By Steve Mills and David Heinzmann
Tribune staff reporters
COOK COUNTY, Ill. — The Cook County state's attorney's office announced Thursday that it had established a special unit to review police shootings and other allegations of excessive force by officers, hoping to plug gaps in how prosecutors uncover and evaluate misconduct by police.
Acknowledging his office had missed evidence of wrongdoing turned up in easily obtainable sources such as lawsuits, State's Atty. Richard Devine said that the new unit would examine those civil suits and other sources for potential evidence of wrongdoing.
The announcement comes in the wake of a Tribune investigation of police shootings in Chicago that showed prosecutors taking a passive role in determining whether the incidents were justified. The series spotlighted police roundtables -- also attended by prosecutors -- that quickly clear officers and set the stage for cursory follow-up investigations.
"The recent media stories on police shootings revealed evidence from civil suits in several police shooting cases that had not come to our attention," Devine said in a statement.
The move to launch the Excessive Force Review unit is part of a broader review by Devine of how prosecutors handle police shooting cases. Devine has talked about pulling prosecutors from the roundtables, but for now they are staying. Chicago police have urged Devine to keep prosecutors a part of the roundtable process.
Devine said that he wants civil attorneys in his office scanning lawsuits looking for evidence that may have been missed or left out of files forwarded by the police department.
In a previous interview, Devine said it was happenstance that he had read about one such lawsuit judgment in the newspaper and had asked prosecutors to look into the case. On Thursday, he said: "We just want as full a picture as we can get of any information there is about police officers that involve use-of-force issues."
Devine acknowledged some information in lawsuits will not be readily available. When alleged victims of excessive force sue the police, city lawyers often seek and obtain protective orders sealing key evidence in court files. To get at such information, Devine said prosecutors may have to file motions in the lawsuits seeking the documents.
In the past, prosecutors relied on police and the Office of Professional Standards to bring them cases of potential wrongdoing. Prosecutors acknowledged to the Tribune that police had never brought them an on-duty shooting case for prosecution and that they did not know whether OPS was bringing them complete files.
Devine said he hopes to strengthen his office's cooperation with the Independent Police Review Authority, the new name for OPS. The civilian agency now is headed by Ilana Rosenzweig, a Los Angeles lawyer, and it has been taken out from under the police department's umbrella.
Devine said police officials should not object to the changes he is making and he hopes the decision will not chill relations with the police department.
"It really isn't anything other than good, sensible practice, as far as covering all the bases," he said. "We want to make sure the police are treated fairly but also want to make sure that all the law enforcement agencies are doing everything they can to ensure the public's interests are represented."
Police officials said Thursday they have always provided full details on shootings and other excessive force claims.
"It has been the department's practice to forward all evidence identified to [the state's attorney's office] for review in police shootings before and after the roundtable," police spokeswoman Monique Bond said in a statement. "While this is not new to CPD, we are encouraged by the [state's attorney's office's] interest in examining all evidence in a timely manner working with the CPD and IPRA."
Plaintiffs' attorneys had mixed reaction to the plan. Kevin Rogers, a former Chicago police officer who is now an attorney and has handled several police shooting cases, said civil suits often are settled by the city before attorneys and their investigators uncover misconduct.
That, said Rogers, could make it difficult for prosecutors to uncover evidence and to build a case. It may also provide incentive for city lawyers to settle cases before that evidence emerges. He said making investigations independent from local authorities might be more effective.
"If there's going to be true oversight, it should be outside the city and the county," Rogers said.
But Jon Loevy, who has handled some of the highest profile excessive force lawsuits in recent years, welcomed the new unit: "If they want to call me tomorrow, I'll walk them through some cases," he said.
Copyright 2007 The Chicago Tribune
Ill. county unveils unit to review cop shootings