Ill. officer who stole $15 shirt in 2008 decertified by state, barred from working as a cop

Zenna Ramos said she had just escaped an unsafe living situation with her young child, and didn’t have clothes when she said she took the shirt worth $14.99

By Jake Sheridan
Chicago Tribune

RIVERSIDE, Ill. — Former Cicero police Officer Zenna Ramos freely and remorsefully admits she stole a T-shirt 15 years ago.

She said she had just escaped an unsafe living situation with her young child, and didn’t have clothes when she said she took the shirt worth $14.99.

But Ramos, 37, doesn’t think it’s fair the cheap shirt is now derailing her career.

In April, the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board blocked Ramos from certification as she transferred to the Riverside Police Department, citing the theft.

The state police certification authority told an attorney for the western suburb that law compelled the finding and the misdemeanor charge Ramos faced would harm her ability to effectively serve as an officer by potentially making her court testimony not credible with jurors.

Riverside leaders are pushing back against the decision. The board has the power to certify Ramos, they argue, and she deserves a second chance.

“Yes, she made a mistake in 2008,” Riverside’s public safety director, Matthew Buckley, said at a news conference Tuesday held in support of Ramos. “But what she has done since that day is the important part.”

In the years since the theft, Ramos has gone to school to study criminal justice, worked as a Cicero community service officer and served for a year as a Cicero police officer.

“That’s the kind of person I want working here in Riverside. Because, Riverside, we give second chances. We work with people,” Buckley said.

Ramos uttered just six words at Tuesday’s news conference before breaking down in tears.

“I know I made a mistake,” she said inside Riverside Village Hall, before pausing to collect herself as she began to cry.

“I took responsibility for my actions,” she continued. “And I felt that I did everything right to better myself for myself and my family, so I could be a police officer, so I could help people who are dealing with circumstances that I’ve dealt with.”

Ramos was certified as a police officer in August 2021 after being hired by the Cicero Police Department and completing the Cook County sheriff’s office police academy, Buckley said.

She decided to leave the Cicero department because she preferred the pace of policing in Riverside, where she sensed she had more time “to give people full attention,” she said.

After taking Riverside’s entrance exam and going through interviews, she became the No. 2 candidate on the department’s list of potential officers, Buckley said. The department hired her the day before Valentine’s Day this year and immediately put her into field training.

In late March, after the training and standards board sent a letter with questions about Ramos’ background to Riverside police leaders seeking her recertification, the department responded with a letter acknowledging and accepting the 2008 theft charges.

“We were very well aware of it. She was very forthcoming,” Buckley said.

The board responded with a decision in April denying Ramos recertification as a police officer, noting that it could “only approve applicants of good character and free of disqualifying convictions” in a letter sent by general counsel Patrick Hahn and obtained by the Tribune.

In the letter, Hahn identified theft as a “disqualifying misdemeanor” under Illinois state law. He also cited the sweeping SAFE-T criminal justice law reform, stating that the law compelled the board to review applicants for certification to make sure they had not been involved in “any crime of moral turpitude.”

“Past behavior is a logical predictor of future behavior,” Hahn wrote, citing the 2008 case and adding that Ramos was placed on court supervision in 2003 for retail theft.

“There’s an old proverb that says, ‘the person who steals once is always thought a thief,’” he continued in the letter. “And while such thinking may be unfair, it is not most uncommon particularly in light of today’s jury opinions on police. Ensuring the credibility of prosecution witnesses is a modern-day challenge, which requires the reputation of testifying officers to be above reproach.”

When asked about the case Tuesday, Hahn said it would be improper to comment on a pending case.

“Generally speaking, I can say pursuant to the Police Training Act, and amendments made by the SAFE-T Act, we have a continuing duty to ensure all sworn law enforcement officers are free of any disqualifying criminal offenses as provided by statute,” he wrote in an email to the Tribune.

Buckley told the Tribune the charges against Ramos were vacated, dropped and expunged after she successfully completed a conditional discharge term of six months. Buckley argued that she was never convicted. Hahn, however, wrote in his April letter that “conditional discharge” should be considered a conviction.

The board’s decision is listed as a “decertification,” making Ramos ineligible to serve as a police officer at departments across the country, Buckley said. Ramos was added to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office’s “do not call” list of officers whom prosecutors will not call on to testify in court.

Village Trustee Jill Mateo and former Village President Benjamin Sells shared their support for Ramos’ certification after the news conference. State Rep. Abdelnasser Rashid, D-Berwyn, has also stated his support for Ramos’ certification, according to the Riverside-Brookfield Landmark.

Also speaking in support of Ramos, state Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, argued the SAFE-T Act, which he voted for, should not prevent the board from approving Ramos as a police officer.

“They actually have the power to see it as it is, but they’re choosing not to,” Ford said at the news conference.

Buckley said the law could potentially affect many officers transferring departments in Illinois if left unaddressed.

The Police Department will appeal the decision at a training and standards board meeting in early September, Buckley said. Meanwhile, Ramos is working for Riverside but not as a police officer. The department is holding an officer position open for her, Buckley said.

Ford said he would work to change Illinois law so Ramos and officers in similar positions can be certified if the appeal is unsuccessful.

Ramos, who now has three children and is married to a Cicero police officer, is still holding out hope. The last decade spent learning about policing through school and jobs had all led to Riverside.

“It would be what I worked for,” she said.

©2023 Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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