In top cop’s old district, complaints about police abuse

Between 2008 and 2012, the years that interim Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson commanded the Gresham district, Injustice Watch identified 15 federal lawsuits accusing a group of officers of illegal searches and arrests, at times using unnecessary force.

Officers in the South Side Gresham District were the subject of repeated complaints of misconduct and improper searches and arrests while interim police superintendent Eddie Johnson was commander, an Injustice Watch investigation has found.

Between 2008 and 2012, the years that Johnson commanded the district, Injustice Watch identified 15 federal lawsuits accusing a group of officers of illegal searches and arrests, at times using unnecessary force. Though the facts vary, a pattern emerged from the lawsuits:Chicago cop cars

Officers in the Gresham district are repeatedly accused of approaching people on the street, questioning them, and then, in four cases, allegedly strip searching the people being questioned. Nine of the cases involve allegations of force by the officers.

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In ten cases the people being questioned were charged with drug crimes or such other violations as resisting or obstructing officers. All ten of the cases ended in the charges dismissed, in findings that no probable cause existed, or in not guilty verdicts.

In the other five cases, no arrest records were found in relation to the alleged encounters with police.

Records kept by the Invisible Institute, based on data obtained following lawsuits, show that the officers involved were subject to repeated citizen complaints, almost all of which ended with findings from the Illinois Police Review Authority (IPRA) that the complaint could not be sustained. Most of the officers had not been disciplined in any cases; the most harsh was one five-day suspension.

Eleven of 13 officers named in repeated cases are still employed by the Chicago Police Department.

Lori Lightfoot

Chicago Police Board President Lori Lightfoot.

The pattern of alleged misconduct, revealed in the federal lawsuits, comes as City Council Wednesday is expected to take up the permanent confirmation of Johnson to be the next superintendent, replacing Garry McCarthy, whom Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired in December in the fallout that erupted after the release of police video of officer Jason Van Dyke shooting teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times.

The City Council is preparing to name Johnson at Emanuel’s urging even though Johnson never went through the process that the city set up, in which candidates for superintendent are to be reviewed and recommended by a nine-person police board.

Told of the Injustice Watch findings, a source familiar with board vetting practices said Tuesday, “That’s 100 percent the reason why there needs to be a vetting process. Because all of this would have been discovered in the process.”

Johnson did not respond to a request for comment through the police department’s press office. The mayor’s office also failed to respond to requests for comment, as did the chairwoman of the Police Board, Lori Lightfoot.

Eddie Johnson, commander

Eddie Johnson worked as the Gresham District commander from 2008 to 2012.

Of the 15 cases reviewed by Injustice Watch, 12 ended in settlements or verdicts ranging between $1795 and $750,000. Two of the cases ended in the city’s favor, one when the defendant dropped the matter and the other when the court ruled that another defendant had filed too many lawsuits without merit. One case, involving a fatal police shooting, ended in a $4.5 million judgment.

Officer Armando Ugarte was named in ten of them, and officer Adrian Vivanco was named seven; each has been sued once since. There were nine additional officers who were named in two or more of lawsuits while Johnson was commander.

More trouble after misconduct complaint

The trouble for John Jennings, according to a federal lawsuit he filed, began when officers Robert McCallum and David Harris in September 2009 were in the Chatham neighborhood as Jennings was working on his sister’s vehicle. One of the officers asked Jennings where his gun was located. When Jennings denied having a weapon, the lawsuit states, the officers searched his vehicle, handcuffed him, and conducted an invasive body search.

The officers left without charging him. But after Jennings filed a complaint against the officers, he said, things turned worse. As he was waiting in line at a car wash in June of 2010, the lawsuit contends, a group of officers approached. Officer Marvin Coleman handcuffed Jennings and escorted him to Armando Ugarte’s squad car, where he was told that if he told police where illegal contraband was he would “make things much easier.”

Jennings was charged with having a suspected contraband pill in his car, a charge later dismissed, according to court records. Jennings filed another complaint against the officers and, according to the lawsuit, more trouble occurred. In October of 2010, Jennings was at a stoplight when Officers Ugarte and Vivanco pulled him over.

Chicago police make an arrest downtown

Zoe Rosenbaum / Injustice Watch

Chicago police make an arrest downtown

The complaint alleges that the officers pulled Jennings out of his vehicle and then handcuffed and arrested him, saying they had been looking for him since the last complaint Jennings had lodged. Ugarte and Vivanco wrote in their police report that Jennings had been pulled over for using a cellphone while driving. Vivanco also wrote in the report that he found Jennings holding a substance that appeared to be heroin, with more bags of heroin found inside Jennings’s pants.

