CHICAGO (AP) — A former federal prosecutor hired by the city of Chicago to review how City Hall attorneys handle excessive-force lawsuits against police found that they do not regularly hide or obstruct access to evidence, a report unveiled Thursday said, though many civil rights lawyers were quick to dispute the conclusions.
Critics have alleged for years that taxpayer-funded city attorneys frequently seek to subvert the evidence-gathering process in civil cases in bids to keep damage payouts down or to deflect bad publicity from the mayor. But the 70-page report released after a six-month review of the city law department’s civil rights division by former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb appears to reject such assertions.
“We did not find evidence establishing a culture, practice, or approach in the Division of intentionally concealing evidence or engaging in intentional misconduct relating to discovery practices or other obligations,” it says.
Several lawyers at private firms that frequently file excessive-force suits against Chicago police questioned that core finding.
“It strains credulity in the extreme. It’s absurd,” said attorney Jeffrey Granich.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel agreed to the review after U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang this year rebuked city attorney Jordan Marsh for intentionally hiding key audio evidence in a lawsuit that would have shown officers lied about what led up to the fatal shooting of Darius Pinex, who was black. Marsh then resigned.
Webb’s team reviewed dozens of cases and determined the Pinex case was the sole instance of intentional misconduct by a city lawyer over the last five years.
But Granich and other private attorneys told The Associated Press that they could name multiple cases where city attorneys seemed to purposely thwart evidence gathering. Just last month, Granich asked a judge to sanction city attorneys for allegedly failing to disclose for more than a year that an officer sued for using a Taser on a pregnant woman was earlier involved in a fatal shooting.
“When you make a mistake once, it is an error,” Granich said. “When you do it again and again and again, it’s a systematic practice.”
Among the report’s recommendations are that city lawyers be better trained in how to secure evidence and that they obtain the evidence themselves directly from the Chicago Police Department rather than counting on officers to ferret out the evidence and deliver it to the lawyers.
Another civil rights lawyer, Jon Loevy, agreed with Granich’s contention that the report understated the extent of misconduct by city attorneys. He said a group of civil rights attorneys had forwarded a list of at least a dozen suspect cases to those conducting the review.
But Loevy said he was encouraged by the recommendations to fix evidence-gathering procedures, which he said often underpinned problems with evidence.
“We can only hope they take the recommendations seriously, and implement the changes,” he said.
Webb, a co-chairman of the high-powered law firm of Winston & Strawn, has been a fixture in Chicago legal circles dating back to the 1970s and through his stint in the ’80s as U.S. attorney in Chicago. His clients have included General Electric, Philip Morris and former Illinois Gov. George Ryan.
The head of the city’s legal office, Steve Patton, welcomed Webb’s report, saying in a statement that it “confirmed the absence of any culture, practice or approach of intentionally concealing evidence or engaging in intentional misconduct.” He added that his department has already implemented many of Webb’s recommendations.
Municipal lawyers nationwide represent city employees in noncriminal matters and rarely attract public attention because they operate far behind elected leaders. But critics have said they are often a weak link in systems designed to expose police misdeeds and hold officers accountable.
The actions of city attorneys can be especially critical if police oversight boards and prosecutors choose not to fire officers or charge them criminally. That leaves a lawsuit as the only avenue for surviving relatives to seek justice.
Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mtarm
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