The ongoing fight over the future of police discipline in Chicago has reached the Circuit Court of Cook County, and while attorneys for both the city and the Fraternal Order of Police polish their arguments, a judge has ordered that all pending Chicago Police Board cases be paused until at least Feb. 24.
The highest-profile of those now-halted cases stems from the 2021 shooting death of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Little Village. The Chicago Police Department filed administrative charges last year against Officer Eric Stillman, seeking to fire him for his role in the shooting.
Stillman’s Police Board evidentiary hearing was scheduled for last week.
But that case is just one of 20 currently pending before the Police Board, the 6-decade-old body that has historically acted as arbiter in the most serious cases of misconduct by CPD officers.
Along with Stillman, five other officers are accused of improper use of deadly force. Four face allegations of domestic violence or abuse. Three are accused of shirking the city’s COVID-19 vaccination policy.
The other seven cases run the gamut. One officer allegedly tested positive for cocaine during a random drug screen at CPD headquarters. A sergeant is accused of repeatedly making unwanted sexual advances toward a woman at a brewery in Beverly. Another sergeant allegedly lied to investigators with the Civilian Office of Police Accountability about witnessing another officer punch a teen arrestee in the head.
Evidentiary hearings have already concluded in three of the 20 cases, but the judge’s order bars the board from taking action on those or any of the other 17 cases that now sit in temporary limbo.
Cook County court records indicate that several officers currently facing administrative charges have quit CPD in recent months. In the past, the department has withdrawn charges if an officer resigns from the department during a pending Police Board case.
The board’s next public meeting is scheduled for Feb. 22.
The continuing fight over disciplinary policy was born from contract negotiations between the city and union last summer. Edwin Benn, the independent arbitrator overseeing the talks, issued an award to the union that provided officers accused of serious misconduct the choice to have their cases decided by another third-party behind closed doors. Benn explained that CPD officers have that right as members of a public-sector labor union.
The agreement between the city and union also provided for a nearly 20% raise for officers over four years, on top of a one-time $2,500 bonus. Beyond that, the deal creates a new “Peoples’ Court” where more minor police discipline cases can be decided by an arbitrator in a single day.
The deal also paved the way for a new rotation of homicide detectives, aimed at improving the department’s homicide clearance rate, which hovered near 50% throughout 2023.
Approval of the contract was split into two votes: one for the economic package, which quickly passed, and another to address the arbitration award. Before the arbitration award was first voted down in December, James Franczek, the city’s chief labor counsel, warned that overturning Benn’s ruling would be a steep hill to climb.
“The standards to reverse an arbitrator’s award are limited and very challenging,” Franczek told aldermen.
Last August, months before the tentative contract was put before the City Council, FOP attorneys attempted to remove 22 pending cases from the Police Board’s docket. That effort was shot down a month later, but Tim Grace, a union attorney who often represents officers in Police Board hearings, argued that Benn’s arbitration award was ironclad.
“We all know where this is going to go: arbitration,” Grace said at the time. “The officers will have a right to choose between the Police Board and arbitration. I think we’ll be trying a lot of cases at the Police Board, still, in the future, but I think that there are going to be some officers that want arbitration.”
The City Council last week, at the direction of allies of Mayor Brandon Johnson, deferred another vote on the arbitration award, but it wasn’t clear whether the mayor and his aldermanic supporters could again collect the requisite 30 votes to defeat the award.
Immediately after the deferral motion, FOP President John Catanzara and the FOP delegation he sat with in the council chambers rose to leave. He paused and turned toward Johnson as he walked out. “See you in court at 2:30,” Catanzara said. “I dare you to show up, mayor.”
At that afternoon hearing with city and FOP attorneys, Cook County Circuit Judge Michael Mullen agreed with both sides in the case to put a hold on all Police Board proceedings until the next status update — scheduled for the last week of February — with the expectation of a final City Council vote by then.
If the City Council fails to vote on arbitration at all in February or if Johnson and allies do not secure 30 votes to reject it by the end of next month, Benn’s decision will stand. That would mean the 20 officers facing charges would have the opportunity to opt for arbitration. The City Council’s next meeting is scheduled for Feb. 16.
Meanwhile, with its future in question, the Police Board now operates under the leadership of Kyle Cooper, an attorney who was selected late last year to succeed Ghian Foreman as board president.
After the judge issued the order pausing board proceedings, Cooper once again called on the City Council to fight Benn’s award to the union.
“At this critical juncture, I once again urge the City Council to reject Arbitrator Benn’s decision,” Cooper said in a statement last week. “Allowing his ruling to stand will shroud the Toledo case and other allegations of serious police misconduct in secrecy. Such an outcome will only further erode the trust between law enforcement and our citizens and undermine our collective efforts to create a more accountable and transparent system of policing in Chicago.”
Beyond the Police Board, a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the city and Stillman by Adam Toledo’s family continues to play out, also in Cook County Circuit Court. Attorneys for the city and those for the teen’s family are now arguing over the relevance and admissibility of records stored on Toledo’s cellphone, court records show.
“Even if (Toledo) was not in possession of his cell phone at the time of the shooting, evidence regarding the days before the incident including when he was missing, and earlier the day of the incident, is discoverable and highly relevant,” city attorneys wrote in a recent filing.
The next hearing in that case is scheduled for Feb. 23, court records show.
Police Board cases play out similarly to criminal trials, but the board is involved in only the most severe instances of misconduct — those where the superintendent calls for an officer to be suspended for at least a year or fired from the CPD.
After the superintendent files administrative charges against an officer, an evidentiary hearing is scheduled. The hearings typically last one to four days and involve witness testimony and exhibits, but they are not overseen by a judge. Instead, a hearing officer — a role Cooper previously filled before he became board president — oversees the matter to ensure that procedure is followed.
Evidentiary hearings are recorded on audio and video, and the nine members of the Police Board review the footage and hearing transcripts before voting on whether an officer is guilty of the charges. If an officer is found guilty by a majority of board members, then the board will hand down punishment.
The entire process — from the time an officer is charged to the board’s final decision — often takes several months to complete, if not longer. If the board votes to fire an officer, the officer can appeal in Cook County Circuit Court.
Chicago Tribune’s A.D. Quig contributed.