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Chicago judge rules that officer misconduct cases can be heard by a third-party arbitrator, must remain public

The decision is the latest step in a legal battle between the city and the police union, which advocated for officers to have choice in how their cases should be decided


James Franczek, left, the city’s chief labor negotiator, departs after a court hearing in a Fraternal Order of Police lawsuit about how misconduct cases are handled in their contract, March 20, 2024, at the Daley Center. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)

Brian Cassella/TNS

By Sam Charles
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — A Cook County judge on Thursday ruled that Chicago police officers accused of serious misconduct will have the right to have their cases decided by a third-party arbitrator, but those hearings must remain publicly accessible.

The ruling from Judge Michael Mullen marks the latest entry in a protracted legal fight over the future of police discipline.

“The restriction of public access to arbitrations for serious police discipline is a direct contravention of the well-defined and dominant public policy of accountability and transparency of the government services in general and the Chicago Police Department specifically,” Mullen wrote. “The Neutral Chair’s decision that the arbitration of any cases where discipline could result in dismissal or suspension in excess of 365 days must proceed in private is against a dominant and well-defined public policy.”

Further, Mullen upheld the city’s policy to place officers on no-pay status during the pendency of serious misconduct cases.

“The city is pleased that Judge Mullen’s decision recognizes the necessity and strong public policy in favor of transparency, particularly for police misconduct cases resulting in terminations or lengthy suspension,” a spokesperson for the city’s Law Department said in a statement. “His ruling that hearings involving lengthy suspensions and discharges be open to the public furthers the city’s goals of transparency and building trust in the police disciplinary process.”

Kyle Cooper, the new president of the police board, said it was “reassuring” that serious disciplinary cases would remain open to the public, but added that “police accountability will nevertheless suffer by having the most serious disciplinary cases decided by individual arbitrators who are not required to live in Chicago or undergo the extensive training required by the Consent Decree.”

John Catanzara, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, said he and other union leaders planned to meet Monday to decide if the ruling would be appealed.

“Arbitration is not public. Full stop,” Catanzara told the Tribune. “And it was our understanding — I think even the city would agree — that (Mullen) was going to grant one side’s motion or other, and it was either be ‘Vacate the award,’ like the city was asking him to do, or ‘Grant the award effective immediately,’ and he kind of came up somewhere in the middle.”

The dispute over serious police discipline cases stems from contract negotiations between the city and the FOP last summer.

The neutral chair overseeing those talks, Edwin Benn, issued an award to the union that granted officers accused of serious misconduct a choice in how their cases would be adjudicated. As public sector employees represented by a collective bargaining unit, Benn said, CPD officers have the right to have misconduct cases decided by a third party outside of public view.

In December, Mayor Brandon Johnson opted to split the tentative contract proposal into two votes. The first — described as the “economic package” — was approved by the City Council without any questions posed to city negotiators. That package provides CPD officers with a 20% raise over four years, while also creating a new disciplinary mechanism to more quickly adjudicate minor misconduct cases.

The “economic package” also established the “People’s Court,” a new disciplinary mechanism that will allow for a one-day adjudication process in less serious police misconduct cases. The “People’s Court” hearings will also be overseen by a third-party arbitrator.

The second package, which deals only with the most serious cases of misconduct, was voted down three times by aldermen, most recently in February.

“On its merits, the argument effectively raised by the city is, ‘We know it’s the law, but we don’t want to follow it,’” FOP attorney Matt Pierce told Mullen Wednesday. “That is not a basis to vacate an interest arbitration award.”

Pierce warned that the outright rejection of the award would send the union — whose last contract expired in 2017 — and city back to square one, effectively restarting negotiations. Not so, countered the city’s chief labor negotiator, James Franczek.

“This is the last chapter of a seven-year saga,” Franczek said Wednesday. “If your honor should decide to vacate this … we’re not going to go back and unravel a collective bargaining agreement of the complexity of this.”

Since the union’s inception in the 1980s, the FOP’s contract with the city has provided that the most serious police misconduct cases — those where the city seeks to fire an officer or suspend them for at least a year — be decided by the Chicago Police Board.

Those hearings, as well as the board’s findings and decisions, are made publicly available. Enforcement of the arbitration award at issue would give accused officers a choice to instead have those cases heard and decided by a third-party arbitrator out of public view.

Many of the cases decided by the Police Board stem from investigations conducted by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.

After completing an investigation, COPA sends its findings and recommendations to the superintendent of the CPD, who then has 90 days to review the case materials and decide if he agrees. If he does, attorneys for the superintendent will bring administrative charges against an officer.

If the superintendent disagrees with COPA, a single randomly selected member of the Police Board decides if an officer will face charges and an evidentiary hearing. That process, a “request for review,” played out for the first time under CPD Superintendent Larry Snelling’s tenure earlier this year when the CPD brought charges against an officer involved in a fatal shooting in 2019.

A deluge of closed misconduct investigations prompted Snelling to sharply criticize COPA during the February meeting of the Chicago Police Board. Snelling accused misconduct investigators of injecting opinions and personal biases that resulted in excessive penalties for CPD officers.

“What we’re seeing are egregious penalties for extremely minor infractions,” Snelling said. “Now, oftentimes when I go through these reports, I agree that the infraction should have been sustained, but a 30-day (or) 90-day suspension is egregious.”

Scott Spears, CPD’s chief legal counsel, said during February’s Police Board meeting that the 28 separation cases the Police Department received in the first two months of 2024 nearly matches 2023’s total of 32. Those 28 new case findings and recommendations — each of which requires approximately 40 hours to review — will be handled by just five sergeants assigned to CPD’s office of legal affairs and will require substantial overtime, Spears said.

COPA’s chief administrator, Andrea Kersten, said the City Council’s approval of most of the new FOP contract forced the agency to wrap up any investigation more than 18 months old. She also noted that COPA does not impose discipline for CPD officers, as those decisions rest with the CPD and Police Board.

Records obtained by the Tribune show that COPA closed 143 investigations in the first two months of 2024. Those cases involved misconduct allegations brought against 302 CPD officers between 2019 and 2022, but COPA’s findings and recommendations in most of those investigations were not known.

While most of those 302 officers were accused of wrongdoing in just one investigation, a Tribune analysis of COPA data revealed that more than 20 CPD officers were investigated in more than one case.

One officer, hired by the CPD in 2009, was the subject of six misconduct investigations between 2019 and 2022, records show. That officer has been the subject of 68 misconduct complaints in his career, COPA records show, and he’s been suspended at least twice in recent years. A CPD spokesperson said last week that the officer is currently assigned to the Englewood District on the South Side, and a COPA source with knowledge of the decision said the officer is among the 28 recommended for firing.

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