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Investigating race and poverty since 1972 2015-08-27T20:04:22Z
Updated: 1 hour 4 min ago

Leaving prison, reclaiming a life

June 2, 2015 - 4:26pm
Leaving prison is like having a second chance at life, a chance that starts the moment an inmate walks through the prison gate.

Half of Chicago renters can’t afford their housing

June 1, 2015 - 7:25pm
New Census data suggest that many people are struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

Police districts in black, Latino areas top calls for mental-health crises

May 29, 2015 - 4:50pm
Seven of the 10 Chicago police districts with the most mental health-related 911 calls were in predominately African-American or Latino neighborhoods on the South and West sides where services for people living with mental illness are few.

Life goes on as Washington Park awaits news about Obama library

May 29, 2015 - 1:06pm
The Barack Obama presidential library is coming to Chicago's South Side, but the exact location has not yet been announced. One of the two neighborhoods in contention is Washington Park, near the University of Chicago, where the president once worked as a lecturer at the law school. In our latest photo gallery, we captured a slice of life in Washington Park, a neighborhood that could undergo major changes if the library is placed there.

Is Detroit’s bankruptcy the model for Bruce Rauner in Illinois?

May 28, 2015 - 12:00pm
In Illinois as in other states and cities across the nation, fiscal fears are heightened by comparisons to Detroit. In pursuit of his agenda, Gov. Bruce Rauner seems eager to exploit a crisis.

At $10 an hour, Chicago’s minimum wage is not enough to live on

May 27, 2015 - 5:30am

When Chicago’s minimum wage jumps to $10 per hour on July 1, many Chicago workers still won’t be earning enough to live on.

It takes more than twice that, $22.78 per hour, for a single parent with one child to meet their basic budget needs in the Chicago metropolitan area, according to the Living Wage Calculator, a project of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The tool, created by professor Amy K. Glasmeier, has been around 11 years, but it has attracted more attention in recent years as activists around the country push for higher wages for low-income workers. Last summer, Swedish furniture giant IKEA announced that it would use the living wage calculator to set minimum wages for workers at its 41 retail stores in the U.S.

The living-wage calculation is based on the average cost of a range of household expenses on a tight budget, including food, child care, medical expenses, housing, transportation and taxes, adjusted for geographic location and for families of different sizes. The calculator was updated in April to reflect 2014 living costs.

A single parent with three children in the Chicago metro area would need to make $33.69 per hour, more than three times the new city minimum wage, to meet the family’s basic needs. Even for a single adult with no children, the new Chicago minimum wage is 11 percent lower than the living wage, which is $11.14.

The only type of family in Chicago for whom the new minimum wage is sufficient to meet basic needs is a household with two working adults with no children. Those adults would need to make $8.51 per hour each, according to the calculator, to meet a basic budget.

There is consensus among lawmakers and voters on raising the statewide minimum wage in Illinois, which is currently $8.25 per hour — not enough to meet a basic budget for any family, according to the calculator. But there is little agreement on how high or how quickly to raise it.

About two-thirds of Illinois voters approved of raising the minimum wage to $10 per hour on Jan. 1, 2016, in a non-binding ballot referendum in November. In his State of the State address in February, Gov. Bruce Rauner expressed support for raising the state minimum wage to $10 per hour by 2022. Democrats in the state Senate passed a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $11 by 2019.

Child care is the most expensive element of a family’s budget, according to the calculator, which compiled child-care data from the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies. Child care for two children costs $11,658 per year in the Chicago area, more than the cost of housing for a family of three.

The calculator makes a few assumptions, some of which could inflate the cost of living estimate used to calculate the living wage. For example, it assumes no deductions on taxes, even though the federal government provides incentives, like deductions for married couples and the Earned Income Tax Credit, that help families make ends meet.

However, other assumptions could have the opposite effect. For example, the calculator assumes, for the sake of simplicity, that a family with two children has one 4-year-old and one 9-year-old. Families with younger kids or children who are closer together could pay more than the calculator’s estimate for child care.

The tool also bases housing costs on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Market Rent estimate for Cook County, which could underestimate the cost of housing for families living in Chicago neighborhoods where rents are higher than they are in the suburbs.

