Excessive force complaints piling up against Chicago officers
By David Heinzmann and Steve Mills
CHICAGO, Ill. — A backlog of excessive-force complaints against Chicago police officers has grown so large that the agency charged with investigating cops is planning to hire outside investigators to help catch up.
Each of the Independent Police Review Authority's investigators has been carrying a caseload of more than 30, and the number is growing, a problem that the new chief administrator, Ilana Rosenzweig, said is unacceptable.
When Rosenzweig took over the IPRA, formerly known as the Office of Professional Standards, last summer, she inherited a backlog of more than 1,200 cases. That number has grown to 1,500, and the only way to catch up is to farm out some of the investigations to attorneys and private investigators, she said.
The outsourcing will be temporary, and work done by outsiders will be tightly supervised by IPRA staff, she said.
"We are looking into all sorts of options," Rosenzweig said. "The investigators just have way too big of a workload to perform their function."
The majority of the backlog is made up of cases from 2006 and 2007 and tied to vacancies that have gone unfilled on the investigative staff over the last few years, she said.
Outside investigators "will be held to the same confidentiality restrictions of IPRA staff members to ensure the integrity of each case and to protect the rights of police officers. And they would only work on backlogged cases," city spokesman Bennie Currie said in a statement.
"We won't be packing up a case and sending it to them," Rosenzweig said. "They'll be working alongside us."
Rosenzweig said City Hall officials are still working out paying for the plan, and she needs to discuss the options with the Fraternal Order of Police and the union that represents IPRA investigators.
FOP President Mark Donahue could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
In addition to bringing in outsiders, Rosenzweig said she is in the process of hiring to fill 14 vacant investigator jobs and four supervisor positions.
Even before the spike in the backlog brought on by understaffing, caseloads have been a problem at the office. A decade ago, the typical caseload for each investigator was about a dozen, said Tom Smith, a former chief investigator of the office.
Smith said even that was too many cases because investigators became bogged down in paperwork.
IPRA investigates all complaints of excessive force lodged by civilians and is also responsible for conducting independent reviews of police shootings.
Critics have complained that in addition to the agency being understaffed, its investigators are not well-trained and that they too often acquiesce to pressure from the Police Department to clear accused officers.
Hiring outsiders to deal with the backlog will not address the more fundamental problem of IPRA investigators' capabilities, said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who has studied OPS' performance using records he obtained in lawsuits.
"The reason we're in this mess is because this office hasn't been given the resources. The answer isn't to create a Band-Aid and hire out the work," Futterman said.
He said he sympathizes with Rosenzweig, who he said has inherited a difficult problem.
He listed a number of chronic problems with investigative shortcomings that include not interviewing witnesses, not interviewing the accused officers until very late in the investigation and sometimes not going to the scenes of serious incidents.
"There's a long history of that being how these cases are investigated, and not just by one or two rogue investigators," he said. "Those were the standards and practices.
"She's inherited those problems, and it really requires a housecleaning, rehiring and retraining."
Copyright 2008 The Chicago Tribune