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Chicago Police Skirt Punishment as Disciplinary System Fails Yet Again

Even after reporters identified lost cases, only some officers served suspensions.

Brandon Whitehead was 16 when an off-duty Chicago police officer pulled Brandon and his father over in an aggressive, profanity-laden stop that ended with Brandon's father arrested and the teenager stranded alone on the street after midnight. The experience left a lasting impression on him. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune)

Advisory: This story contains graphic language.

Brandon Whitehead dropped to his knees in the middle of the busy street, cars veering around him as an off-duty Chicago police officer aimed a handgun at him and his father.

It was nearly midnight, and Walter Whitehead had been driving his 16-year-old home from his job as a cashier at Long John Silver’s.

Brandon stayed quiet as the officer, who also had just left work, called 911 for assistance. Then the officer, William Levigne, called again. On the third call, Levigne became indignant, requesting help from “a brother in blue” as he blocked traffic: “I’ve got two offenders here in custody — tried to kill me here!”

Hear the actual 911 calls from off-duty Chicago Police Officer William Levigne and teenager Brandon Whitehead. (Lucas Waldron/ProPublica)

Levigne later told investigators that the Whiteheads had cut him off in traffic that night in October 2006 as they were driving down South Western Avenue on the city’s South Side. He overtook them in his Monte Carlo while pointing a gun at them, then ordered them out of their car at a stoplight, forced them to their knees and handcuffed Walter Whitehead, records show.

Brandon Whitehead had called 911, too. He was terrified as Levigne, not in uniform, approached the car with his gun drawn, swearing and calling them “jagoff” and “motherfucker.” He and his father initially thought they were being carjacked.

“Can you hear him?” Brandon asked the operator. She could.

“Off the fuckin’ phone!” Levigne screamed.

More than 11 years ago, the Whiteheads filed a complaint with police officials responsible for investigating officer misconduct. But the father and son were skeptical Levigne would be punished.

They were right.

Police officials concluded that Levigne had mistreated the Whiteheads, used profanity and lied about it, and they recommended that he be suspended for 60 days. But they didn’t follow through, and the officer didn’t serve a reduced suspension until just this month, after reporters repeatedly questioned the delay.

Even after a Chicago Tribune investigation in March revealed faults with the disciplinary system that had caused officials to lose cases — and after they pledged to track down and finalize those cases — some punishments remain pending.

ProPublica Illinois and the Tribune, collaborating on this story, discovered Levigne’s case as reporters tried to determine whether police officials had followed through on their promise.

The previous story detailed how pending punishments for at least 14 officers had been forgotten and pointed out there likely were more. Police officials have required many of those officers, as well as about a dozen others, to serve punishments — years late — during the past few months, ProPublica Illinois and the Tribune confirmed.

But officials continued to let other old cases stall as they failed to make sense of their own disjointed — and sometimes incorrect — records.

Levigne’s case is a textbook example. He had challenged his 60-day suspension by filing a grievance through the police union, and city officials in 2014 reduced his suspension to five days.

But that agreement might as well have been put in the bottom of a filing cabinet. The officials who needed to finalize the suspension never got the paperwork, and the discipline never went on Levigne’s record.

Police officials’ record keeping was so poor, in fact, that records showed the case awaiting review by the Chicago Police Board, which oversees some challenges to officer discipline, though the case had never gone there.

As a result of the mix-up, his suspension had not been enforced. Reporters alerted officials to their error.

Levigne declined comment. In 2014, he was promoted to detective.

Walter Whitehead said he wasn’t surprised Levigne hadn’t served the suspension.

“I never expected him to,” he said. “We know how the system works.”

He simply considers it a blessing he and his son weren’t both shot.

A Labyrinthine System

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police officials have worked in various ways to regain public trust since the video of an officer shooting teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times was made public two years ago, revealing inconsistencies in the official account of the shooting.