Of the country’s 10 most populous metropolitan areas, Chicago, which is third in population, is seventh in cost of living. The living wage for a single parent of two children in Washington D.C., the most expensive metropolitan area, is 40 percent higher than the wage for that same parent in Chicago. Washington’s minimum wage is scheduled to increase to $10.50 per hour on July 1, the same day that Chicago’s will rise to $10 from the current $8.25 minimum wage.

Los Angeles, the fourth-most-expensive metropolitan area, according to the calculator, recently made headlines when the City Council voted to increase the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2020. The first increase, to $10.50 from the current state minimum wage of $9, won’t go into effect until July 2016. By then, Chicago’s minimum wage will have increased to $10.50, on its way to $13 per hour by July 2019. But minimum-wage workers in both cities will still be making far less than a living wage.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor Notes: Minimum wages are as of July 1, 2015. Several cities, including New York, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and Chicago have proposed or passed ordinances that would raise the minimum wage above the listed level, but those increases, if enacted, would take place after July 1. The minimum wage in Georgia is technically $5.15 per hour, but it is superseded by the federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 per hour.

CPS recommends controversial charter relocations, shorter renewals for low performers

May 26, 2015 - 10:33am

Despite a push by North Side principals, elected officials and others against a proposal to relocate the Noble Street Academy to Uptown, CPS is recommending that the Board of Education approve the move anyway.

And much to the dismay of activists, the district also wants the board to OK a proposal from Rowe Elementary charter school to expand to the site once occupied by Peabody Elementary. In the wake of the historic 2013 school closings in Chicago, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett had repeatedly promised to keep charter schools out of closed schools.

“This opens a potential Pandora’s Box,” says Valencia Rias-Winstead, who was part of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force. “If you go back on your word for one school, then you’ve got to give it to all the others.”

CPS officials did not comment Friday afternoon on the recommendations.

The Noble and Rowe petitions are among more than two dozen proposed modifications or renewals for charter and contract schools that the district is recommending for approval at next Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting.

Principals and others protesting the Noble proposal fear a charter school would siphon off students from neighborhood high schools and say that the area doesn’t need another high school.

"I realize this charter thing is going to happen, but are you really choosing the neighborhoods where the schools are needed?" asked Chad Adams, principal of Sullivan High in Rogers Park. "I feel like the reason they're doing it is more of a long-term strategic, budget move that none of quite understand what's actually behind it."

Noble Street officials have told Catalyst they don’t think a new school in the area would impact enrollment at any one specific high school significantly.

Shorter renewals for some

CPS is also recommending renewals for all 14 charter and contract schools whose agreements are up this June. However, only half of the schools are being recommended for five-year renewals, the length most schools have typically received in years past. The district is using shorter renewals as a way to hold privately-run schools accountable for academic performance and financial stability.

The district wants to give three-year renewals to six of the remaining schools -- and is asking for additional terms such as improved academics or finances.

And one school -- the Joshua Johnston Fine Arts and Design Charter -- is being recommended for just a single-year extension. The district wants the alternative high school in the Englewood neighborhood to improve by at least one notch on the district’s accountability system, in addition to stabilizing its finances.

Pa Joof, the school’s principal, says the School Quality Rating Policy doesn’t fully capture the successes he’s seen at Johnston. The metrics included in the SQRP for alternative schools are snapshots in time, he says, and ignore the fact that many students float in and out of the school.

“During the five years we have been in existence, we have graduated 176 kids who otherwise would be in jail,” Joof says. “That’s a success. The kids that come to us are on the streets, are homeless. Why are they giving other schools three years and not us?”

Conditions on charter renewals

Meanwhile, two of the three Urban Prep campuses -- West and Englewood -- are slated for three-year renewals. Only the Bronzeville campus, which last year earned the second-highest rating under the five-tiered SQRP, is being recommended for a full five-year renewal.

The renewals for all three Urban Prep campuses are contingent on improvement on two metrics on its financial scorecard. These include its audits on legal compliance and its liquidity ratio, which measures the ability to pay off debt.

Evan Lewis, Urban Prep’s chief operating officer, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday afternoon.

Chicago Tech Academy High, Galapagos and Epic schools are also being recommended for three-year renewals. All three schools received the second-lowest rating possible under the SQRP last fall.

As part of the recommended renewal for ChiTech, CPS says the school’s “Academic Excellence Committee must continue to provide oversight and support for the term of the agreement.” In addition, ChiTech has to provide the district minutes of the committee’s meetings as proof that it’s working toward improvement.

