COOK COUNTY JAIL — A Cook County Jail correctional officer charged with beating a former detainee has a history of excessive force violations, at least one of which was filed during the year it took the sheriff’s office to investigate the 2014 beating, records show.
The fact that the officer was still able to interact with inmates during that year raises questions about the time it takes the sheriff’s office to internally investigate such incidences, a process which has averaged just under a year and a half over the past eight years.
Cook County Jail Officer Miguel Ortiz was formally charged by the Cook County State’s Attorney Office Wednesday for a 2014 incident captured on video in which Ortiz punched a detainee seven times in the head.
On Jan. 17, 2014, that detainee, 29-year-old Litroy Bolton, was transferring cells at Cook County Jail when he overheard Ortiz — a 20-year veteran of the sheriff’s office — say that he planned to place Bolton in a cell previously occupied by a sick person, according to court records.
Bolton said that he didn’t want to go into the cell, dropped the blankets he was carrying and asked to speak with a sergeant. Shortly thereafter, Ortiz assaulted him, prosecutors said.
The outburst of violence wasn’t Ortiz’s first within the jail. The correctional officer, who is currently suspended without pay, has at least 15 accusations of force on his record, 12 of which occurred after his encounter with Bolton, according to internal documents from the sheriff’s office.
Almost a year after he beat up Bolton, Ortiz was accused of assaulting a potentially suicidal inmate — an incident that was ultimately sustained by the sheriff’s own internal investigators and which resulted in Ortiz losing his badge and being placed on desk duty in February 2015, records show.
The sheriff’s office maintains that most of those violations were either administrative writeups or incidences where Ortiz was a witness to force, but may not have been directly involved.
But the office also admits it dropped the ball on Ortiz’s case.
“Miguel Ortiz is an example of a case where the resolution of that case didn’t happen quickly enough,” said sheriff’s office spokeswoman Cara Smith.
The sheriff’s office officially moved to fire Ortiz March 11, four months after the office’s internal investigation found that he used force against Bolton. That decision is currently pending before an independent merit board.
From 2008 through 2015, according to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the sheriff’s office investigated and closed some 942 excessive force complaints against jail employees. Only 8 percent — or less than one in 10 — of those complaints were sustained, a DNAinfo analysis of the records found.
Though the average investigation for those years still takes close to a year and a half from start to finish, the investigations have been getting increasingly faster since 2007. In 2015 — the most recent year in which data is available — the average was 128 days or just over four months.
This compared with 2007, when the average investigation length was just over 700 days or almost two years. Ultimately, the office’s goal is to get that average down to 60 days, said Smith, who attributes the improvement to both the office’s use of force review unit, which was established in 2014, and a significant increase of cameras within the jail.
With regard to Bolton’s case, the sheriff’s office began investigating the incident a few weeks after it occurred in January 2014. It was referred to the state's attorney office in 2015.
During Ortiz’s court hearing Thursday, Cook County Judge James Brown inquired as to why it had taken the state’s attorney’s office some two and a half years to move forward on the case.
An assistant state’s attorney answered that the office had only been aware of the case since 2015, a full year after the sheriff’s office initially said the case had been referred.
Both the state’s attorney and sheriff’s offices maintain that it was Bolton’s inability to return an administrative form that caused a significant delay in the investigation. Bolton’s lawyers say he was fully compliant throughout the process.
State’s attorney spokeswoman Sally Daly, who reasserted that the office received Bolton’s case in 2015, said it’s not uncommon for an investigation of a case like that to take over a year, even when there is video of the incident.
In addition to the state’s attorney’s investigation, Bolton has filed a federal lawsuit against the Cook County Sheriff’s office, which, among other things, accuses that office of a conspiracy to cover up Ortiz’s violence against Bolton.
An amended complaint filed last month cited several incident reports where officers and, in one case an investigator from the sheriff’s office, omitted any reference to Ortiz’s beating of Bolton.
“We have absolutely no evidence that any facts were left out,” sheriff’s office spokeswoman Smith said. “These cases can and should probably move faster than they do and we’re working on that, but in terms of the thoroughness and integrity of this investigation, we have not a shred of concern.”
Bolton’s lawyers say they’ve had additional problems with the state’s attorney’s office. In April, investigators from the sheriff’s office requested that Bolton identify Ortiz in a line up, which he did. At that time, according to Bolton’s lawyer, Vince Field, the investigators told Bolton they were confident the case would go on to the state’s attorney office and that they believed Ortiz’s indictment was imminent. About a week later, Field said Bolton was again summoned, this time to meet with a state’s attorney special prosecutor.
At that time, the special prosecutor said the state’s attorney’s office was on the fence about prosecuting Ortiz, said Field, who accompanied Bolton during this meeting. The special prosecutor began to question Bolton about his criminal background and refused to allow either of them to view the video of the beating incident, Field said.
Field said the special prosecutor also made comments about how the two-year statute of limitations on assault had expired on Bolton’s case, suggesting that was reason enough for the office to not move forward on prosecuting Ortiz.
At that time, Field said he refused to allow the interview to go forward.
“I thought, it’s not particularly appropriate for a prosecutor to be saying that, that shouldn’t be something they’re thinking about,” Field said. “And it suggested to me that the investigation had been deliberately dragged out so that the two-year statute of limitations had passed.”
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