Public Interests vs. Private Plaintiffs

There is a belief among many in the community of individuals seeking reform of the criminal justice system that lawsuits brought by individuals against the criminal justice agencies are not completely in the interest of the public at large. I am not so sure that all or even a majority of these lawsuits really are in the public’s interests.

For at least two decades, the City of Chicago has been settling lawsuits brought against the City, the Chicago Police Department, and or individual officers before they reach trial and without an admission of guilt. Most of these lawsuits are brought by individuals who have been abused by or had their rights violated by members of the Chicago Police Department.

Conventional wisdom would state that policy makers would be closely monitoring these suits for evidence of inappropriate actions by members of the CPD in an effort to prohibit repeated abuses. Clearly, policy makers and accountability departments with the criminal justice agencies have paid little attention to these lawsuits. If there had been attention paid to these proceedings then officers would have been removed from the force as a result of the city paying out $100,000,000 in settlements from 2001-2005, (Marin, NBC, Feb 23, 2006).

If policy makers are not paying attention to all the money that they are paying out, then what good for the public overall is coming from these lawsuits? My interest in this question has been growing for many years as I have researched countless lawsuits and continued to see how policy makers have ignored what has been uncovered as results of the litigation. The largest contributing factor to why these proceedings are ignored is the settlement agreements reached between the CPD and the plaintiff in the case. In my twelve years of researching these lawsuits I have yet to see a single settlement agreement where the CPD accepts responsibility for their actions.

The lawyers representing the plaintiffs have a responsibility to their clients, and not the public. This means that if they can maximize the settlement amount by agreeing to a settlement agreement with the CPD refusing to accept liability that is what they are duty bound to accept. This obligation assists the CPD in covering their inappropriate actions while costing the city millions of dollars in payouts at the same time. While I am not ignorant enough to believe every single suit brought against the CPD is legitimate, I do believe that the majority are and that the public has an interest in having free access to the information uncovered through this litigation.

For two decades there has been a reliance on lawsuits to assist the public in creating pressure to force reform. This practice needs reform itself because for at least the last decade the vast majority of civil litigation has had little effect on the practices of the CPD. This is not to be unexpected in a city where every few years the mayoral administration withstands a round of indictments among its top staff. Private civil litigation as an avenue for reform has been exhausted beyond its usefulness. Through private litigation the legitimate financial concerns of the individual take precedence over the public’s interest, rightfully so in most cases. With this fact in mind independent public interest litigation must be put forth to take up where private litigation fails to fill the needs of the public.

One of the aspects of private litigation that is most in the public interest are class action lawsuits that are most likely to be used to reform the practice of the criminal justice agencies. Class action lawsuits however still have the financial interests of their client’s center stage before the interest of the public. Below I examine one such recent settlement and explain why this settlement comes up short when viewed from the interest of the public.

Kyle Davis v. City of Chicago, Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department Phil Cline, 05 C 1967

This case centers on the practice of the CPD of sequestering witnesses within the confines of their buildings and refusing to let the witnesses leave before the CPD retrieves the statement about the case in question they want. This of course is an illegal practice because witnesses are under no legal obligation to cooperate with the police in any investigation. Very often this participation comes accompanied with a risk to their well-being that is too great to accept.

There remains a legal process for the authorities to compel cooperation from witnesses but this practice is rarely used is anything outside of a major criminal case. The CPD illegal detains witnesses as a practice of everyday operations, usually if not always young minorities who are witnesses in gang crime cases

For those unaware of how this practice works I have heard first hand stories about how witnesses have been held for upwards of 36 hours before being released. These are individuals that the CPD knows almost immediately that they were not involved in the crime but are witnesses who may or may not have information about the identity of the perpetrator or other information deemed important by the CPD.

As part of the settlement in the Davis case the CPD created guidelines for how witnesses are to be handled. If I told you that these guidelines were created in a secret room in the basement of CPD Headquarters at 31st and Michigan Avenue you might just believe me after reading them. There is no way you would believe they were created as a result of a civil suit challenging their current practices. With the exception that the CPD must tell a witness they are free to leave at any time the guidelines are a step-by-step instruction manual for the violation of a citizens civil and possible human rights.

“For the purposes of ensuring the security and privacy of the witness while in the Police Facility and ensuring the integrity of the investigation, a detective may:

  1. Deny others access to the witness in person or by telephone. When a person appears at the Police Facility claiming to be a family member, friend or lawyer seeking access to the witness, the law does not require that the detective grant that request, or that the detective notify the witness that the family member, friend or lawyer is seeking such access, although the detective in his/her discretion may do so when appropriate.
  1. Temporarily limit telephone access to the witness, but only for so long as is necessary to protect the security and privacy of the witness and the integrity of the investigation.
  1. Place the witness in a locked interview room provided that the detective ensures that the witness has reasonable access to bathroom facilities, food and water and that the witness’s right to leave is not denied. The detective may do this by either remaining in the close proximity to the room or ensuring that the other police personnel who are aware of the witness’s presence remain in close proximity to the room.

Note: When a detective places a witness in a locked interview room, the detective must inform the witness that he/she has the right to leave upon request. (Weight original)

One of the keys to a proper interrogation of a suspect is to isolate the individual so that you disrupt their system and their comfort points. Another step in this process is to clearly communicate to the individual being interrogated that they are not in control of their situation and that only through cooperation with the interrogators will they regain some control over their circumstances.

Through these guidelines the CPD has done an excellent job of making sure that members of communities who are victimized by the violent incident they just witnessed are re-victimized by the CPD. Since when have witnesses to crimes be treated as suspects? Can anyone really tell me that the CPD is going to go into the gold coast and treat some rich white people like this? These guidelines are in violation of too many civil and human rights documents (national and international) to cite here.

The CPD has a long and storied history of treating communities of color with violence. Obviously this has not changed as the CPD has just created guidelines to institutionalize the violence with the cover of being able to say the guidelines were created as a result of settlement in Federal Court. Can the CPD really say their relationship with communities of color has improved since the early 1900s if in 2007 they are still creating guidelines to institutionalize violence against these communities?

Tracy has nearly two decades of experience researching and working within criminal justice systems. When Tracy began pursuing a career dedicate to system reform, he found that no single organization existed to promote evidence-based discussions among law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. Recognizing that citizens in Chicago deserved the right to demand transparency in their criminal justice system, Siska established the Chicago Justice Project. He received his Master of Arts degree in Criminal Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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