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This police watchdog is walking a tough beat

Times Staff Writer

Once a month, Ilana Rosenzweig faces an angry crowd at the public meeting of the Police Board and tries to convince them that the bad old days of corrupt Chicago cops are coming to an end.

It’s a tough sell for the Los Angeles lawyer, who became chief administrator of Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority in September.

In the last six months, an officer used a Taser on an 82-year-old woman in her home, a federal jury awarded $4 million to a man who said he was sodomized by an officer with a screwdriver during a search, and the Police Board overrode recommendations to fire an officer who was seen on a security tape beating a suspect handcuffed in a wheelchair -- and who later lied about his actions.

“This isn’t just about a few cases of police misconduct,” said Grant Newburger, 50, one of the outraged community leaders at a recent board meeting. “This is about changing a culture that for years has been abusive.”

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Rosenzweig was well aware of the problems in Chicago.

“I knew it would take time to get people’s trust,” she said. “But it was strange that, at the first City Council meeting I attended, I would have someone come up to me and say, ‘Welcome to hell.’ ”

Before Rosenzweig came to Chicago, a string of police- related shootings in the city’s South Side and West Side had residents screaming at Police Board meetings. The public’s mood remained grim when videotapes surfaced showing an off-duty officer beating up a female bartender, and a group of officers pummeling four businessmen in a downtown bar.

Critics have long contended that the Independent Police Review Authority, formerly known as the Office of Professional Standards, either didn’t have enough resources to root out problem officers or didn’t have enough support from the city or the department for it to do a thorough job.

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A report released last year by University of Chicago researchers said the city’s police had more brutality complaints per officer than the national average.

Between 2002 and 2004, civilians filed 10,149 complaints of false arrest, illegal search, sexual or racial abuse, or excessive force.

Only 19 of those cases resulted in an officer being suspended for a week or more, said civil rights lawyer Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who worked on the report.

Police officials question the report’s statistics, noting that the department includes more categories in its reporting pool than other cities do.

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“The situation is not a sweeping problem with the department,” said newly appointed Chicago Police Department Supt. Jody Weis, a career FBI agent and the first outsider to head the department in almost four decades. “The problem is with a few bad apples.”

Hoping to restore public confidence, the City Council and Democratic Mayor Richard M. Daley vowed last year to overhaul the Office of Professional Standards.

They made the unit independent of the Police Department, and had its chief report to the mayor’s office.

They expanded its jurisdiction -- which encompassed police-involved shootings, off-duty officer fights, and coercion through threats of violence -- to include complaints formerly handled by the department’s internal affairs investigators, including use of excessive force and verbal abuse by an officer that involves racial or other bias.

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They set a six-month deadline for investigations to be completed, noting that some of the unit’s case backlog dated to 2002.

A mother of two who grew up in a suburb of St. Paul, Minn., Rosenzweig had earned a reputation for being thorough and unflappable during her six years as a staff attorney at the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review, which monitors the Sheriff’s Department.

During that time, she published reports that tackled excessive force, officer-involved shootings and the dangers of chasing suspects.

One of her more high-profile cases examined a Mother’s Day shooting in 2005, in which sheriff’s deputies fired 120 shots at an unarmed driver in a residential neighborhood in Compton.

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Her subsequent report criticized the department for numerous problems, including the fact that officers did not have the tools needed to stop the car safely, and that half of the deputies involved hadn’t had up-to-date tactical training.

“In L.A., our approach of looking at the conduct of the officers is not just when they pulled the trigger, but everything that preceded it and came after it,” Rosenzweig said.

In Chicago, Rosenzweig discovered that the staff of the Independent Police Review Authority was demoralized, and the computer systems and network connections were outdated. About 30% of the investigative jobs in the 85-member unit were unfilled, and there was a two-year backlog of more than 1,200 cases.

Rosenzweig has been working with the city to hire more investigators and to keep up with the backlog, which continues to grow. “We’re taking in about 200 cases a month, and right now closing 150 a month or so,” she said.

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Annie Johnson doesn’t want to wait. Her 18-year-old son, Aaron Harrison, was shot by police last summer. Before the internal investigation was complete, the media reported that the department said the shooting was justified.

Rosenzweig’s office is reviewing the case.

At a recent Police Board meeting, Johnson begged for information. “No one’s telling me anything,” said Johnson. “This is my son. I take this personally.”

The panel sat silent -- except for Rosenzweig.

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“It’s still under investigation. There is specific evidence that we’re trying to gather,” she said in a calm, quiet voice. “It hasn’t been forgotten. He hasn’t been forgotten. It is something I’m aware of and personally monitoring.”

Johnson sighed angrily and sat down.

“I’d like to believe her,” Johnson said after the meeting. “I guess I’m afraid to hope anyone, even an outsider, can change things here.”

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com


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