A cop and an arbitrator sit at a table on a platform high above a sea of people.
A potential change in the way Chicago police officers appeal disciplinary charges could result in secret hearings, more officers let off the hook for misconduct, and a breakdown in the city’s newly strengthened police oversight infrastructure. Credit: Mads Horwath for Chicago Reader

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Inspector General Deborah Witzburg’s position on police misconduct arbitration, based on information in publicly available documents. After publication, Witzburg clarified she believes that if cases are no longer adjudicated by the police board, the city should take steps to make arbitration more transparent. The Reader regrets the errors.

A potential change in the way Chicago police officers appeal disciplinary charges could result in secret hearings, more officers getting off the hook for misconduct, and an overall breakdown in the city’s newly strengthened police oversight infrastructure. 

That’s according to city officials, from Mayor Brandon Johnson to police board chair Ghian Foreman, and experts who worked on the consent decree between the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and the Illinois Attorney General’s office.

The change would allow most officers facing serious disciplinary charges—terminations and suspensions longer than a year—to have their cases heard by an arbitrator, rather than the Chicago Police Board (CPB). The CPB currently holds public trial-like hearings for officers facing serious discipline, and the board members consider those cases during monthly public meetings.

Arbitration proceedings, by contrast, are conducted in secret, and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 (FOP), which represents rank-and-file CPD officers, will have a hand in selecting the arbitrators that hear these disciplinary cases.

Police accountability experts warn that the shift—while it may seem purely bureaucratic—could prove disastrous for the city’s efforts to hold officers accountable for misconduct, and undermine recent moves to strengthen police oversight and make it more democratic and transparent. 

If the provision is ratified in the contract with the FOP that the Chicago City Council is currently considering, according to University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman, it “would all but guarantee another decade of police impunity in Chicago.” 

The data about arbitration and the CPD’s current and historic system of grievances—the first level of the CPD’s complicated internal appeals process, which generally ends with either settled agreements or hearings before independent arbitrators—seems to support this prediction. Between 2010 and 2017, disciplinary charges were lessened or completely overturned in 85 percent of appeals brought by officers, according to reporting by ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune

It’s a problem that Chicago police oversight officials have struggled to address for decades. “The discipline imposed upon Chicago police officers is routinely cut in half by arbitrators,” then CPB executive director Mark Iris found in a 1998 study

Since then, multiple other studies of police arbitration from across the country have found that it “creates incentives for arbitrators to consistently reduce disciplinary actions in order to increase their probability of being selected in future cases,” as Loyola University Chicago law professor Stephen Rushin wrote in a 2021 article.

The Police Accountability Task Force, appointed by then mayor Rahm Emanuel in the wake of the release of the Laquan McDonald video and led by then police board chair Lori Lightfoot, also noted issues, finding that one form of disciplinary arbitration led to discipline being reduced or overturned in 70 percent of cases.

In 2021, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a review of disciplinary grievances from 2014 to 2017. The OIG found that most eligible cases get appealed through this system, and of those cases 78 percent get discipline overturned or reduced.

That’s well over the national average of around half of cases resulting in overturned discipline that Loyola law professor Rushin found in his 2021 article.

If given the opportunity to choose arbitration over the police board, officers “will 100 percent go for arbitration,” said Iris, who is now a lecturer emeritus in Northwestern University’s Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences program, in an interview.

The FOP is “clearly looking out for the best interests of their constituents,” said Sharon Fairley, who was the head of the city’s Independent Police Review Authority and then Civilian Office of Police Accountability from 2015 to 2017. “They see arbitration as being in their best interest. The problem is that it’s not necessarily in the best interest of the community at large.”

Data from the police board analyzed by the Invisible Institute shows that the board is generally more inclined to uphold disciplinary recommendations against officers. Between 2011 and 2022, the board decided 200 cases, the vast majority of them recommendations from the superintendent to fire CPD officers. The board approved the recommended discipline or increased it in just over half of those cases.

Additionally, in 60 cases, CPD officers resigned before the police board issued a ruling. This includes the case of current FOP president John Catanzara, who resigned from the CPD midway through a police board hearing into a recommendation that he be fired from the department over racist and homophobic social media posts, amongst other charges. 

Catanzara made it plain that he resigned to avoid a firing: “There was never a possibility under God’s green earth that I was ever going to give this mayor the ability to utter the words, ‘I fired you,’” he said at the time.

All told, 63 percent of officers with cases before the police board either resigned or had their discipline upheld, while the rest had their cases overturned or were given lighter discipline, often a lengthy suspension in lieu of firing.

The move to allow arbitration came out of the FOP’s current round of contract negotiations with the city. The 2021 contract that Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration signed with the FOP did not settle a host of issues that went to their own arbitration proceeding before longtime labor arbitrator Edwin Benn, who is based in Glencoe.

