Taking Cover

The Better Government Association , in collaboration with our partners at WBEZ, recently published our investigation into suburban police shootings, where we cataloged and analyzed every police shooting in suburban Cook County going back 13 years. Our package contains four stories, an interactive data portal, and five radio segments.

In our stories, we examined 113 suburban police shootings,  a lack of oversight, how deadly force policies are ignored in the suburbs, and the revolving door of troubled officers. We profiled cases where police shot at fleeing and unarmed suspects, wounded innocent bystanders and even fellow officers caught in a crossfire. The investigation uncovered scenarios where police fired from, and at, moving vehicles during high speed chases, ramped up confrontations with the mentally ill and tampered with evidence.

Here are some of our central findings:

  • Not a single officer was disciplined, fired or charged with a crime after a police shooting.
  • More than 40 police shootings raised questions.
  • Suburban departments rarely conducted comprehensive administrative investigations into the police shootings, similar to what one might see in Chicago under the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.
  •  More than 40 percent of suburban police shootings are concentrated in impoverished minority communities that represent less than six percent of the suburban Cook County population.
  • One suburban officer has been involved in six shootings during his 20 year policing career, including one during a wild 100 mile-per-hour police chase.

The Revolving Door: Troubled Officers Get Frequent Career Chances

Dolton police officer Major Coleman has been involved in six shootings during the course of his 20 year career. In July 2011, he leaned out the passenger side window of his partner’s car and fired a hail of bullets into the tires of a fleeing car during a wild 100-mph police chase.

Years earlier, Coleman joined the Dolton department days after being fired from the cop shop in nearby South Holland.

Part four of our investigation showed that no suburban Cook County officer shot more people since 2005 than Coleman. He is one of at least 13 suburban officers who have shot more than one person.

The investigation also found officers involved in multiple shootings often had a history of warning signs in their past that were ignored. Those signs include domestic violence, difficulty following orders, anger issues and in one case an officer who had previously tipped off a drug dealer about police surveillance.

Deadly Force Policies Ignored In Suburban Chicago

The scene after Franklin Park police officers shot and killed Daniel Mojziszek, 52. Police records

In part three of “Taking Cover,” we explored the use of force policies guiding police shootings in suburbs throughout Cook County. Franklin Park’s policy says officers shouldn’t shoot at cars or in the directions of other officers.

“both those policies were ignored the night of Jan. 11, 2010 when Sgt. Fred Dede’s finger was blown off in blaze of police gunfire intended to stop a mentally ill former music teacher from using his car as a weapon,” according to our story.

Our investigation also found that the questionable shootings include at least 20 in which officers fired at moving cars, 30 where suspects were not armed and a half-dozen where police either shot each other or innocent bystanders.

Failed Oversight Follows Suburban Police Shootings

Brandon Harper’s memorial. Jared Rutecki/BGA

In the second part of our “Taking Cover” series, we examined the oversight that followed police shootings. As we wrote, the officers who have shot people in the suburbs under questionable circumstances have done so with impunity.

In one particularly questionable case, a police officer fatally shot an unarmed 23-year-old man in his car outside his mothers house in broad daylight with two teens present. Before the officer fired one round into the man’s chest, he told the occupants of the car to cover their eyes with their hands. This is how one of the witnesses described the shooting:

It happened so fast it really is not even a story. We pulled up, he jumped out, there he was, bang! It just happened so fast.

Last year, the same police officer was promoted to sergeant.

113 Cop Shootings, No Discipline

In part one of our “Taking Cover” series, we summarized the findings of our year-long investigation and profiled three suburban shootings where a Robbins officer shot an innocent 13-year-old boy on his aunt’s doorstep; a SWAT team launched an assault on a man police described as an anti-government survivalist; and an Evanston police officer lost a finger in a police shooting that took the life of a 32-year-old man armed with a switchblade knife.

As we mentioned in our story, many of the cases detailed in the four part series offers “a vivid portrait of a lack of oversight, remediation, or even self-reflection in some of these cash-strapped community police departments, even as they deal with some of the same big-city problems that grab national headlines just down the road in Chicago.”

Over a span of three months, we also collaborated with WBEZ to produce audio segments for each of our stories. Here is the  segment we ran with our first story. Coincidentally, it debuted on WBEZ five days after the publication of our series. 

Daley Cogs Spin in Chicago Heights

Read my deep dive into the booming business of a south suburban mayor and his ties to Mayor Richard M. Daley’s formidable political machine.

Interestingly, the mayor hired a man sent to federal prison for perjury to be his $72,000 commissioner of streets and public property.

“You talk about the little CPA firm that is causing a little bit of havoc here by getting into a market that they are not supposed to get into because maybe I just want a little taste of that American dream myself,” said the mayor, whose part-time mayor’s salary doubled to $40,000 this year.

The Journey of a Judge’s Gun

The Chicago Sun-Times published my story about a Cook County judge’s gun turning up next to a dead body in a Cicero police shooting.

At the Better Government Association, we ran a slightly different version. I prefer the headline in the latter.

Anyway, Cicero agreed to settle the lawsuit connected to the shooting for for $3.5 million. In light of my story, Chicago has launched an internal affairs investigation into how the gun disappeared from police custody.

Video gambling in Illinois

thumbnail of Video Gambling Jackpot For Pols And Pals _ Better Government Association

Video gambling exploded in Illinois about the time I left to work for the Mobile Press-Register in Alabama.

After I left, thousands of video poker and slot machines placed in bars, gas stations, fraternal organizations, and restaurants began collecting millions of dollars in gambling revenue and returning a small portion of the windfall to the owners of the gambling establishments as well as the owners of the machines. The surge of new money and its intersection with government caught my interest.

I wrote a series for the Better Government Association about the expansion of video gambling at struggling taxpayer-owned owned golf courses, the surging influence of video gambling money into campaign financing, and how some local politicians used their clout to enrich themselves through video gambling.