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Law agencies' turf battle stirs fear at youth center
Chicago police, Cook County sheriff each say other should take most detention facility calls

Friday, December 03, 2010
Chicago Tribune
by Cynthia Dizikes

In July, a 14-year-old resident at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center used a metal ceiling tile from his room to slice the leg of an employee who was trying to restrain him. But when center officials asked Chicago police to take a report of the incident, they refused, center officials said.

For the last several months, Chicago police have stopped responding to calls of trouble at the detention center on the West Side. The Police Department said it should be the responsibility of the Cook County sheriff's office, but the sheriff's office and the center contend police had long been responding to calls at the facility and should continue to do so.

Chicago police will continue to respond to "public safety emergencies" at the juvenile center, police Superintendent Jody Weis wrote in a letter to Sheriff Tom Dart. But Weis did not spell out what might constitute such an emergency.

Center officials say police have not responded to calls of physical attacks against staff and residents.

Caught in the middle are staffers who fear for their safety and say the dispute has hurt their ability to curb violent behavior by the residents.

"There is no recourse anymore," said staffer Elbert Muhammad, who was stabbed in the head with a pencil last year and had a resident spit on him this fall. "There are no consequences, and the residents know that."

Earl Dunlap, the transitional head of the facility, said the Police Department's inaction also puts residents who have been assaulted at greater risk of being victimized again. "It is unconscionable and irresponsible," he said in an interview.

In his letter to Dart on July 21, Weis wrote that the police department needed to reallocate resources and complained that the facility had limited officers' ability to investigate crimes at the center. Weis wrote that he believed the sheriff should police the center because the detention center is a county facility.

Dart shot back a letter of his own on July 30, saying his office could not handle calls from the center and refused to take on the responsibility.

On Thursday, representatives of both the Police Department and the sheriff's office reiterated their opposing stances. Police Lt. Maureen Biggane acknowledged in an e-mail that the department has traditionally handled calls from the facility but decided earlier this year that it couldn't anymore due to "economic hardship." But Steve Patterson, Dart's spokesman, said the sheriff's office only has control for security at the facility's courtrooms and that assaults there aren't their responsibility by law.

Since the impasse began earlier this year, Dunlap said, the Police Department has either not responded to calls for assistance or declined to file reports on the incidents when they did.

Among the incidents ignored by police are allegations of residents punching and kicking employees, an attempted escape and a threat by one resident to shoot a judge, according to a log that the center has kept since June 5.

In the most recent incident, on Nov. 26, a resident hit a staff member with a sock filled with dominoes, center officials said. In another incident in the log, a 15-year-old boy was attacked by another resident, and when facility officials repeatedly contacted police, they never responded.

Dunlap took control of the juvenile temporary detention center in August 2007 after a federal judge charged him with bringing change to the facility following a drawn-out legal battle between the American Civil Liberties Union and Cook County over ongoing violence and unsanitary conditions there.

Since that time, Dunlap said, he has sought to improve the facility by reforming programs and firing staff accused of incompetence and child abuse. But Dunlap's aggressive approach at times has also clashed with county officials and the employees union.

In recent years, Dunlap said, the facility had made strides to contact police only in cases involving serious safety issues. Dunlap said he even fired one employee in the beginning of 2009 for calling the police about a fabricated incident.

Still, Dunlap said police stopped responding to most calls about a year ago, prompting numerous meetings and conversations that ended without success.

Dunlap said he believes the relationship began to sour after an incident in October 2009, when police officers brought a youth, who was bleeding from his head, to the facility to be detained. Dunlap said tempers flared when center officials and the police disagreed about whether the boy had been seen by a doctor and could safely be admitted. When police attempted to leave the boy behind, Dunlap said, he authorized his staff to lock the officers in by an exit to prevent them from leaving. Police threatened to send a SWAT team to rescue the officers.

The boy was eventually taken back to the hospital, where a doctor stitched his wound, Dunlap said. Biggane declined to comment, saying she couldn't confirm the incident.

At about the same time, Dunlap said, he had also begun to take exception with police coming to interview residents at the facility without legal counsel or an adult family member present on their behalf. In January, he enacted rules barring police from interviewing juveniles without an adult representative present.

In his letter to the sheriff, Weis cited the Police Department's inability to conduct unfettered investigations at the center.

Biggane added on Thursday that the policy change was also necessitated by the department's need "to keep the men and women aggressively patrolling the streets of Chicago."

The sheriff, however, took exception in his letter with what he called Weis' "eleventh hour" decision to transfer responsibility, noting the office's limited resources.

"The juvenile detention center has nothing to do with what we do," Patterson, Dart's spokesman, said Thursday. Our officers "are on patrol in unincorporated areas of the county, as they are supposed to be by state statute."

Dunlap said he agreed that the sheriff was not responsible for responding to criminal activity. Dunlap said staff at the center can handle most resident incidents at the center.

At the facility this week, staffers said they felt vulnerable to increasingly reckless behavior among residents in the absence of a law enforcement presence.

The staff member who had his leg slashed in July and later developed a staph infection paused for a moment during an interview and shook his head at the dilemma.

"If this continues, people are going to be scared to work here," he said. "And in the end, someone is going to get seriously hurt."

cdizikes@tribune.com


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