Emanuel fired police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, appointed a task force to propose reforms and revamped the former police oversight agency, the Independent Police Review Authority, or IPRA.

A replacement agency, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, began work Sept. 15.

But COPA must work within the same labyrinthine disciplinary system that has contributed to a lack of accountability. Records are kept on paper and shuffled between the oversight agency and the Police Department.

There is no management system in place to track cases, and they fall through the cracks.

“Even if COPA gets everything right, there is this process that happens after where things can go off the rails, and that is what people should focus on and be concerned about fixing,” said Sharon Fairley, COPA’s former chief administrator who resigned last month to run for Illinois attorney general.

Among the police reforms included in the mayor’s proposed budget, announced last month, is a case management system that would allow the Police Department, its internal affairs division and COPA to “better keep track of cases and receive real-time information on movements in any case status,” police spokesman Frank Giancamilli said in a statement.

“Since the beginning of this year, the Department has started a review into older cases that have a final disciplinary determination to ensure that they have been processed, that officers have properly served their discipline if applicable and that the cases are ultimately closed,” Giancamilli said. “In the expected small number of these cases that may have not been processed, we are working with the appropriate investigatory body to bring them to a timely closure.”

Mia Sissac, the COPA spokeswoman, said in the months before IPRA closed, officials worked to finalize long-delayed punishments. But she said CPD should have been following up on the cases in the years before that, too.

“We clearly took corrective measures to try to fix it, but CPD is still culpable for this,” she said. “It was mishandled on both sides. … We are now working with CPD to make sure all these older cases are taken care of.”

COPA investigators now are responsible for tracking their cases to make sure discipline is implemented, a departure from the past.

“We are following our cases from beginning to end,” Sissac said.

Catching Up With Officers

Since the report in March, at least a dozen officers have been suspended or reprimanded for cases that should have been finalized long ago, ProPublica Illinois and the Tribune found.

Those long-idled cases highlight how poorly the Police Department and IPRA communicated when officers challenged punishments, including through a grievance system governed by the Fraternal Order of Police union contract.

The process starts when officers sign a form that indicates they plan to file a grievance. Disciplinary officials get the form and wait to hear the outcome so they can finalize the case.

All it took for cases to get lost was for officers to not follow through with their appeal. Disciplinary officials then waited for decisions that would never come.

Officer George Stacker, for example, indicated in 2015 that he would file a grievance over a one-day suspension he received after he and two other officers searched a man’s South Shore home with no warrant.

The officers said they were chasing a suspect and saw him dart into Robert Billingsley’s brick two-flat. They burst into the entryway and banged on the door, pushing their way in when Billingsley opened it, according to records and interviews.

“It was a real frightening experience,” Billingsley said, describing the officers rifling through family belongings.

The family filed a complaint with IPRA and then “never heard anything else about it,” Billingsley said. IPRA conceded earlier this year that Stacker had never appealed and, after reporters asked about it, sent the suspension order to CPD to be finalized. A police spokesman said Stacker served his one-day suspension in April, six years after the warrantless entry. Stacker is currently stripped of police powers and on desk duty in connection with another case, a police spokesman said.

In 2011, Robert Billingsley was at his South Shore home when Chicago Police entered and searched it without a warrant. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune)

The accountability system also finally caught up with Officer Tracy Rogers, who waved a gun at a woman during a road-rage incident in 2014. He was ordered suspended the next year but stayed on the streets as disciplinary officials lost track of his case, records show.

Davina Jones was on her way to work when Rogers, off duty and driving a Volkswagen, became enraged after she passed him on West 83rd Street and allegedly nicked his car.

He followed her, inching close to her bumper and trying to cut her off. He called 911, insisting to the operator that he should follow her. The operator told him to stop, according to a recording of the call.

Jones, who didn’t realize Rogers was a police officer, later told investigators that Rogers pulled alongside her, pointed his gun at her and screamed, “I’ll kill you, bitch.”

