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Cook County jail guard beats prisoner on ground but keeps job

Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Chicago Sun-Times
by Andrew Schroedter

Andrew Schroedter

Recently obtained footage from a surveillance camera inside Cook County Jail shows a burly guard repeatedly punching and kicking a prisoner in the head, even after the prisoner is knocked to the ground and curls up on the floor.

But nearly three years after the incident, the officer, Branden Norise, is still on the job, with a taxpayer-funded salary of $57,000 a year.

And he was never charged with a crime even though his boss, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, referred the case to Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, and his office said a crime was likely committed by Norise.

As Mayor Rahm Emanuel grapples with police shootings and other excessive force issues in the Chicago Police Department – and Alvarez prepares to leave office after losing an election in which her opponents painted her as a do-nothing on prosecuting cops for misconduct – the Better Government Association decided to examine alleged brutality by jail employees during Dart’s tenure.

Among the findings:

  • The sheriff’s office, led by Dart for nearly a decade, fielded 1,094 excessive force complaints against jail employees from late 2008 through 2015, the most recent period where figures were readily available, according to interviews, and records obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
  • The vast majority of those cases were dismissed because of a lack of evidence or the force was deemed acceptable, according to the sheriff’s office. But more than 140 jail employees in 99 of the 1,094 cases were found to have used excessive force or committed other misconduct. In at least 46 cases, guards were hit with suspensions of a day to a month.
  • Dart sought the dismissal of jail employees in 35 cases during the same seven-year time frame, but so far only four officers have been terminated, while two ended up resigning. In recent years, 17 cases were referred to state and federal prosecutors, and six employees were hit with criminal charges related to excessive force.
  • Dart’s office referred Norise’s case to Alvarez for prosecution, but her office chose not to charge Norise because the “video showed that the detainee was the initial aggressor and that he punched the officer twice before the officer struck back,” Sally Daly, an Alvarez spokeswoman said via email.

The man beaten by Norise, Randall Brown, said the guard should have, at a minimum, been fired. “He did it to me,” Brown said in an interview. “He’s going to do it to somebody else.”

Dart spokeswoman Cara Smith said that’s what her agency tried to do – but was overruled by the Merit Board, Dart’s handpicked commission that rules on disciplinary matters involving sheriff’s employees and can reject Dart’s recommendations.

The clash between Brown and Norise happened July 4, 2013, in a jail unit where new detainees are processed. Norise testified before the Merit Board that Brown was one of about 20 inmates inside a bullpen where medication was being dispensed.

Brown, who was in the jail on a misdemeanor drug charge that was later dropped, had his arms tucked inside his khaki jail uniform and apparently ignored Norise’s orders to take them out and sit down.

When Norise tried to remove him from the bullpen, the guard claims Brown resisted. The two scuffled and the video – with no accompanying audio – shows Norise hitting and kicking Brown even after he’s knocked to the ground and is lying face down on the floor.

Norise told the Merit Board he kept going because he didn’t “feel he had control” of Brown.

But a supervisor in the sheriff’s office told the Merit Board Norise punched and kicked Brown “approximately 5 to 7 additional times that were not warranted,” according to paperwork that, like the video, was obtained from the sheriff’s office.

Brown says he suffered minor injuries.

The sheriff’s department referred the case to Alvarez’s office because “we believed at the time and continue to believe [Norise’s] conduct was criminal,” says Smith.

Dart’s internal affairs unit sustained the excessive force allegation Dec. 31, 2013, and Norise was placed on unpaid leave. Dart wanted Norise stripped of his job, a recommendation that requires the Merit Board’s approval.

In January 2015, the Merit Board cleared Norise of wrongdoing, finding his actions didn’t violate department rules. He stands to collect an estimated $117,000 in back pay, according to interviews and records.

Dart filed an appeal in Cook County court. A judge ruled against him last October, and Dart is contesting that decision.

Norise recently went back to work at the jail. Smith says the department plans to move him to an assignment with “limited inmate contact.”

Norise, 41, joined the sheriff’s department in 2011. He didn’t return messages from the BGA.

Dennis Andrews, business agent for Teamsters Local 700, the union that represents rank-and-file jail guards, says the Merit Board did the right thing, and he blasted Dart for not defending his employees.

“He treats the officers like second-class citizens,” he says.

Smith says “we definitely feel like more officers should’ve been terminated” over the years. “We take the decision [to recommend termination] very seriously. It’s extremely concerning when the Merit Board doesn’t agree.”

Merit Board Chairman James Nally declined to comment.

There are about 2,400 cameras at Cook County Jail, which is one of the largest jails in the nation with more than 8,000 inmates at any given time, and more than 3,000 guards.

The cameras have helped improve conditions but the “jail is not as safe as it should be,” says Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center, which has represented alleged victims of jail guard misconduct.

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter, who can be reached at aschroedter@bettergov.org.

 



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