Galapagos, meanwhile, is being given two years to make substantial renovations to its buildings. These include repairing or replacing boilers, water lines, the ventilation system, and installing sufficient exterior lights for safety precautions.

No additional conditions are being applied to Epic, a charter high school that had been placed on a warning list in 2013 but made sufficient improvements to come off the list last fall.

The district is recommending a five-year renewal of the Youth Connection Charter Schools network -- in addition to 301 new seats at its alternative schools. Last year YCCS executive director Sheila Venson spoke to Catalyst about the years-long struggle to increase enrollment at the schools and her disappointment in the district’s expansion of for-profit alternative schools. Venson could not be reached for comment on Friday afternoon.


If youth are really on Emanuel’s agenda, here’s what he can do

May 21, 2015 - 7:00am

On Wednesday, two days after Mayor Rahm Emanuel called for “preventing another lost generation of our city’s youth” in his inaugural address, young activists with the group We Charge Genocide met to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Dominique Franklin. The 23-year-old died after being tased by Chicago police following a shoplifting incident.

Perhaps the first step in saving youth is to stop killing them.

Following Franklin’s killing, WCG compiled a report alleging human rights violations by the Chicago Police Department, charging “disproportionate and systemic patterns of state violence against Chicago’s youth of color,” which they presented to a U.N. committee in November.

Based on the testimony of dozens of young people, the report documents accusations of excessive and deadly force and sexual violence by police, along with “an ongoing pattern of routine, invasive and degrading harassment of young people of color.”

It notes that while African-Americans comprise about 33 percent of Chicago’s population, they represent 75 percent of police shooting victims. In the first half of 2014, 23 of 27 people shot by police were black, as were 146 of 186 Taser victims. The report also discusses the “alarming rate of impunity,” with police officers rarely disciplined for misconduct.

“Your school has police officers, and when you leave school, your neighborhood is occupied by police,” said Veronica Morris Moore, an activist with Fearless Leading by the Youth, a Woodlawn group. “And they treat young people even worse than they treat adults.

“I’ve seen young people beaten and brutalized,” Moore said. And she’s been the target of police disrespect, she says; when she was 17 and a passenger in a car that was pulled over, an officer told her, “Get out of the car, bitch.”

That kind of daily harassment and disrespect -- along with the knowledge that police are free to deploy violence on a whim, without consequence -- is profoundly alienating. If Emanuel wants to provide Chicago youth with “the values, expectations and opportunities that the rest of society and the rest of our city share,” as he says he does, he needs to move to vastly improve police accountability.

Ultimately, to give all our young people a shot at success, we have to counter the economic depression in which many communities are mired -- in part by countering policies Emanuel has championed in the past. But short of that, there are a number of areas where concerted leadership could make a big difference.

On a most basic level, Moore argues, saving lives requires establishing a trauma center on the South Side, an ongoing community effort for which “the mayor has done nothing and said nothing,” she said. “He has, in his words, moved heaven and earth so the University of Chicago can get the Obama Library, but he has done nothing to hold the university accountable to the need for trauma care.”

And she adds: “I don’t see how he’s supposed to be saving a lost generation if he’s taking away mental health services,” given statistics showing the large number of young people experiencing trauma in Chicago communities.

A top priority for keeping troubled youth engaged in school should be restorative justice, said Edward Ward, a youth activist with Blocks Together. While CPS has reworked its disciplinary code to shift away from zero-tolerance practices, it hasn’t provided the resources to adequately staff alternative programs that hold students accountable and address issues they are facing in their lives.

And while out-of-school suspensions have decreased, in-school suspensions rose significantly from 2012 to 2014, according to CPS data. And the racial disparity in discipline -- with black students disciplined more harshly than others for similar infractions -- has not been corrected, the data indicate.

“[High school] students I know are being constantly suspended,” said Ward, who’s now studying political science at DePaul. “When students are not doing well, all [administrators] want to do is discipline them and suspend them.

“That’s not what they need -- they need to be listened to. When students who are going through things feel like they have a chance to be heard, their behavior gets so much better.”

Meanwhile, school counselors and social workers are overburdened; in many cases their time is taken up doing case management for special-education students, according to teachers union sources.