During this process, the FOP argued that a 1984 law, the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act (IPLRA), requires the city to allow officers to have cases involving terminations and suspensions of over a year heard by arbitrators rather than the CPB. 

Since the first FOP contract was signed in 1980—four years before the IPLRA was passed—every contract has stated that terminations of officers can only be heard by the police board. The FOP never asked for this change during any previous contract negotiations, as the city argued to arbitrator Benn. However, to Benn, once one of the parties to a contract asks to bring cases to arbitration rather than some other process, the IPLRA “leaves nothing to discretion,” he wrote in a June decision. The law overrules any previous contract or custom.

In that decision, which was not binding, he found that officers represented by the FOP should have the choice between a CPB hearing or a hearing with an arbitrator for terminations and suspensions of over a year.

If there were any doubt as to what option FOP-represented officers would choose, in August, the union put that to rest when it filed a motion with the police board to move 22 cases from the CPB’s jurisdiction to an arbitrator’s.

Notably, the cases included not only pending terminations and suspensions of over a year, but also four officers who had already been fired by the CPD, had their cases adjudicated by the police board, and are currently trying to overturn the CPB’s decisions in court. 

Those include the officers who were fired over the fatal shootings of Paul O’Neal, an unarmed Black teenager who had led officers on a car chase, and Maurice Granton Jr., a 24-year-old Black man who had led officers on a foot chase and was shot as he ran away, and another officer who was fired for using racial slurs and making a false report.

In September, the CPB shot down the FOP’s motion to move the cases, finding that it didn’t have authority to do so, and even if it did, it would be contrary to the current contract to move the cases.

Regardless, in a final opinion released on October 19, Benn upheld his previous findings. “The necessity for issuing” this new decision, he wrote, was due to “some public reaction to the prior awards which, in my opinion, showed a misunderstanding of the arbitration process or a desire to dismantle that process.” Later, he referred to the use of the phrase “behind closed doors” to describe arbitration hearings—which Benn found should continue to be secret—as “perhaps even the creation of a public relations effort.”

The change will not go into effect, however, until it is ratified by two-thirds of the Chicago City Council. Mayor Brandon Johnson, after first asking the City Council to accept the new FOP contract, has now called for alders to reject the specific provision regarding disciplinary arbitration while approving the rest of the contract. To overcome Benn’s decision, at least 30 alders must vote to reject it. No hearing has been scheduled of the City Council’s Workforce Development committee, which will first consider the contract.

If the contract provision does go through, the new wave of cases involving serious misconduct will be handled by a CPD office with a history of disarray. When the OIG began its review of the CPD’s disciplinary grievance and arbitration system in 2019, it took time out to issue a “management alert” about “areas of concern” in the CPD’s Management and Labor Affairs Section (MLAS), which oversees grievances and arbitration as a labor issue.

It found that MLAS had no procedures for processing grievances, no coordination with the city Department of Law, and no database to track cases, outcomes, or precedential opinions, and that it was severely understaffed. CPD “disagreed” that it “lacks formal policies and procedures”—providing documents that the OIG had already found insufficient. It said that it was creating a new case management database and that it was aware of its staffing issues.

Two years earlier, ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune compiled the first database of CPD disciplinary grievance and arbitration appeals, finding that a single arbitrator dropped multiple cases solely for investigations taking too long. This arbitrator, Michigan attorney George Roumell Jr., heard at least 75 cases between 2010 and 2017, finding in favor of the officer in 79 percent of them. Roumell is one of the five approved arbitrators included in the contract that Benn approved. Just two of the five have professional addresses in Chicago.

In another case, a previous arbitrator found that a ten-day suspension was too heavy-handed for an officer who shot a man while off-duty, then fled and waited a half hour to report the shooting. A homeowner saw the man who was shot crawling on the ground and called 911. The arbitrator found that securing the scene “was not worth the [officer’s] life.”

Decisions made in serious disciplinary cases by a board that can be held to account at public meetings have come to be expected in Chicago. But it wasn’t always so. The CPB was created in 1960 to support the agenda of O.W. Wilson, a criminology professor who was hired as superintendent by then mayor Richard J. Daley to reform the department after a scandal involving an officer burglary ring. The city Civil Service Commission, which preceded the CPB, was viewed as being too friendly to officers facing termination, and Wilson needed a board that would uphold his discipline.

“It was created, in large part, to deal with the output function: getting rid of officers,” said Iris, who was the board’s executive director from 1984 to 2004. 

For the next decade after its creation, it conducted its work in private, if not in secret: it wasn’t until 1970 that a community group called Citizens Alert crashed a meeting of the police board and began attending as members of the public for the first time, the Reader reported in 1992. 

