Misconduct Agency Ruled 8 Chicago Officers Responsible for Woman Who Died in Police Holding Cell Should be Fired or Face Lengthy Suspensions, But Top Cop Objected

Video: The WTTW News Spotlight Politics team on police misconduct settlements, Chicago teachers lobbying lawmakers and more. (Produced by Andrea Guthmann)

Eight Chicago Police Department officers responsible for the 33-year-old woman who died by suicide while being detained inside a South Side police station in December 2021 should be terminated or face lengthy suspensions, the agency charged with investigating police misconduct ruled, according to documents obtained by WTTW News through a Freedom of Information Act Request.

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors

But former interim Chicago Police Supt. Fred Waller objected to the recommendation made by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability that four police officers, a sergeant, a lieutenant and two commanders should be suspended for six months or terminated. Instead, Waller blocked any punishment for the officers, according to a July 2023 letter obtained by WTTW News through a Freedom of Information Act Request

Irene Chavez died by suicide several hours after being arrested for punching and spitting at security guards at a South Side bar. While detaining Chavez in a holding cell at the Grand Crossing (3rd District) Police District, officers ignored her pleas to speak with her therapist and get her medication, according to city lawyers.

The Chicago City Council is scheduled to vote May 22 on a proposal to pay her family $1.75 million to resolve a wrongful death lawsuit against the city. City lawyers told alderpeople the city was likely to be found liable for Chavez’s death because the window to the holding cell she was being held in was partially obscured with paper, obstructing the ability of the officers in charge of Chavez from observing her.

The disagreement between the city’s top cop and the head of COPA means the Chicago Police Board must decide the officers’ punishment, according to city ordinance. The Police Board has not yet been asked to resolve the dispute, according to a spokesperson for the police board. Even after the board’s decision, the officers could contest their discipline through a private arbitration process.

Waller, who was replaced by Supt. Larry Snelling in September, and Andrea Kersten, the chief administrator of the agency known as COPA, agreed on discipline for three officers: a two-month suspension for an officer for “failing to ensure the safety and security of the arrestee;” a five-day suspension for another officer for swearing at Chavez; and five-day suspension for a third officer for failing to turn on his body-worn camera.

Waller said two other officers who failed to prevent Chavez from dying by suicide should be suspended for two months, rather than the six-month suspension or termination recommended by COPA because they are a “hardworking officer who found themselves in a very tragic situation.”

Suspending the officers for six months or firing them is “extreme, punitive, and not in line with progressive discipline. This recommended penalty appears to be outcome based, and not focused on the actual misconduct,” according to Waller’s letter to Kersten.

COPA also determined a sergeant, lieutenant and two commanders responsible for overseeing those officers should be suspended for six months or terminated, records show. Waller objected to that recommendation, too.

“This cannot be the way in which discipline is recommended; the misconduct must be looked at in a vacuum, without any outside factors influencing the recommendation,” Waller wrote, accusing COPA of “engaging in outcome-based discipline; the tragic outcome of this incident should not dictate the level of discipline.”

Waller said he rejected COPA’s recommendation because none of the supervisors obscured the window of the holding cell with white paper, but merely did not remove it, records show. 

Waller recommended that the lieutenant face no discipline, that the sergeant be suspended for 15 days, one commander be suspended for seven days and the other commander for 14 days, records show.

Waller’s letter is very similar to the public criticism leveled at COPA by his successor, Snelling.

In February, Snelling blasted COPA for treating Chicago Police officers so unfairly that they are at risk of suicide. The probes also compromise public safety, he said.

Many of COPA’s disciplinary recommendations sought “egregious penalties for extremely minor infractions,” which Snelling said had a profound impact on other officers.

Without offering evidence, Snelling also accused Kersten of allowing “personal opinions and speculation” to influence findings that an officer has committed misconduct and should be disciplined.

After Snelling took over the department, he hired Waller as a deputy director at a salary of $187,236 annually, according to city records. The two men worked together at CPD for decades, and Snelling has called Waller his mentor.

Seven years ago, a probe by the U.S. Department of Justice found that Chicago police officers were rarely held accountable for misconduct because of badly broken systems as well as a “code of silence” among officers that allowed them to act with impunity.

That probe prompted a federal court order, known as the consent decree that is designed to compel the Chicago Police Department to change the way it trains, supervises and disciplines officers. CPD is in full compliance with just 6% of that 2019 court order, according to the monitoring team charged with enforcing the order.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or suicidal ideation, you can call or text 988 to access the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or find help online at 988lifeline.org.

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors