Two Chicago police officers standing near their squad car, with two men handcuffed in the back seat, claimed to see nothing.
But onlookers saw so much that they called 911 and also later recounted a horrifying scene to investigators. They described how the police car shook as a man — an off-duty sergeant, as it turned out — reached in and repeatedly punched one of the arrestees.
Just feet away, the uniformed officers did not stop him.
“This is, this is, this is unbelievable,” one witness told 911 as he reported the incident in the early morning hours in Wrigleyville, according to a transcript of the call.
This was almost nine years ago. And while police officials moved to fire the off-duty sergeant and he is no longer on the force, the two other officers have yet to serve 30-day suspensions.
That’s because the officers, Wayne Keneipp and Veronica Murillo, opted to grieve the punishment, an option that is being used more frequently in recent years among officers found to have committed misconduct, a Tribune investigation found. By filing a grievance with the department’s Management and Labor Affairs Section, which oversees the process, officers hope to avoid or reduce their punishments.
Typically, it works.
Keneipp and Murillo have avoided serving their suspensions because the grievance process is slow and complicated, and because the number of grievances has surged. Add to those issues that the office fails to efficiently track cases — and it can wait for years for the police union to file grievance-related paperwork — and the result is a case like Keneipp and Murillo’s, which has been stalled since 2013 as MLAS officials wait on the union.
In a police accountability system that is widely seen as dysfunctional, Officer Michael Mansor, who grieved a 15-day suspension in 2015 after he was found to have threatened a pregnant woman and called her a racial slur, becomes emblematic rather than exceptional.
Mansor has been allowed to remain on the streets while his case has dragged on.
As of mid-December, 280 disciplinary grievances remained open, according to a Tribune analysis of city data, with about a quarter of those cases more than two years old. Seven grievances filed roughly six years ago are still open, allowing the officers to keep working unpunished.
“If the grievance process can be manipulated … to avoid discipline, then the grievance process is not serving the interest of fairness, it is subverting it,” said Locke Bowman, executive director of the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.
It is unclear how many open cases are grinding through a typical grievance process and how many are open because department officials never got a union response. The current union contract with the city doesn’t set a time limit for the Fraternal Order of Police to act once a grievance passes initial deadlines. MLAS, according to a police department spokesman, cannot track all of their cases without opening the paper files of each one.
Meanwhile, the caseload at MLAS has grown. Officers filed only 48 disciplinary grievances in 2010; they filed 200 in 2015 and another 134 last year.
Dean Angelo Sr., who heads the local FOP chapter, said the union delayed in some cases because it was waiting on documentation related to the pending discipline. But after the Tribune alerted the union to some long-open cases, he said Thursday that the FOP has responded and they will start moving again.
“For them to deflect to us is a bit unfair but not untypical,” Angelo said of the police department. “There’s a lot of musical chairs going on … at MLAS and sometimes these files sit dormant for a long time until someone picks them up.”
As long as the cases are idle, the police department refuses to publicly release records about the wrongdoing, and the misconduct finding does not appear in the officers’ personnel records.
The slow pace in closing cases matters. It means that of the 134 cases filed last year, only 19 — the few MLAS closed — are public and on officers’ records. Half of the 200 cases filed in 2015 still are open.
“It is not good for the police officer to have the sword dangling over their head for years, and it is not good for the complainant and it is not good for the public,” said former federal prosector Ron Safer, now a partner at Riley, Safer, Holmes & Cancila, who co-wrote a 2014 report for the city on preventing and disciplining police misconduct.
Cases drag on for years
In that report, Safer highlighted what he saw as the flaws in the disciplinary system, including that officers can appeal punishments multiple times and use several different avenues — the grievance system, the Chicago Police Board and the courts among them.
When one pathway isn’t successful, officers can try their luck on another.
The union says disputing punishments is central to officers’ due process rights and if they feel a punishment is too harsh — or that investigations were incomplete — they have the right to seek an outside arbiter.
But the current system, which Safer describes as having “so many off-ramps on the road to resolution,” delays punishment for years.
“There has been no will to hold officers accountable,” Safer said.
As the current union contract is set to expire this year, some police accountability officials say it’s time to look hard at the number of ways officers can fend off discipline and find a way to shorten the grievance process while not depriving officers of due process.
Mia Sissac, spokeswoman for the Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates officer misconduct, said by the time the cases get to MLAS, they have been well-vetted by officials at both IPRA and the police department.
“We don’t understand why the process takes as long as it does in some cases,” Sissac said. “The point (of the contract) is to protect the officers and make sure they have a fair due process, but I don’t think it should be at the expense of letting accountability happen.”
The director of MLAS, Wynter C.N. Jackson, declined to speak to reporters about the process or individual cases.
A police spokesman said the department committed earlier this month to improving “the quality, transparency and timeliness of investigations, grievances and systems of administrating discipline.”
“While these investigations are often complex, the Department has acknowledged the need to streamline this process,” spokesman Frank Giancamilli said.
The grievance cases take, on average, three years to complete, a recent U.S. Department of Justice report noted.
Stack that on top of IPRA’s notoriously slow-moving investigations, and it’s not unusual for allegations of wrongdoing to linger for six or seven years without resolution. The police-investigation-to-time-served slog is more than an administrative foible. When the process takes too long, it fails in its main purpose, Angelo said.
“Discipline is designed to adjust behavior. If it’s not timely … then the behavior continues,” Angelo said. “Where’s the adjustment to my behavior and the benefit of discipline? Who wins there? Nobody.”
