Callahan, Abbate, & Why Access Facilitates Understanding

On Friday February 12th I was asked to comment for a CBS 2 Report on the sentencing of Chicago Police Officer Gerald Callahan.  Try as I might I failed to get across what I believe the main point that needs to get communicated to policy makers and community members about the sentencing of Callahan.  I will use this blog to explain my point here.  You can view the video online here

Ignorance as Fertile Soil for Conspiracy Theories

CPD Officer Gerald CallahanThe question most Chicagoans are asking themselves about the sentencing of Officer Callahan is was this sentence so light because Callahan is a Chicago Police Officer?  With the limited amount of information that is available it is impossible to determine the answer.  It seems to be a logical question to ask when you consider the sentence another violent and abusive officer, Joseph Abbate – (Abbate’s Sentencing: The Case for Expanding Access to Public Records) received for beating a women on video tape.  There really isn’t a single repository for sentencing data from across Cook County that would allow the media, policy makers, or community members to determine if the sentence Callahan received was appropriate.  There is so little access to information you could not even find out from the Court’s online presence under what charge Callahan was convicted.  Simply put, agents within the criminal justice system have made conscious decisions to restrict access to information that serves to prohibit the ability of the public they serve from understanding how the system operates and advocating for changes where needed.

A source informed me yesterday that originally the charge filed against Callahan was for misdemeanor battery and then at some point in the future it was upgraded to a felony.  From the reporting last night on CBS it seems like Callahan’s final conviction is for misdemeanor simple battery.  A couple questions that flow from this tip from a source.

  • Why was Callahan originally charged at the misdemeanor level?

In Cook County all policing agencies seeking to charge an individual at the felony level need to get approval from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office (SAO) through a process called felony review.  During this process police officers present the evidence they have and seek approval from prosecutors to file felony charges.  Without the approval all the policing agency can do is file misdemeanor charges.  From the limited information it seems that either the Niles Police Department (NPD) sought felony charges and were refused or they independently charged Callahan with a misdemeanor.  Of course we do not have access to the information we need to see for ourselves how this process occurs.  The agencies say they are protecting the privacy of the victims but it is pretty easy to understand whose butt is being covered by their restrictive policies.

  • Was the charge upgraded to a felony at some point in the process and why?

If this did occur it certainly seems like someone higher up within the SAO made a choice to overrule a decision that had been made earlier in the process by either prosecutors at the felony review level or officers within the NPD.  What was the basis of this decision?  Was their any political pressure that caused the SAO to upgrade the charge?  What role did the disciplinary rules within the Chicago Police Department play in this charge being upgraded?  If an officer is convicted of a felony he/she can no longer serve as a police officer.  A felony conviction would have guaranteed that Callahan would have been terminated from the Chicago Police Department.

Some other unanswerable questions:

  • Was this a bench trial, and if so, what role did the judge play in the final outcome of a misdemeanor charge?
  • Did the SAO go to trial with both a misdemeanor and felony charge allowing the judge to determine what the final outcome should be?
  • Is the final outcome of a misdemeanor conviction and a sentence of 2 years probation out of the ordinary for this type of behavior across Cook County or State of Illinois?
  • Why did Abbate – who was convicted of felony aggravated assault, and Callahan – who was convicted of misdemeanor simply battery, both receive 2 years of probation?

Increased access to information about the internal workings of the SAO, Cook County Circuit Court, and local policing agencies could greatly impact our understanding about how our system operates.  The fact that the public and policy makers are in the dark until it is too late to act on bad practices is not how we should be operating.  If data collection and dissemination practices across our criminal justice system were a priority then the answers to all the questions posed here would only be a few keystrokes away.  As it is even if a member of the public went to the circuit clerk’s office their ability to understand all that was at play in this case would be very limited.  This must be changed.

* Image courtesy  of CBS 2 Chicago