On another front, early-childhood education has been shown to reap huge benefits in preparing kids to succeed in school. Emanuel has touted an initiative to provide half-day pre-K to 1,500 children from below-poverty families. That’s financed by social impact bonds, which means half the $35 million program cost will go to private investors.

That’s far from what’s needed, according to community and labor groups in the Bright Future Chicago coalition. The confusing patchwork of early-learning and child-care programs in the city are inadequate to meet the needs of working families, according to a recent report from the coalition. In many communities, early-learning slots are unavailable, and 150,000 children aren’t being served, according to the coalition.

They’re calling for universal, free pre-K -- such as New York City instituted last year -- and affordable child care. That would require a major investment, but the payoff would be immense.

Could the city and state step up to the plate? Can we find the money? Is saving our youth a real priority, or just a talking point?

It’s been a generation since a Republican governor (Richard Ogilvie) instituted a state income tax and a Democratic mayor (Harold Washington) championed a progressive tax reform. We’ve spent decades in cutback mode.

Perhaps we should be talking about a lost generation of political leadership.












Mental health services jeopardized by Illinois budget

May 20, 2015 - 12:01pm

Note: This feature is part of a series that looks at the impact of state budget cuts on social services in Illinois. Today’s edition features Metropolitan Family Services.

The group: Metropolitan Family Services

What it does: It provides education, emotional wellness, economic stability and empowerment services to more than 67,000 people. This State Budget Watch focuses on the proposed elimination of state Department of Human Services grants to Metropolitan for psychiatric care provided by medical professionals and medication for uninsured consumers.

Amount of cut: Metropolitan faces the loss of a $379,000 psychiatric care grant, which would lead to layoffs of up to 5 doctors and psychiatric nurses, according to agency officials. The ripple effect on other fee-based programs would result in an erosion of $3.6 million in billing, negatively impacting thousands of clients. The agency also could lose $113,000 in medication funding for 43 uninsured clients in Southeast Chicago who have no other means for paying for medication, officials say.

Percentage of state budget: .0015%

Andrew Wade, spokesman for Metropolitan Family Services:You can’t operate a mental health program without access to medical professionals who are trained in psychiatry. You can’t take the medical piece out."

"The whole community mental health system statewide is facing a $86 million hole. They aren’t just trimming; some budget lines are being eliminated wholesale. People need to understand what the consequences are -- we have a whole list of services at risk right now. There doesn’t seem like there is a plan to fund mental health. It seems like a plan to de-fund mental health."

Finding a lawyer a huge obstacle for asylum seekers in Chicago

May 20, 2015 - 5:00am

On a recent Wednesday morning, six mothers and ten children sat on hard wooden benches in a windowless courtroom, home to the Chicago Immigration Court. All of the families had come to the U.S. from Mexico, Guatemala or El Salvador between November 2014 and March of this year. They crossed illegally or approached immigration officers at the border and were found to have a credible fear of returning to their home country. None had a lawyer.

The families are part of a wave of women with children who began crossing the border in droves last summer in search of asylum. Many fled gang violence in Central America. Others sought refuge from domestic violence or dire economic conditions.

These asylum-seekers face an uphill battle, even under the best circumstances. For those without a lawyer, the odds of being provided refuge in the U.S. are even lower.

In Chicago immigration court, which has seen nearly 1,500 cases of women with children since last year, less than 14 percent are represented by a lawyer. That’s less than half the national rate, according to data collected by a center at Syracuse University that tracks immigration data.

Among the 10 immigration courts across the country that hear most of these cases, only Dallas has a lower representation rate.

“It is a shockingly low number,” said Kathryn Weber, chair of the Chicago chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “Part of the problem is that there is a lot of need and just a finite number of resources.”

Unlike in criminal court, a defendant in U.S. immigration court is not legally entitled to an attorney and the government doesn't provide one. Immigrants must find one on their own, and doing so is crucial. Women and children with an attorney are 16 times more likely to be allowed to stay in the U.S. than those without an attorney, according to data from the Syracuse center.

The National Immigrant Justice Center, the largest provider of free and low-cost immigration representation in the Chicago area, has a network of about 1,500 pro bono attorneys in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. The non-profit organization gets roughly 25 to 30 requests for representation on asylum cases each week, said Ashley Huebner, managing attorney for the organization’s asylum project, in addition to many requests for other kinds of immigration cases. They only are able to provide consultations to about 25 percent of them.

