The Cook County probation department has a record of failing to do things it is supposed to do, like keep track of offenders and take action when they get out of line. It turns out that the department also has a habit of doing things it isn't supposed to do — including conducting dubious searches and allegedly committing thefts.
It's all part of a pattern of failure that Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans needs to correct. On Wednesday, after new revelations in a Tribune story by reporters Cynthia Dizikes and Todd Lighty, Evans announced he was asking a local law firm to undertake a full investigation.
The Tribune investigation showed that the department has a practice of working with Chicago police and the FBI to conduct searches that go beyond the proper scope of its monitoring of some 24,000 probationers.
Probation officers have the authority to subject these offenders to surprise home searches without warrants, provided there is "reasonable suspicion" of wrongdoing. But their custom of bringing along other law enforcement agents is on questionable legal ground. In some instances, judges have ruled that the evidence obtained in these searches is not admissible in court.
"I took testimony that these guys are running around with guns and have taken no courses in being a law enforcement officer," Cook County Judge William Hooks told the Tribune. "The good news is, not all of them carry guns."
Besides possibly violating constitutional rights, the officers have been accused of more prosaic abuses. Two men whose homes were searched without their consent or a warrant said officers stole large sums of cash. In one case, officers used a crowbar to pry open a safe that a man refused to open. He was not on probation but was living in the same apartment as someone who was, and he is challenging his arrest.
A probationer who had compiled a solid five-year record as a factory worker lost his job after being arrested for possession of cocaine that he said was planted by cops — a claim that is not implausible in light of the fact that one of the officers who arrested him went to jail after being caught up in a scandal involving police lying and theft. The cocaine charge was later dropped.
Officers allegedly have pressured probationers to become informants, through favors or threats. "Although law enforcement agencies regularly groom informants, Cook County probation officers are not trained in cultivating and handling such sources," reported Dizikes and Lighty. "Department bosses do not want officers working to make probationers informants, fearing that probationers could be easily manipulated and compromised."
The American Probation and Parole Association cautions against such efforts. "It is contrary to our mission," said Executive Director Carl Wicklund. "Enforcement is part of that mission, but cultivating probationers to be on the edge of illegal activity, or encouraging them to be involved in or close to illegal activities, flies in the face of what we are supposed to be doing."
It's good that Evans acted promptly to look into these allegations. But it's clear the department suffers from a lack of professional supervision by him or anyone else. In March, he installed a new probation chief, Lavone Haywood, who agrees that his department needs clear policies on working with other law enforcement agencies.
If he and Evans are sincere about reform — and they should be — they have a lot of work to do