CHICAGO — Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s best line remains “the system is rigged.”
When The Donald delivers that line, people cheer.
It’s too bad Trump is talking about America politics and not our country’s criminal justice system, which statistics, jail population demographics and too many civil lawsuit settlements to count show has been stacked against minorities and the poor for generations.
Given the national conflict between police and poor minority communities, criminal justice reform should be at the top of the next president’s agenda, no matter who gets elected.
Mark Konkol talks about city payouts that continue a cycle of distrust.
Today in Chicago, nothing — not attracting tourists, recruiting a Fortune 500 company's headquarters or allowing rich developers to build a new South Loop neighborhood for the wealthy — matters more than rebuilding the broken trust in our police department.
Any hope of real reform starts with the powerful leader at the top.
In Chicago, there's only one boss, Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Historically, Chicago mayors rule from atop an elaborate power structure designed by the Democratic Machine. It's a system that skeptics will tell you was built to preserve a publicly accepted level of crookedness locals know as “The Chicago Way.”
People angry about Chicago’s poor police-community relations, skyrocketing shootings and murders and the lack of punishment cops face when they engage in police misconduct aim all their aggression at Emanuel.
The mayor is the only guy with enough power to bring real reform to a police department most Chicagoans don’t trust.
Recently, a long chat with a veteran civil rights attorney convinced me that a group of do-gooders have unwittingly allowed Emanuel — and all of his mayoral predecessors — to avoid dealing with police misconduct and corruption head-on.
We’ll get to that later.
First, let’s focus on how our local criminal justice system is rigged.
It starts with powerful politicians who control it.
One way for a politician to stay in office is to build a reputation for being “tough on crime" and back it up with crime statistics that seem to show Chicago is safer than it used to be.
That political reality puts great pressure on Chicago’s police superintendent — and Cook County prosecutors — to statistically show that they are making arrests, getting convictions and, maybe most importantly, convincing judges to send the "bad guys" to prison, where they belong.
People who know about these things will tell you that police, prosecutors and judges (who also run for election) are criminal justice system co-workers. They rely on each other to catch, convict and punish criminals.
For generations it has been a Chicago tradition to treat what police officers write on arrest reports and testify about in court as gospel, particularly if their version of events is corroborated by other police officers.
Some skeptics will tell you it’s because the job of being an American police officers has become a grand folk tale about how when regular people — people with all the prejudices, opinions and other deficiencies that regular people have — magically transform into “heroes” just by wearing a badge.
But here’s another reason: There is very little incentive for prosecutors — especially ambitious ones trying to have a near-perfect conviction batting average — to accuse police officers of falsifying a report or making false statements.
Doing so might hurt their chances of winning cases and ultimately damage their relationship with cops and investigators on the street who they work with every day in court.
Also, prosecutors — even if they happen to win convictions based on a crooked cop’s lies — are afforded “absolute immunity” from being sued in civil court.
We all know that Chicago police officers who get caught lying in statements and written reports — a violation of Rule 14 in the police code that automatically gets cops fired at nearly every department in America — rarely lose their jobs here.
Cops who get sued for alleged misconduct don’t need to hire a private lawyer. Chicago’s city corporation defends them even when investigations by police internal affairs or the Independent Police Review Authority finds they acted improperly.
Taxpayers foot the bill for their legal defense, and any judgment or settlement related to their misdeeds.
Take the city’s $5 million settlement with the family of Laquan McDonald.
Here’s how city Corporation Counsel Steve Patton explained it to the City Council on April 15, 2015:
The city “would still be responsible for his, this officer’s — if the officer were found not to have justifiable belief that he was in imminent threat of harm, we would have been — the city would have been responsible for any judgment,” Patton said.
So far this year, taxpayers have paid out more than $18 million in civil lawsuit settlements alleging police misconduct.
There are at least a couple important reasons that city lawyers — along with the mayor and City Council — sign off on those settlements.
For one, Chicago, as a self-insured municipality, has a financial obligation to the government to spend the least amount of taxpayer money defending civil lawsuits related to police misconduct.
When a case seems unwinnable, Patton, in his role as corporation counsel, believes cutting deals is best for the city’s bank account.
He said so just before alderman approved the McDonald settlement.
“If it is a case that should be settled, I am convinced, and I think or records show, it saves the city and taxpayers money to resolve cases before they generate a lot of fees and other costs,” Patton told the City Council.
What he didn’t say to the City Council that day is even more important. The city got something more than savings from that settlement payout, and all police misconduct settlements like it: a binding agreement denying any wrongdoing by the city and police officers accused of misconduct.