“Even before this family docket really picked up and the women and children came across the border [last summer], we were already operating beyond our capacity,” Huebner said. “We are at a point where we’ve had to turn away individuals we believe have very viable asylum claims, but we don’t have the capacity through our pro bono network and in-house to be able to serve them.”

Even with legal representation, only about one-quarter of those who apply for asylum have been allowed to stay here. That compares to less than 2 percent of those without a lawyer.

(Source: Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University)

Last December, Sonia, a 24-year-old domestic laborer from Honduras, was sitting in the windowless courtroom in Chicago’s immigration court.

“I was really, really nervous,” Sonia said in an interview, through a Spanish interpreter. “I didn’t really know what was going to happen, but a lot of people told me that they could deport me from there, so I was really afraid.”

Sonia, who asked The Reporter not to use her last name because she fears for her safety and wants to protect her family back in Honduras, fled her home last May with her then-18-month-old son. She is trying to escape her son’s father, who she said was abusive. She tried to run away before, she said, but he found her and threatened to kill her. Like thousands of others, she embarked on the perilous journey to the U.S. with only a small amount of money and the hope that she would somehow evade American immigration officials.

It took just three hours after crossing the Rio Grande for U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to arrest Sonia and her son and the other families she was traveling with. Like the other women in immigration court, she passed an initial interview to demonstrate that she had a legitimate fear of returning to Honduras, the first step toward seeking asylum. Following procedure, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement began removal proceedings, the first step toward deportation.

She was one of the lucky few who got an appointment with the National Immigrant Justice Center. The organization agreed to take on her case and is working to assign it to a pro bono attorney.

“Sonia has an incredibly strong case and one that we’re very positive about,” Huebner said. Being a victim of domestic violence from Central America has been recognized as grounds for asylum in other cases, she said. “But if she didn’t have an attorney, that strong case on its own would not be enough to get her asylum.”

Challenges of finding a lawyer

Customs and Border Protection reported apprehending more than 68,000 family groupings between October 2013 and September 2014, a 356 percent increase from the year before, and an equal number of unaccompanied children.

Amid the wave of unaccompanied children and mothers with children entering the U.S. last July, the Justice Department issued a new rule to prioritize these cases and expedite them through the immigration courts. The goal was both to serve as a deterrent to other migrants considering the dangerous journey (though immigrant advocates say this is ineffective) and “to enable prompt removal in appropriate cases,” according to a statement from Deputy Attorney General James Cole.

Immigration lawyers and advocacy groups quickly responded with concerns that expediting these cases would make it more difficult for these women and children to find lawyers to represent them.

“The cases they are prioritizing are the cases that really need more time, in order to prepare an appropriate case,” Heubner said. “You have individuals who need even more time to recover from their [traumatic] experiences in their home country and find an attorney and be in a position where they can assist their attorney to prepare for a case, and they don’t have the time to do that.”

In the meantime, individuals who have been in the country longer and are more likely to have an attorney are seeing their cases delayed and added to a growing backlog. Currently almost 450,000 cases are pending in U.S. immigration courts, including nearly 19,000 in Chicago alone, according to the center at Syracuse. That’s an average of over 2,700 cases for each of the seven judges in Chicago. The backlog has worsened because two immigration judges retired in the past year. A single judge, Jennie Giambastiani, is currently hearing all of the unaccompanied children and women with children cases in Chicago.

That backlog makes it harder to convince pro bono attorneys to take on additional cases, Huebner said, because many of them already have pending cases with hearing dates set for four, or even five, years out.

Unlike more established immigrants, most of the recently arrived women with children, like Sonia, are less likely to be able to afford an attorney, which can run anywhere from $1,000 for a simple case that requires just a single hearing to more than $10,000 per family member for a complicated asylum case, according to Michael Ibrahim, an immigration attorney at the Consumer Law Group in Chicago.

“If you’re coming with a family of five,” he said, “how are you going to pay for that?”

Toward universal representation

Nationwide, just over half of cases that came before immigration courts in fiscal year 2014 had representation. That number has risen somewhat since 2010, when it was 40 percent, but dropped from 59 percent in 2013 to 55 percent last year, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the immigration courts.

