Starting with the mayor and the police superintendent, public officials are compelled to respond to outbreaks of violence swiftly and decisively and—this is very important—publicly, so that everyone in town knows they have ordered more cops to be more aggressive on more patrols.

The previous couple of superintendents embraced this idea, which meant that rank-and-file cops were told to go get the bad guys. Now those superintendents have been sent out to pasture and the city is paying millions of dollars a month to settle lawsuits alleging police misconduct. Through April, the city had agreed to pay $53 million in settlements this year, most of them involving the police department. That’s more than the full-year totals for 2007, 2006, or 2005.

On Tuesday the City Council’s finance and police & fire committees held a joint meeting to hear the chief administrator of the Independent Police Review Authority testify about “the fate of all officers involved in settlement cases of police brutality,” as the resolution calling for the meeting put it.

Turns out, nothing is happening to these officers, at least not in a systematic way. “We do not currently look at patterns outside a specific investigation,” said Ilana Rosenzweig, chief administrator of the IPRA, which examines police shootings and allegations of misconduct.

Rosenzweig added that the police department is “looking into” a system for tracking them. In the meantime, though, her agency had investigated 23 police shootings of civilians and looked into 2,367 separate complaints about officer conduct in the first three months of the year. It deemed 590 of these complaints worthy of additional investigation*, and so far 13 have been “sustained,” or upheld. Punishments ranged from short suspensions to firings.

But this hearing was requested by maverick alderman Toni Preckwinkle, of the Fourth Ward, and most of the others present didn’t seem interested in police accountability—they wanted to know what sort of operation Rosenzweig thought she was running. Finance committee chairman Ed Burke, a former cop, asked how many of her 44 investigators have gone through police academy training (most, and the rest are supposed to by the end of the year), how many were previously on the force themselves (one), what hours of the day they work (usually normal business hours, though someone’s always on call), how they get to the site of police shootings (by driving IPRA cars), and how, if they don’t use their police radios, they communicate with officers (by cell phone).

“I understand there may be a few bad apples in the bushel,” 47th Ward alderman Gene Schulter told Rosenzweig, “but there are gangbangers and drug dealers in the neighborhoods who learn how to file complaints against officers.” Rosenzweig said she hadn’t come across any such complaints yet.

Alderman George Cardenas of the 12th Ward wanted to get right to the point. “Is there a book that defines ‘police brutality’?” he asked. “Are there guidelines for this?”  

“The question we try to answer is whether the force used is within the guidelines for a Chicago police officer as defined by the superintendent,” Rosenzwig told him.

“So kicking a man down when he’s handcuffed—what would that look like?” Cardenas wondered.

“It depends,” Rosenzweig said. “You can kick him if he’s assaultive.”

“And what statistics do you have about officers getting hurt on the job?”

“The police department would have to provide that.”

Cardenas pondered this for a moment, then let it be known that he thought Rosenzweig needed to proceed with caution. “Because I think communities want the police to be their enforcers.”

Willie Cochran, a former cop who’s now alderman of the 20th Ward, had a suggestion. “I’m wondering if we could get a flowchart for everybody that shows the rules and regulations of the department,” he said.

Rosenzweig didn’t object.

*UPDATE: I received a call from a spokesman for the IPRA who pointed out that, under city law [PDF], it’s the authority’s job to “receive and register” all complaints against police officers, but it can only investigate those that involve allegations of domestic violence, excessive force, coercion, and verbal abuse. So in the first three months of this year, the IPRA received 2,367 total complaints against officers and determined that 590 fell under its purview. The others were all forwarded to the police department’s Internal Affairs Division.

The ordinance creating the IPRA was passed last November by a 49-0 vote.