The charges against Jennings were later dismissed, after which he filed the federal lawsuit. The city settled the case for $60,000, city records show.

Gayle Foltin contends she was was riding in her boyfriend’s car in August 2009 when Officers Ugarte and Cesar Candelario pulled over the car for an alleged traffic violation. The officers searched the car, according to her lawsuit, and then called for a female officer who reached under Foltin’s bra and searched her body invasively.

Her attorney, Thomas Morrissey, said the officers had no reason to believe that Foltin was armed or dangerous. “There was no basis for doing that type of search or any search,” Morrissey said.

Foltin was not arrested and later sued the department. She received a settlement of $1,795.

Attorney Heather Winslow, who brought one of the lawsuits against officers in the district, said that clients have described some of the officers as “doing things that don’t necessarily rise to shooting people or beating them, but they’re humiliating them in their community. It’s more difficult to prove because you don’t have the physical evidence of beating or shooting, but it becomes the officer’s word against the individual citizen. And that’s difficult.”

Incidents end in use of force

Several of the cases reviewed, however, involved allegations of excessive force.

On an evening in April 2008, twin sisters Angel and Asia Moore went out in search of candy in Chicago’s South Side when they were stopped by police, according to their civil attorney Richard Dvorak.

Police officers Jennifer Harris, Adrian Vivanco, Richard Rodriguez and Samuel Rawls, all named in the civil suit, contended the sisters looked “youthful,” Dvorak said in an interview with Injustice Watch, and the officers thought they might be breaking curfew. But the stop soon turned forceful.

Dvorak said officer Jennifer Harris grabbed the head of Angel Moore, who was legally blind, and “slammed it against the police car a couple of times,” he said, causing her to suffer from a torn cornea.

“Her vision got even more limited than it already was,” Dvorak said.

Officers arrested Angel Moore and charged her with aggravated battery of a police officer and resisting arrest or obstructing justice. Court records show a judge later found Angel Moore not guilty of those charges.

In June, 2012, Moore’s suit over the incident went before a jury, which awarded her $785,000, as well as an additional $2,250 in punitive damages against officer Harris personally. The two sides later agreed to a settlement of $750,000, as well as $110,000 in attorney fees, against the city. The judgment against Harris was dropped as part of the agreement.

A stop, a black eye and questions

Chicago Police carLoreina Brown was smoking a cigarette in a car at the side of the road with her boyfriend when officers approached with a “bogus” reason, according to Brown’s attorney, Joey Mogul.

Brown’s boyfriend was removed from the vehicle after officers saw that he had a suspended license, but Mogul said they then approached Brown and ordered her out of the vehicle.

The police and Brown’s versions of what happened next differ: Police said Brown fell while getting out of the vehicle, while Brown contended officer Vivanco punched her in the right eye.

“You don’t just fall on the ground and get a black eye,” Mogul said in an interview with Injustice Watch, noting that Brown went and filed a complaint with the IPRA.

Brown was charged with resisting or obstructing a police officer, battery, and marijuana possession before a judge found her not guilty of all charges, according to court records.

Vetting process subverted

The Injustice Watch review was undertaken as part of a broad examination of practices by the Chicago police department, as community groups complain of widespread mistreatment and protests have became more vocal since the video of former officer Jason Van Dyke’s shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald became public last November. Since then, the U.S. Department of Justice has opened an ongoing investigation into the pattern and practices of the department.

After Emanuel announced that he favored Johnson for the post, despite the required vetting process, Injustice Watch closely examined cases filed against officers in the Gresham district while he was commander.

Walter Burnett

Ald. Walter Burnett

Council members on the Committee on Public Safety Tuesday overwhelmingly voted to approve Johnson and amend the ordinance mandating that he first be recommended by the police board. Members expressed confidence in Johnson’s ability to raise morale and turn the department around.

“To me, we need to do what’s expedient,” said Alderman Walter Burnett, Jr. “What’s expedient is we need to save people’s lives in the city of Chicago.”

Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza

Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza

Even aldermen speaking against the action focused on the process, rather than criticizing Johnson.  “When we went searching for a new police chief, the board went from neighborhood to neighborhood, listening to people speak, asking questions, what we’d like to see. They spent $550,000 searching for a candidate, right?” Alderman Susan Sadlowski Garza said. “And three were presented, and Commander Johnson was chosen and he didn’t even apply.”

Injustice Watch staff members Zoe Rosenbaum, Sam Hart and Camille Darko contributed to this report.