Nor does the delayed discipline soothe victims of police misconduct.
Nelson Sada and Daniel Gonzalez have been waiting for years to find out what happened to the officers they encountered in Wrigleyville in 2008.
Sada and Gonzalez were walking along North Clark Street in the early morning hours on June 12, after Gonzalez finished his job as a bar back at the John Barleycorn restaurant. The pair got in a fight with off-duty Sgt. Robert Murray, and officers Keneipp and Murillo responded. They cuffed Sada and Gonzalez and put them in the backseat of their squad car. Then Murray reached into the back of the car and repeatedly punched Gonzalez in the face, records show.
“This occurred as the two arresting officers watched and did nothing,” Sada told investigators, according to a summary of his IPRA interview.
Murray denied hitting anyone, telling the IPRA investigators that he reached into the car because it appeared one of the men was trying to remove the handcuffs. Murray declined comment to the Tribune.
Keneipp and Murillo, who did not respond to requests for comment, denied knowing that Murray had punched the man, according to interviews with IPRA.
But several witnesses described the squad car shaking as Murray punched and bloodied Gonzalez and said Murray repeatedly said he would have killed the men if he had his gun, investigative records show. A caller to 911 supported Sada and Gonzalez’s account as well.
“These guys were fighting. So the police officer put handcuffs on two guys … put them in the back of the squad car and then they let the other guy just go in there and beat the crap out of the other guys,” according to a transcript of a 911 call from the scene.
Gonzalez went to the police station, and then to the hospital with swollen eyes and nose and a bloody face.
Murray was allowed to leave the scene.
The investigation of Keneipp and Murillo, and the follow-up disciplinary review process within the police department, went on for nearly five years. Their grievances have kept the cases open for four years more.
While the discipline process has been long, the city quickly settled a lawsuit with Sada and Gonzalez, who alleged excessive force and the failure of the other officers to intervene. The city settled with Sada and Gonzalez three months after the incident for $75,000. Keneipp and Murillo had their police powers stripped for nearly a year, records show.
“I can’t believe I am still talking about this nine years later,” said Brian Barrido, an attorney who represented the men in the lawsuit. “It is a shame justice has been delayed this long.”
In December 2011, IPRA investigators determined that Keneipp and Murillo had failed to protect the men and had failed to report a fellow officer’s misconduct. Keneipp, who had once played on a police department football team with Murray, also was found to have lied about the incident.
They were told to serve 30-day suspensions.
“A 30-day suspension seemed fair enough. I didn’t want them to get fired,” said Gonzalez, now 30 and living in Colorado. “I had no clue they didn’t serve their suspensions … It’s a little late, to be honest.”
Sada, 32, agreed.
“To find out right now that they actually never did anything about it,” he said, “that is not fair at all.”
The case was recently set in motion after the Tribune asked the police union about its role in the grievance delay. Angelo and the police department confirmed that the FOP’s response revived it.
Minor discipline, major appeals process
A 30-day suspension is a big one. But officers also appeal minor discipline.
Sgt. Matthew Schaller and Officer Jaeho Jung pulled over a car in 2011 and then impounded it, intending to have it towed. But they failed to properly order the tow, which meant the car they’d parked in the police station parking lot was still sitting there when the car’s owners showed up to retrieve it. Their paperwork flub led to a chaotic confrontation in the lot in which the officers stopped the car’s owners, with guns drawn, after other officers working at the station told the owners to take their car and go home, records show.
IPRA investigators concluded in 2014 that the officers hadn’t ordered the tow, then filed inaccurate paperwork. IPRA recommended reprimands, letters that would have been placed in their personnel files. That would have effectively ended the matter. They refused to accept that.
Jung and Schaller, who did not respond to emails seeking comment, filed grievances in May 2015. And they won.
Their cases closed in February with no penalty for the officers, a police spokesman confirmed.
A recent U.S. Department of Justice report that criticized the police department for civil-rights violations and its weak accountability and discipline system briefly mentioned the slow pace of the grievance process.
The federal investigation also found that complaints about officers using racially charged language were “not adequately addressed,” and noted that officers are rarely held accountable in these complaints, too. But it described a rare example of accountability for race-related misconduct when the department chose to suspend an officer.
What the report failed to mention is that the officer filed a grievance in 2015. And that the grievance had gone nowhere.
In that case, Tangela Gatz was with her husband and dog at her neighborhood dog park in 2014 when she encountered Officer Michael Mansor. Mansor was off-duty and had brought his Siberian husky to the park. Mansor told investigators that he became angry when Gatz’s husband, Ryan, kicked his husky away from him and his dog, according to records of the investigation.
Both Tangela and Ryan Gatz, who had been a police officer in Maywood, and several witnesses said there was no kick; Gatz gently shooed the dog away, investigation records show.
Mansor swore at them and, investigators concluded, threatened to beat Tangela Gatz, who was nearing the end of her pregnancy. He called her the N-word; she is African-American. Mansor admitted to using profanity but denied using the racial slur. Witnesses at the park confirmed that he did. IPRA ended its inquiry in February 2015 and called for a 15-day suspension.
“I actually went into labor a few days later. That’s how bad it stressed me out. To call someone the N-word. Who says that?” said Gatz, who did not know that Mansor was disputing the order to serve a suspension. “I was wondering what happened with this officer. It seems odd that nothing happened.”
The grievance sat until the union’s Angelo said Thursday that the FOP pushed the case forward for a potential settlement.
Gatz continues to wait. And she hasn’t been back to the dog park since.
email@example.com | Twitter: @jsmithrichards