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2003 report criticized sheriff's office over jail

Monday, November 07, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times
by STEVE PATTERSON Staff Reporter

Improper training of guards, inconsistent messages about when they are allowed to use force and the prevalence of broken security cameras are among the criticisms in a consultant's report on the way Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan is running the county jail.

The 2003 report, recently obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times, also criticized the sheriff's office for allowing the system that handles complaints against officers to fall into disarray, leading to "the appearance that the process discourages citizens or inmates from filing a complaint."

Accusations against guards using improper force weren't catalogued in any central place, according to the report. And investigators who look into brutality complaints were too overworked to conduct comprehensive inquiries.

The report, completed by the consulting firm KPMG, was commissioned by Sheahan in the wake of multiple, high-profile complaints against county jail guards.

The document was never released to Cook County commissioners -- some of whom have been critical of Sheahan and oversee jail spending.

But it recently was put into the public record as part of a federal lawsuit against the sheriff, who's being sued by two former jail guards who claim the jail environment promotes opportunities for brutality.

'I'm amazed'

Even so, KPMG specifically said it found no evidence of "an institutionalized culture of excessive force" in the force, while sheriff's spokesman Bill Cunningham said the 21-page report includes more positives than negatives. Most of the problems cited are a result of money not approved for spending by commissioners and others, he said.

"We've implemented virtually everything they recommend in this report," he said. "And we've been asking for money for new cameras for two years."

But attorney Matthew Piers, representing former guards Roger Fairley and Richard Gackowski in their federal suit against the county, called the report "quite damning" and said the faulty system of handling complaints against officers remains.

"It's hard to escape the conclusion that [the sheriff is] trying very hard not to take a look at the issue of excessive force," Piers said. "The lack of proper training, proper procedures, the laughably poor and unprofessional investigations into allegations of brutality, how the outcome of those investigations is almost always inconclusive -- I'm amazed this report was never shared with the Cook County Board, since it was paid for with county money."

Commissioner Mike Quigley, a regular Sheahan critic, said he'll be raising similar concerns with colleagues this week. He wondered "whether we've been lied to" or "misled" about jail operations.

Cunningham, who blasted Piers and the legitimacy of his lawsuit, said the sheriff's office has made changes to the abuse reporting system to include better tracking, and is bargaining with unions to make other recommended changes.



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