standing up against any disrespect shown their fallen brethren. When the case was called, all the people in blue t-shirts stood up, as if to testify themselves. The prosecutor was right, nothing happened and the case was bumped to a new date sometime early next year. The blue t-shirt brigade gathered up their things and trooped out of the courtroom, leaving behind a lone man who had been sitting quietly behind them. Late forties, paunchy, bald, wearing a camel hair jacket and a tie.

They had a lot in common with the guy, but the police supporters would not be there when Officer John Haleas’ case was called. He was, however, the reason I was there. Once the cop who made more DUI arrests than anybody else in Illinois, Haleas produced headlines last year when he was charged with lying on police reports to make his questionable drunken driving busts stick in court. What was worse, the case had come to light because he had brazenly done it in front of two assistant state’s attorneys, who rode in his squad car one night to see how traffic arrests are made.

Haleas was in court trying to get his case dismissed and Judge James Obbish was ready to announce his ruling. The defense lawyer argued that the investigation had been tainted by prosecutors using forbidden evidence. Early in the case, Haleas had been required to give internal affairs a statement about the accusations as part of a police department administrative probe. Refusing to give such a statement is grounds for firing but a U.S. Supreme Court ruling holds that using such forced statements for criminal charges would violate the officer’s 5th Amendment rights. So it’s off limits to prosecutors.

The prosecutor involved specialized in police misconduct and insisted he treated the Haleas case like all his other cases over the years, carefully avoiding the compelled statement. But the internal affairs investigator involved claimed that, for some reason, he had told the prosecutor all about Haleas’ compelled statement, thereby poisoning the prosecution with the taint of the forbidden fruit.

Judge Obbish sided with the internal affairs version, declared the case compromised and threw out Haleas’ indictment. Prosecutors will appeal, but Haleas, who had become a pariah over the last year, walked out of the courtroom a free man.

I immediately stepped into the hallway and thumbed out a quick and dirty version of the story on my BlackBerry for the Trib’s online breaking news page. The story was up in minutes, while I was still in the hallway talking to lawyers, and soon readers were posting comments.

Most of the comments expressed outrage of the something fishy here bent. The alleged dirty cop gets off on a technicality because of a bush-league investigative error. Cops looking out for their own, the fix was in, etc.

I don’t check the infamous cop blog all that often, but sometimes I can’t resist. Especially on a story like this. As I had expected, cops saw things very differently. There was a chorus of rejoicing, applause for the judge “following the law,” and congratulations to Haleas for beating the rap.

The difference in perspective between cops and civilians struck me, though I’m more than a little familiar with it.

In a city as corrupt as Chicago, many people fear the power of the police. And the Haleas accusations seemed to tap right into the disastrous run-in with a bad cop nightmare for many people.

On the other hand, in a city of such polar extremes, so cosmopolitan and beautiful in some quarters but so bloody and vicious in others, a lot of cops feel beaten up an abandoned by the politicians they obey and the citizens they protect.

Some people believe the system will always protect cops. Some cops believe the system is always out to get them.

It wasn’t quite an OJ-verdict moment, but as I left the happiest place on earth I did wonder how the folks in the blue t-shirts would have reacted if they had stuck around to see the Haleas case go down the drain.


Sara Paretsky said...

Dave, I learn so much from your posts. Thanks for this one. As a citizen who relies on the police for protection, and a concerned activist who sees them misusing their power--I feel caught exactly in the middle that you so carefully describe.

Anonymous said...

A balanced post, Dave. I wish we could see that kind of nuance in the daily coverage of police issues. As a novelist, you obviously know that people read for conflict, and as a reporter, you must also know that conflict sells papers. The media tends to color its coverage along reliable narratives, and who doesn't love to read a story about police corruption. Yeah we've had more than our share of real police corruption in Chicago, and it deserves coverage. But we never seem to see pieces about shady and frivolous lawsuits and how easy it is to file a frivolous complaint (lawsuit or CR) against a police officer, or how difficult the officers' jobs are beyond the standard throw-away line ("it's a tough job, but"...). The fact is that the police are fairly easy to demonize; they're a faceless bureaucracy, they're a code of silence, a thin blue line, etc. In short, they're easy to dehumanize, especially in the face of skilled and financially motivated plaintiffs' attorneys. That's why you in the media have to do a better job of humanizing the story, not in favor of the police per se, but in favor of a more fully explored narrative, in favor of a fuller truth.

David Heinzmann said...

Thanks, Sara.A kudos from you always makes my day. I know this post ran a little long.

David Heinzmann said...

Thanks, Sara.A kudos from you always makes my day. I know this post ran a little long.

Peg Ekerdt said...

The detail with which you write makes the scene come alive. The story defines the complexity of human relationships and invites a deeper understanding of what contributes to conflict among us--well done.