Scandal Forces Chicago Police to Overhaul Anti-Gang Unit
With one officer awaiting trial for allegedly running a cocaine ring, at least four others under investigation in the case and federal prosecutors hinting that more indictments are on the way, the Chicago Police Department has launched an overhaul of its elite anti-gang unit.
The move, coming less than a month after the Los Angeles Police Department disbanded its own anti-gang units amid widespread corruption in the Rampart Division, is designed to increase supervision of Chicago’s gang officers. Members of this city’s gang detail--much like their LAPD counterparts--historically operated with little oversight as they nurtured relationships with some of Chicago’s seediest characters in an effort to infiltrate drug rings and solve gang-related crimes.
That laissez-faire atmosphere may have worked to the advantage of Officer Joseph Miedzianowski, who federal prosecutors contend piloted a crew of crooked cops and drug-dealing informants. Over the last decade and a half, they allegedly bought and sold cocaine, ripped off drugs and cash from other dealers and even helped hide a murder suspect from fellow officers.
Although department officials say the changes, which could occur as soon as Saturday, are part of a natural institutional evolution, they also acknowledge the influence of the Miedzianowski case, and of perhaps more indictments.
“It’s something that’s been talked about since the Miedzianowski case came to light,” Patrick Camden, the department’s spokesman, said of the restructuring. “I’m sure it figures into the equation.”
Currently, all 104 members of the unit work out of the same building on the city’s crime-addled West Side. Spreading them out will be one of the first items of business.
The unit will be split in half, with 52 officers being reassigned to the narcotics division and 52 to the detective division. Those who go to narcotics will work out of the same building as other narcotics officers; those who pull detective duty will go to one of the city’s five area headquarters.
Chicago’s anti-gang officers will be carrying out a largely unchanged mandate: Those who go to narcotics will concentrate on gang-related drug crimes, and those who go to detectives will focus on gang-related slayings and other violent crimes; they simply will be doing so in smaller groups and operate in units that historically have had more structure.
“In reading between the lines, what they’re trying to do is tighten up oversight,” said William Nolan, president of the officers’ union, the Fraternal Order of Police. The union has not opposed the changes but plans to make certain they do not violate current contracts.
“These guys are gang-crimes specialists and will remain so,” Nolan added.
Although Police Supt. Terry Hillard has not specified his reasons for the shake-up, the changes also appear to signal a fundamental shift in the way the department will combat gangs.
Hillard’s predecessor, Matt Rodriguez, in the early 1990s began focusing less on street-level thuggery and more on senior gang members and their involvement in larger conspiracies. The new arrangement will shift manpower back to targeting the day-to-day mayhem and drug-running, department officials said.
Unlike the national attention heaped on police scandals in Los Angeles and New York, Chicago’s problems had remained mostly local affairs. But as the incidents have stacked up--most of them involving patrol officers, not anti-gang squads--scrutiny of the entire department is becoming more intense, with calls for change louder and more frequent.
Chicago police last summer shot and killed two unarmed motorists. The first, Bobby Russ, a Northwestern University football player, lunged for an officer’s gun after leading patrol cars on a chase, police say. The second was LaTanya Haggerty, a 26-year-old passenger in a car that also had fled police. Haggerty, who was holding a cellular phone, had her hands in the air when she was shot, one witness said.
In both cases, the officers as well as the victims were African American. Nevertheless, both shootings led to demonstrations accusing police of racism.
Then in January, Illinois Gov. George Ryan announced a de facto moratorium on executions until an inquiry could be completed into why more death row inmates have been exonerated than executed since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.
In the last 23 years, 12 inmates have been put to death in Illinois and 13 have been set free--most on the basis of new DNA evidence. Several of the cases involved allegations that investigators had coerced confessions from the suspects or testimony from witnesses.
But it is the years of alleged misdeeds by the 46-year-old Miedzianowski, sources said, that are a key reason behind the gang unit shake-up.
A tall, tough 22-year veteran, Miedzianowski--who has pleaded not guilty--spent 16 years on the gang unit. Almost from the time he joined the detail, prosecutors allege, he began organizing a tight-knit, sometimes violent, drug cartel.
Eleven co-defendants, none of them officers, have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with federal investigators.
Earlier this month, a former leader of the Latin Lovers street gang--who prosecutors say was Miedzianowski’s primary partner in the scheme--laid out in detail more than a dozen shakedowns, extortions, robberies and case-fixings.
Testifying in a federal hearing as he sought a plea agreement, confessed killer Nelson Padilla told of setting up drug buys and then tipping off Miedzianowski, who Padilla said would rush in, make arrests and steal the drugs and cash--later to be divided among the conspirators, including other officers. He testified about helping Miedzianowski plan raids on the homes of drug dealers for a share of the loot, about being picked up at the airport by Miedzianowski as he arrived with cocaine from Florida, about providing Miedzianowski small quantities of cocaine to plant on people the officer wanted to arrest.
Padilla also testified that Miedzianowski worked to “fix” cases--most notably his own.
In 1990, Miedzianowski argued against the 25-year sentence prosecutors sought after Padilla was convicted on a drug charge, helping persuade a judge to give him eight years.
In 1993, Padilla was paroled and, he testified, he and other gang members were frequent guests of Miedzianowski at a shooting range. In 1995, Padilla shot and killed a rival gang member.
Miedzianowski, prosecutors allege, not only helped hide Padilla from investigators but, along with another unnamed officer, provided him with a cellular phone, food and a list of witnesses to the slaying.
In return for his testimony, prosecutors recommended that Padilla receive no more than 22 1/2 years in his current case, rather than a possible life sentence.
Miedzianowski’s attorney, Ralph Meczyk, withdrew suddenly from the case on Friday, months after prosecutors revealed they may call him as a witness against his own client and fought unsuccessfully to have him removed. Meczyk represented drug dealers in two cases that Miedzianowski allegedly helped influence, although prosecutors say they have no evidence that Meczyk was involved.
Police watchdog groups call the proposed restructuring of the anti-gang unit a step in the right direction. But many would prefer the more comprehensive overhaul taking place in Los Angeles. Still others say even the LAPD’s plan is too tame to address what they consider systemic corruption.
“Dismantling the unit in response to a lack of accountability is a good thing,” said Janine Hoft, an attorney with the Peoples’ Law Office here. “But I don’t think it answers the ultimate question, which is how do we hold [all] officers responsible and . . . increase public input and public oversight?”