The officer denied that account to investigators.

IPRA ruled that Rogers had “endangered the lives of the citizens” by pursuing Jones and unnecessarily displaying his weapon, and that he should be suspended for five days, records show. Rogers indicated in 2015 he would appeal, but he never did.

IPRA again waited for a decision that would never come.

It wasn’t until earlier this year that IPRA realized the bureaucratic blunder and sent the final suspension order through. Rogers served the punishment in May by forfeiting five vacation days, a police spokesman said.

Rogers said in an interview that he did not realize he needed to follow up on the appeal request. He denied the misconduct, saying “that would be pretty stupid to do something like that.”

Jones died of cancer last year. Her husband, Andrew Jones, who is also a Chicago police officer, said Rogers’ behavior had lasting effects on his wife. She became fearful of driving and, when she did drive, often took different routes to work because she was afraid she would see the officer.

The incident left a lasting impression on him as well.

“I’m not just an officer. I’m a husband,” he said. “I feel like a lot of people feel when the police are supposed to look into something and they don’t.”

Settled But Never Served

ProPublica Illinois and the Tribune found several cases in which officers did, in fact, appeal their discipline and settled with the city for a lesser punishment. But IPRA had no record of receiving the settlement agreements, so it never alerted the Police Department that the discipline should be implemented.

Police officials did not realize the discipline should have been served until reporters alerted them.

Officer Jorge Martinez Jr. was accused of drunkenly challenging and taunting a security guard and officers from a Texas police department while attending a wedding reception in Dallas in 2007. He was charged with misdemeanor assault in Texas, but the case was dismissed.

IPRA recommended a 60-day suspension in 2011, but Martinez settled with the city for five days in 2015.

IPRA had no record of getting the settlement agreement that reduced the punishment, so years passed and Martinez never served the suspension. In May, however, a CPD sergeant in the Bureau of Internal Affairs alerted IPRA and Police Department officials that Martinez’s disciplinary case was listed as active when it should have been closed long ago, emails show.

Still, nothing happened.

A police spokesman said a month ago that the paperwork would be sent to COPA so Martinez could serve his suspension, but he had not done so as of Wednesday. Martinez declined comment.

Brandon Whitehead shares details of his disturbing encounter with an off-duty Chicago police officer. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune)

The disciplinary case against Officer Levigne, who terrorized the Whiteheads in the 2006 incident, also languished for years — even after the Whiteheads settled a civil suit with the city soon after the incident for $78,700.

Again, IPRA was not aware that the city had settled Levigne’s grievance by agreeing to a five-day suspension, instead of 60 days, and that it had also agreed to expunge IPRA’s finding that he had lied.

Nearly three years after the settlement and almost 11 years after the incident, on Aug. 30 — after reporters had been asking about this and other lost cases for months — IPRA’s former general counsel asked an employee to “dig into” Levigne’s case to determine if action was warranted, according to an email obtained by reporters.

IPRA closed it the next day, though police officials didn’t act on it for another two months. Levigne served the suspension Nov. 1 to 5, records show.

Meanwhile, in the time it took for Levigne’s case to make it through the disciplinary process, CPD has had four superintendents and the police oversight agency is in its third iteration.

Walter Whitehead said he sold his new Chrysler 300 after the incident, fearing that it drew unwanted attention, and he bought a pickup truck.

Brandon Whitehead graduated from high school, married and took a cross-country trucking job.

When he hears about officers shooting civilians, particularly during a traffic stop, he thinks back to his own run-in with Levigne. He remembers how police arrested his father for misdemeanor assault, a charge a judge dismissed the next month.

He remembers, too, how police left him on a street corner five miles from his home in Oak Lawn and how, when his mother picked him up at 1 a.m., she was in tears.

And now, as he drives around the country, he said he tries to avoid the police.

“I just don’t have any faith in them,” he said.

This story is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune and is not subject to our Creative Commons license.

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