Video: The WTTW News Spotlight Politics team breaks down the biggest headlines of the day. (Produced by Alexandra Silets)
The decision by leaders of the Chicago Police Department not to fire two officers with ties to far-right extremist groups that have clashed with the United States government will make it impossible for Chicagoans to trust the Chicago Police Department, members of a key City Council committee told police brass Wednesday.
For more than two hours, members of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee demanded that the leaders of the Chicago Police Department do more to weed out extremists from the department’s ranks. By the end of the hearing, several alderpeople running for reelection next Tuesday said they were enraged and baffled by what they see as the department’s halting response.
Listening to Chicago’s top law enforcement officials defend the continued employment of an officer who admitted belonging to the Oath Keepers and another officer with ties to the Proud Boys “sends a chilling message to the public,” Ald. Byron Sigcho Lopez (25th Ward) said.
Members of both groups particpated in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection, and leaders of both groups have been convicted of seditious conspiracy.
Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd Ward) said she was “enraged” and “heartbroken.”
“This hurts a lot,” said Rodriguez Sanchez, one of several City Council members to declare they were baffled by Supt. David Brown’s decision to reject the recommendation by Inspector General Deborah Witzburg that Officer Robert Bakker be terminated for making a “a false statement” during the investigation when asked if he attended a Proud Boy sponsored barbecue. He also made “a contradicting statement” during a recorded interview about his participation in a group chat with members of the Proud Boys.
Bakker, who also failed to notify department officials that he was interviewed by the FBI as part of a probe into the activities of the Proud Boys, is set to complete a 120-day suspension in the coming days, and could return to full duty next week.
“This officer should not be on the force,” Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th Ward) said. “It’s a joke.”
Bakker earns approximately $96,000 annually as an officer, according to city records.
Another officer, who has not been formally identified by city officials, “admitted to being a former member of the Oath Keepers, having joined in 2010 or 2011 and having been a member for three to four years,” according to the inspector general’s report.
Deputy Chief Traci Walker and Deputy Supt. Tina Skahill defended the probe conducted by the Bureau of Internal Affairs into both officers and echoed repeated statements from Brown and Mayor Lori Lightfoot that the city has “zero tolerance” for police officers who are members of hate groups or associate with members of hate groups.
Rodriguez Sanchez said that was clearly false.
“You do tolerate it,” Rodriguez Sanchez said. “That has been established.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the nation’s best-known civil rights organizations, has criticized Lightfoot, Brown and Bureau of Internal Affairs Chief Yolanda Talley for mishandling the probe into Bakker and its aftermath by making “confusing and contradictory statements.”
During an October hearing before the City Council’s Budget Committee, Talley erroneously told the Chicago City Council the probe of Bakker’s conduct and statements were hampered by the fact that the group was not designated a hate group by the FBI.
The FBI does not identify domestic groups as hate or extremist groups, according to an agency spokesperson.
That confusion continued during Wednesday’s hearing, with Walker erroneously telling the committee there was “no evidence” that Bakker made a false statement, despite the fact that the inspector general’s report documented exactly that. In response, Witzburg read her office’s report out loud.
Officers who lie can be terminated under departmental policy.
“This makes no sense,” Ald. Matt Martin (47th Ward) said.
Because Chicago Police Department officials already have the power to fire any officer determined to have lied – making his or her testimony in court of little value to prosecutors – new policies are not necessary, said Andrea Kersten, the executive director of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.
“We do have the tools,” Kersetn said.
Skahill told the Public Safety Committee that officials were working to craft a new policy that would expand the types of “criminal” organizations that officers are prohibited from belonging to or associating with, including those that are the “antithesis of the Chicago Police Department.”
A spokesperson for the Police Department declined to release the current version of that proposed policy because it is being “drafted in collaboration with the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability,” the city’s new police oversight board.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has called on Chicago officials to a “adopt clear and unambiguous policies and procedures prohibiting city employees from actively associating with hate and extremist groups.”
In addition, a new policy governing how officers use social media is under review by the office of Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and the team charged by U.S. District Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer with implementing the federal court order requiring the Chicago Police Department stop violating the constitutional rights of Black and Latino Chicagoans.
A current draft of that policy would ban officers from “posting, sharing, ‘liking,’ ‘following,’ or otherwise distributing or re-distributing content with the intent to promote, support or otherwise endorse a criminal organization or its activities.”
That would apply to both the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers organizations, Walker and Skahill said.
Public Safety Committee Chair Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th Ward), who served as a sergeant in the Police Department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs, said the department “should go back to the drawing board.”
“There are still stones left unturned,” Taliaferro said.
Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]