The McDonald settlement absolved the city of all civil responsibility for the 16 shots fired by officer Jason Van Dyke that killed the teenager.
For generations, that way of "saving the city money" has effectively allowed the city to deny the presence of police corruption harbored by what Emanuel admitted exists in the department: the Thin Blue Line code of silence that protects crooked cops — some of them still on the force — from being punished for their misdeeds.
That gets us to the other group of people who arguably — and ironically — have helped delay real reform America’s rigged criminal justice system: civil rights attorneys.
While civil rights lawyers are generally recognized as a group of freedom fighters and corruption busters who stand up against government injustice, they also orchestrate settlement deals that have effectively allowed politicians to avoid culpability and allow the injustice to continue.
Again, consider the Laquan McDonald settlement.
Civil rights attorneys representing Laquan McDonald's mother and sister, Jeffery Neslund and Michael Robbins, negotiated the $5 million payout. They described it as “fair, reasonable and just” and collected more than $1.8 million for legal fees, court records show.
Neslund told Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell that the infamous video of McDonald’s shooting deal was a “huge bargaining chip” with the city.
And even though the probate court case didn’t mention any confidentiality terms for keeping that video secret, Neslund said he decided not to release the video himself because of fear.
According to Mitchell’s April 14, 2015, column Neslund said, “I agonized over this. I really wanted to let it go viral, but how would that affect the city of Chicago?’ Ultimately, the more I thought about it, the more I decided against it. Yes, it was a huge bargaining chip in the negotiations, but I didn’t want that on my conscience.’”
Thanks to the work of Chicago journalists who convinced a Cook County judge to order the city to release the video, the whole world saw McDonald’s slaying on YouTube. There were protests in the street.
But the events that transpired on the video, at least legally thanks to the $5 million settlement, were not and never will be the city’s fault.
Now, Chicagoans are stuck relying on powerful politicians to reform the system when experience tells us that reform at City Hall is elusive unless it is court-ordered.
Some good might come if civil rights attorneys refused to accept the money-saving, blame-dodging settlement payouts offered up by Chicago’s corporation counsel and forced the city to defend those cases at trial.
Imagine the all secrets that might be revealed in documents the public never gets to see and the lies that might be exposed in depositions with a right hand raised in a oath to tell the truth under the penalty of perjury.
Our society might benefit if those court rulings — and the appellate and Supreme Court decisions that ultimately would follow — actually forced City Hall to take responsibility for injustice inflicted on Chicagoans and make real reforms that allow people — rich or poor and police officers or accused criminals — to be treated equally as humans?
That’s a hard sell, especially when civil settlements that the city considers a cash savings happens to be enough money to lift the victimized or their families out of dire financial circumstances.
Neslund's client, Laquan's mother, didn't want the fatal shooting of her son released to the public. The only goal was to get the city to settle the case. That's what he did.
"It's no different than a personal injury case settlement. Every settlement includes a release denying responsibility, liability or wrongdoing," Neslund said. "What's different in a civil rights case is that the officer [who doesn't admit wrongdoing] goes back on the street."
In Chicago, we know from experience what happens when a bad cop's actions gets protected by civil lawsuit settlements.
Neslund summed it up in one word: "Burge."
Jon Burge, that is, the former police sergeant who notoriously tortured innocent people living in poor minority neighborhoods on the South Side to attain false confessions.
"In the Burge cases, the city kept writing checks and that kept what was happening under radar. The city pays out all the lawsuits and never addresses the system," Neslund said.
"It's about money, not people, not taking responsibility. I don't know what the answer is."
To be fair to Neslund and Robbins — and all civil rights attorneys representing victims of police misconduct — their legal responsibility is only to their clients.
They have no duty to fix the rigged criminal justice system.
It’s not a civil rights attorney's job to improve the lives of other Chicagoans or take action in the best interest of our entire society’s greater good.
That responsibility lies with politicians who experts will tell you generally need voters to believe they are tough on crime in order to win elections.
Or as Neslund put it, "That's what you elect a mayor to do."
To this day, a lot of people — even former Gov. Pat Quinn — have publicly wondered if the swift McDonald settlement that helped keep the shooting video secret for 400 days may have helped our mayor stay in office.
The “fair, reasonable and just” settlement over the death of Laquan McDonald — a deal that happened without filing a civil lawsuit that would have made the case public — was struck with the city on March 24, 2015.
Mayor Emanuel won re-election two weeks later.
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