Efforts are underway to fix the problem.

The American Civil Liberties Union and several other groups filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of unaccompanied children last July, arguing that by expecting minors who can’t find a lawyer to defend themselves in immigration court, the government is violating their right to a “full and fair hearing” before an immigration judge. Only 36 percent of unaccompanied minors had legal representation as of March.

In 2013, the New York City Council allocated $500,000 for a pilot program, called the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, to provide pro bono representation to 190 of the approximately 900 detained immigrants in New York, which does not include women with children. Last July the council approved an additional $4.9 million to fully fund the program for all detained immigrants for the current fiscal year.

A coalition of lawyers and advocates called the Chicago Immigration Court Working Group hopes set up a program like the one in New York that would provide universal representation for particularly vulnerable immigrants in deportation hearings before the Chicago court. Their priority is on detained immigrants, which does not include the mothers and their children.

“We need access to counsel for everyone across the country to try to limit these disparities and try to help everyone get relief to stay in the country if they have a good case, which many of these people do,” said Geoffrey Heeren, a professor of immigration law at Valparaiso University and a member of the working group.

The group is still doing preliminary research and, given the current state of the city’s finances, doesn’t believe now is the right time to make a proposal, Heeran said.

Immigration judges say that expanding legal representation would allow them to resolve cases faster and would save money by limiting appeals, reducing the time spent in detention, and cutting down the time spent on cases with no legal basis.

“It’s actually one of these rare win-win situations” whether you’re on the conservative or liberal side of the immigration debate, says Dana Leigh Marks, a San Francisco immigration judge and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “It helps judges make the decisions they need with the information they need, and to work through those cases both more quickly and more fairly.”

In the meantime, cases involving people without legal representation continue to stream into the Chicago immigration court.

On that recent Wednesday, Judge Giambastiani spoke to families through a Spanish interpreter. One at a time, she asked the seven families to stand and state their names and ages for the record. She explained through the interpreter the charges pending against them.

“Each of you expressed a desire to seek a continuance to seek an attorney,” she said to the entire group, as if reading from a script. “The court cannot assign a free attorney to you, but you can seek an attorney at your own expense and of your own choosing. Some people are under the false impression that you are required to have an attorney. It is helpful, but not compulsory.”

Her assistant handed out papers with the names of legal aid organizations. She set a hearing date for October 19 at 9:00 a.m., giving them six months to find a lawyer. Then the women and children filed out of the room.

Three more families entered; none had attorneys. And the process repeated itself.

Police have their own ‘bill of rights,’ raising questions about accountability

May 18, 2015 - 1:36pm

Even as violence erupted in Baltimore days after the death of Freddie Gray, the police officers at the center of his death still had not explained how he suffered fatal injuries in their custody weeks earlier. A special Maryland law known as a police “bill of rights” gave the officers 10 days to respond to investigators – a protection that the average citizen doesn’t have.

Thirteen other states, including Illinois, have a similar law. In Illinois, police officers have a waiting period before they have to talk to investigators in response to complaints from citizens or even fellow officers. They also can get in writing key information about the investigation, including who will question them and what they’ll be asked.

Critics say Illinois’ 30-year-old law establishes two sets of rules – one for police officers and one for average citizens. And combined with police union contracts, which lay out further protections for officers, advocates for police reform say the law complicates efforts to address police misconduct in Chicago and elsewhere.

“The protections are stronger than what you and I would enjoy in a criminal investigation,” said Mark Iris, president of the Chicago Police Board for 23 years. “Is any one of these things critical by themselves? No. Collectively do they add up to give an officer a big advantage? Yes.”

Police nationwide lobbied for the bill of rights laws in the aftermath of the civil rights movement as people organized against police brutality and demanded civilian review boards. Today, as protests against alleged police abuse take center stage, policing experts say officers are benefiting from rules they created decades ago.

Police “bill of rights”

Police officers shouldn’t be treated like average citizens because of the dangers of their job, said Dean Angelo, president of the Chicago chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents local officers.

The police protections in the Illinois law are necessary because officers’ lives are on the line and because of false and unproven allegations against them, he said. “At some point in time, that person isn’t happy going to jail,” Angelo said. “The easy target becomes the police officer.”

The law applies to officers until they are charged, but investigations of police misconduct, especially excessive force and death cases, rarely result in charges.


