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Chicago top cop blasts civilian accountability board after it recommended CPD fire 28 officers

“When we speculate, when we add our personal opinions, then those penalties become punitive and unfair ... to the officers,” Superintendent Larry Snelling said


Chicago police Supt. Larry Snelling addresses the Chicago Police Board about officer wellness during a meeting at police headquarters on Feb. 22, 2024. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

John J. Kim/TNS

By Sam Charles
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Despite a freeze on police discipline cases, the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department late Thursday issued a lengthy, stern critique of the city agency that probes police misconduct, accusing investigators of leaning on “personal opinions and speculation.”

That leads to unfairness, Chicago police Superintendent Larry Snelling said.

“When we speculate, when we add our personal opinions, then those penalties become punitive and unfair and unfair to the officers,” Snelling said. “What we’re seeing are egregious penalties for extremely minor infractions. 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.”

In the last eight weeks, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability has recommended the Chicago Police Department fire 28 officers — an “unprecedented” number, CPD’s top attorney told the Chicago Police Board. But the avalanche of new disciplinary cases now sitting with Snelling is a byproduct of the City Council’s decision to approve most of the new CPD union contract last year — unanimously, without a single question posed to city negotiators.

The latest case findings and recommendations from COPA — 19 of which were sent to Snelling’s office in a single day, Jan. 27 — came as police board cases remain frozen and the legal fight continues over the future of police discipline in Chicago.

And though the police board did not take action on any cases, the dozen or so meeting attendees were offered a rare glimpse of policy-based discord between the heads of two city departments. Thursday’s meeting lasted about an hour, twice as long as usual.

Since he was named superintendent last year, Snelling’s updates to the public during police board meetings have largely concerned CPD staffing levels, crime trends and notable arrests. In his address Thursday, though, Snelling leveled heavy criticism of COPA’s practices for more than 10 minutes and accused investigators of injecting personal biases into police misconduct cases.

“After reviewing the investigation that was provided by COPA, we’ve seen personal opinions and speculation in making these decisions on sustaining a case of misconduct against an officer,” Snelling said. “Personal opinions, speculation should not be a part of the investigation.”

Yolanda Talley, CPD’s chief of internal affairs, and Scott Spears, CPD’s chief legal counsel, largely echoed Snelling’s sentiments in their own statements to the board. Spears noted that the 28 separation cases CPD 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, Spears added.

Andrea Kersten, COPA’s chief administrator, said the deluge of cases recently sent to Snelling’s office was “not a mistake. That was by design.”

“We were given, as was the Bureau of Internal Affairs, a 45-day window after the collective bargaining agreement governing the Fraternal Order of Police was signed in December to conclude every investigation that’s over 18 months old, otherwise perhaps forfeit the entirety of that case,” Kersten told the police board and CPD officials.

“You’ll never again have a day in January where you receive a whole bunch of separation recommendations on our oldest, most difficult cases, but that was the situation that COPA was placed in by the nature of that collective bargaining agreement,” Kersten said, adding that, “There’s a very sensible timeline now set out in the FOP contract. That’s good, that’s important for accountability.”

Kersten also stressed that COPA does not, in fact, impose discipline against CPD officers, but instead presents findings and recommendations to the CPD and police board.

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 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.

The latest dispute over police discipline stems from contract negotiations between the city and FOP last summer. The arbitrator 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 — a departure from 60 years of precedent.

In December, Mayor Brandon Johnson opted to split the contract proposal into two votes. The first — described as the “economic package,” a misnomer — was unanimously approved by alders 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 second package, which only deals with the most serious cases of misconduct, was voted down twice by alders, most recently in January. The FOP has since filed a lawsuit against the city, asking a judge to order the arbitration award into effect. Judge Michael Mullen placed a pause on all pending police board cases until Feb. 25, and the next hearing in the case is scheduled for Feb. 26.

During Thursday’s police board meeting, Snelling appeared to endorse the disciplinary process remaining open to the public.

“I don’t believe anything needs to be done behind closed doors,” Snelling said.


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