By 1973, the board, initially resistant, held a hearing on issues with the CPD, and the next year, at then superintendent James Rochford’s request, it created the department’s first civilian oversight body, the Office of Professional Standards, which, after years of pressure by Citizens Alert and other groups, eventually brought charges against notorious Commander Jon Burge and some of his associates before the board. Mirroring this practice, there were also regular protests at police board meetings following the killing of Rekia Boyd in 2012, helping build public pressure to fire Detective Dante Servin and institute broad reforms of the CPD.

A move to arbitration would take those most serious police discipline cases out of the public view to a closed system that would obscure research and reporting. For decades, journalists and researchers have analyzed police board cases, meetings, and transcripts in ways they have not been able to with grievances and arbitration.

With that information, it is possible to show that, over the years, decisions on disciplinary cases by the CPB—a mayoral-appointed board—have shifted with the agenda of the mayor and council appointing the members. In 1973, the Chicago Law Enforcement Study Group published a study of the CPB’s first decade of existence and found that it had only rejected charges filed by the superintendent in 10 percent of cases. 

By the time of a 2009 report by the Chicago Justice Project, which examined the previous ten years of data, the watchdog found that the board had overruled the superintendent’s recommendation for discharge in more than 60 percent of cases. That remained roughly consistent with a 2016 Police Accountability Task Force report. 

The police board has shown a greater willingness to fire officers in recent years. According to an Invisible Institute analysis of data from the board from 2011 to 2015, about 50 percent of officers facing firing were formally fired or resigned ahead of a police board ruling. Those numbers shifted noticeably in the wake of the publication of video of the murder of Laquan McDonald at the hands of CPD officer Jason Van Dyke in late 2015. Between 2016 and 2021, more than 80 percent of firing cases led to the officer separating from the department. 

A chart of police board decisions on police firing cases.
Credit: Trina Reynolds-Tyler, Invisible Institute

The shift in police board behavior came amid a time of sweeping changes for the department, including an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice that found widespread unconstitutional use of force by CPD officers and the initiation of a court-ordered reform process.

Recent data shows that the CPB may be reversing course. In 2022 and the first half of 2023, the police board increasingly ruled in favor of officers in termination cases, allowing police to remain in the department in more than half of all cases.

In at least some instances, this pattern appears to be linked to recent appointees to the police board. In an October 2023 case about the proposed firing of two CPD officers who allegedly lied about their role in a 2010 police shooting that cost the city over $4 million, the five members appointed during the Lightfoot administration found the officers not guilty, with the three members appointed before her tenure dissenting.

The arbitration decision also comes at a time when the CPB is undergoing more change than it ever has previously during its six-decade existence. The new Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability (CCPSA) now appoints its members, rather than the mayor, and that process has resulted in significant turnover. 

For the first time, a body created with the purpose of providing true community oversight to the police disciplinary system in Chicago has the ability to choose the individuals who decide whether officers should be fired—and that ability could be taken away from it almost as soon as it’s granted.

“The public is not allowed to participate in any way” in the arbitration system, said Fairley, who is now a University of Chicago law professor studying civilian oversight of police. “That really undermines the system of accountability. If the community doesn’t believe that officers are being held accountable, that undermines public safety for everyone.”

Benn’s decision has faced condemnation from most officials involved in the police oversight system in Chicago, including CCPSA president Anthony Driver and outgoing police board chair Ghian Foreman. “Police accountability, and ultimately the people of Chicago, will suffer” if this change goes through, Foreman said.

Now the Chicago City Council gets to weigh in. If at least 30 of the city’s 50 council members vote to reject the arbitration provision, it will set up further legal wrangling and a possible return to the negotiating table.

“City Council and the mayor’s ratification of this system would not only tell officers that they have nothing to fear even for the most extreme abuse of their powers, but they would also shield the most serious cases from public scrutiny,” said Futterman, the law professor, whose Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project represented community groups in negotiations over the CPD’s federal consent decree.

“The ratification of the FOP’s efforts to circumvent accountability would turn back the clock on the progress that we have made toward police transparency and accountability in Chicago,” he added.

There is a larger issue that the issue of successful disciplinary appeals raises: how the bodies that have historically been responsible for investigating and disciplining police misconduct—and the city funding them—have allowed for delays, investigatory errors, corruption, and other issues to provide avenues for officers credibly accused of serious misconduct to get off scot-free. 

“Maybe what’s broken is how these cases are brought forward,” not necessarily the specific system through which officers fight their discipline, said University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign labor relations expert Robert Bruno. “Maybe it speaks to a bigger problem and something structural in the supervision that should be responsible for recruiting, training, creating a culture, disciplining.” That, of course, is a battle police reformers have been waging for almost as long as there have been police in Chicago.

Disclosure: Employees of Invisible Institute provided pro bono analysis of publicly accessible data for the community groups represented by Craig Futterman in negotiations around the consent decree.


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