Uniform Peace Officers' Disciplinary Act (Police "bill of rights") (PDF)

Uniform Peace Officers' Disciplinary Act (Police "bill of rights") (Text)

Critics of the law say the protections give police an unfair advantage because they have time to prepare a statement and know in advance what they’ll be asked. Both impede prompt investigations of alleged misconduct.

Illinois differs from Maryland where officers have a 10-day waiting period before they are questioned in a criminal case. In Illinois, police establish the waiting period in their union contracts. Chicago police officers typically have two days before giving a statement.

The state law also allows police officers to receive a transcript of their interview with police officials sooner than the average citizen would. Under the union contract, an officer must receive a transcript or recording within 72 hours of an interrogation, and before any additional interviews.

“Let’s say a cop is called in for a subsequent interview,” Iris said. “It’s far easier to be consistent when you’re telling the truth. But when you tell a falsehood and have to do it on repeated occasions, you have to remember, ‘What lie did I tell last time?’ It’s easier with a transcript.”

Under the state law, a police officer has to be interrogated “at a reasonable time of day” and the officer has discretion about what is reasonable.

That’s not the case for civilians, Iris said.

“If it’s three in the morning and police need to speak with you about a shooting case — you’ll be at the police station at three in the morning.”

A history of police protections in Illinois

The story of Illinois’ police “bill of rights” starts in Chicago in the early ‘80s with the Fraternal Order of Police.

In 1980, the FOP was elected to represent Chicago police in collective bargaining with the city. The union established its version of a bill of rights in its first contract with the city — and then ushered a law through the statehouse. The Illinois Police Association also backed the law.

A transcript from a 1983 debate in the Illinois General Assembly indicates that the office of Chicago’s top cop helped draft the state law. House Speaker Michael Madigan was among the sponsors, along with Rep. Roger McAuliffe, a former Chicago police officer.

Co-sponsor John S. Matijevich, a former Democratic representative from North Chicago, said police had a strong lobbying presence in Springfield to get the bill passed. Earlier that year, Matijevich had sponsored successful firefighters’ bill of rights legislation, following a strike by Chicago firefighters and a push by public employees to unionize. At the time, other states were passing similar laws.

“I can’t recall everything now,” said Matijevich, “but I was convinced that [police] needed a voice.”

State Sen. Sam Vadalabene, a Democrat from Edwardsville, sponsored the bill in the Senate.

In 1974, Maryland became the first state to approve a police bill of rights. The state laws gained traction amid a rising tide of police unions, which drove the measures around the country.

Samuel Walker, a scholar who consults with cities about policing practices, said the push for a bill of rights was in part a response to the civil rights movement and attempts to strengthen police accountability, including the establishment of civilian review boards.

“Police departments, mostly white at the time, resented accusations of discrimination and racism, and this was their defensive response,” Walker said. “They opposed almost every measure to improve police accountability. They still do.”

A federal police bill of rights remains a top priority for the national FOP, though so far legislation has been unsuccessful in Congress.

Walker emphasized that even where there aren’t state statutes with bill of rights stipulations, police have provisions in their union contracts “that shield officers from meaningful investigations of possible misconduct.”

The power of police unions

The Chicago police union’s contract with the city, which expires in 2017, spells out details that the state law leaves open. For example, the law says the delay period for an interrogation has to be “reasonable.” Under the contract, a police officer is given two days from the date of notification to meet with investigators. If someone has been shot, they must meet with investigators no later than two hours after notification of a request for an interview. The deadline can be pushed back if an officer claims he isn’t in mental or physical condition to be interviewed by the Independent Police Review Authority.

Angelo of the Chicago FOP said officers are questioned at the scene of an incident, including shootings, and have to give superiors their version of events. An official statement, however, could be several days coming.

“You kind of give an individual some time to cool off, or relax or compose themselves,” Angelo said.


Chicago Fraternal Order of Police Contract (PDF)

Chicago Fraternal Order of Police Contract (Text)

Northwestern University professor Locke Bowman said dismantling the extra police protections in the law and union contracts is key to improving police accountability, but elected officials are reluctant to take on a powerful union.

“It’s a tough nut to crack in terms of state law,” said Bowman, executive director of the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center. “It’s a tough nut to crack in terms of contract negotiations with the FOP, which has enormous clout that is greatly feared by every politician here.”

Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office agrees that the contract allows officers to skirt accountability. He said under the contract the department must destroy misconduct files after so many years, and the city has to pay to defend police officers in court and to pay for misconduct settlements, which topped $50 million in 2014.

“The community never has any impact to speak of with the contracts … and there are no public hearings,” Taylor said. “The community has no voice.”

Angelo said the FOP protects its officers from undue discipline or prosecution, just like any union would do for its members. He said how a police officer responds to an allegation of misconduct can follow him throughout his career.

“We are there to protect the officer’s rights,” Angelo said. “It’s just looked upon differently by people because it’s a police officer involved.”

But Iris said police have more protections than private sector and most public sector employees. “These protections have been pushed strongly by police officer unions,” Iris said. “They’re trying to make it more difficult to take action against their members, not to make it easier.”

State pension crisis is about debt, not benefits

May 14, 2015 - 7:00am

So according to the Illinois Supreme Court, when the state constitution says pension benefits shall not be diminished, it means pension benefits shall not be diminished.

And somehow this bit of elementary logic comes as a huge shock to the state’s political leadership.

It would seem they’re still in denial, judging from the schemes now emerging to find new ways to enact benefit cuts. Gov. Bruce Rauner wants a constitutional amendment (which would be challenged as an ex post facto law) or bankruptcy; Senate President John J. Cullerton wants to let workers choose benefit cuts if they want to keep health care; for the city, Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants everyone just to agree to cut benefits, which is essentially a “close your eyes and make a wish” strategy.

There’s a more sensible way, according to Ralph Martire of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, but it involves two things. One is acknowledging that the problem is not benefit levels but decades of borrowing from pension funds to pay for essential state and city services. The other is finding a way to pay for those services besides borrowing from pensions.

If you attack the state’s pension crisis not as a benefit problem but a debt problem, he says, you can re-amortize the debt over several decades. But instead of heavily backloading the payments to the point where they’re unaffordable, as our politicians have done, you pay a level dollar amount, the same way homeowners pay off their mortgages.

That will cover current and future obligations and get the pension system close to 80 percent funded in 30 years — the funding level that’s considered healthy — and fully funded in another dozen years, he says.

It would cost a little more than the state is currently paying for pensions, but that would be covered by more than $2 billion in annual pension obligation bond payments that will expire in the next couple years.

“It’s constitutional, it’s affordable and it’s the only viable path available,” Martire says.  “And interestingly enough, it deals with the actual cause of the problem, which is borrowing and debt, not benefits.”

What’s stopping us?  On the one hand are the big-money interests that want to use the pension crisis to bash unions, and who hold “a very ideological worldview” that “government is not the solution, it’s the problem, and that all spending is bad and all taxes are bad,” Martire says.

Then there are the politicians who want to shift responsibility for the crisis to someone else — public employees are quite handy — and who are too timid to fix the state’s broken, regressive revenue system.  It’s a system in which lower-income residents pay a much higher proportion of their income for state and local taxes than the wealthy do.  That’s inefficient, because for several decades, wealth has been flowing upward.  It’s a revenue system that contributes to that upward flow of wealth — and fails to raise enough to cover basic services.

“People ask whether the Supreme Court decision means the state needs to raise taxes, and my answer is no,” Martire says.  “The state does need to raise taxes, [but] it needed to raise taxes regardless of what the Supreme Court did.  In fact, the unfunded liability in the pension system is a symptom of the state’s need to raise taxes.  So yeah, we’ve got to raise taxes, but that’s just to have a sustainable funding base for current services.”

There’s a conservative myth that Illinois is a high-spending and high-tax state.  In fact, Illinois has cut billions in spending on health care and social services in recent years.  In 2012, according to CTBA, the state ranked 28th in the nation in spending on services as a share of population and 36th in spending as a share of GDP.  Looking at the total state and local tax burden, Illinois is among the lowest in the nation — and lower than Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana or Ohio.

We need progressive revenue solutions.  We could start by expanding the sales tax to high-end services and closing billions of dollars of corporate tax loopholes.

Instead we get Springfield politicians — products of a political system completely dominated by money and clout — who seem entirely focused on ideological posturing,  jockeying for power and shifting blame for their irresponsibility.

Photo: Pension puzzle/Shutterstock image


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