First, Muzzle All the Lawyers 

The city has strange ideas about how to solve problems with cops.

Mayor Daley's so concerned about rogue cops that he got the City Council to put the police department's Office of Professional Standards under his direct control, and he's appointed a lawyer from California to run it. "I say we need to take this step and give it time to work," said the mayor the other day.

Yes, give it time. The rogue cop problem is nothing to rush at hysterically. As Carol Marin put it in the Sun-Times on July 18, OPS is now under the wing of "the same Mayor Daley who has done everything but stand on his head to avoid a thorough, thoughtful or completely candid public discussion of past police abuses that date all the way back to his days as the Cook County state's attorney." The wheels of justice have ground so deliberately that former commander Jon Burge, the one cop who even the city concedes used to torture people, is now living on his pension in retirement in Florida.

The city has been demonstrating its commitment to deliberate speed on so many fronts that it's hard to keep track of them all. One was outlined by John Conroy in a July 6 Reader story. Conroy reminded us how willing the mayor said he was--before the last mayoral election, that is--to be deposed in civil suits brought by three former death row occupants who were eventually pardoned by former governor Ryan on the grounds that they were innocent and their confessions were tortured out of them. A federal magistrate's ruling cleared the way for the mayor's deposition, and it was only after he was reelected that he apparently remembered the wisdom of not rushing into anything. At any rate, the city's lawyers not only headed to federal court to try to overturn the magistrate's ruling but also agreed to settle the suits for almost $15 million--on the condition that the plaintiffs would agree to never depose Daley, never name him as a defendant in any future litigation, and never even criticize him publicly. And then the city backed out of that sweet deal.

This month there was the list. That's the list of 662 Chicago police officers with ten or more citizens' complaints against them dating back to 2001. It was compiled by lawyers for a former resident of a Stateway Gardens high-rise as they litigated a lawsuit that accused Chicago police officers of subjecting the woman to sexual, physical, and psychological abuse over an 11-month period in 2003 and 2004. The city settled by giving the woman $150,000. Jamie Kalven, a writer who'd championed the woman, then asked federal judge Joan Lefkow to rule that the list of names could be made public.

"The public has a significant interest in monitoring the conduct of its police officers and a right to know how allegations of misconduct are being investigated and handled," Lefkow reasoned as she granted Kalven's motion on July 2. The mayor couldn't have put it better himself. Yet the city immediately appealed, and the Seventh Circuit Appellate Court ordered a stay of Lefkow's ruling. The city's one concession to openness so far has been to give the names of the officers to the City Council.

"The city of Chicago spends unprecedented resources fighting to keep from the public the data about how the Police Department polices itself," Kalven's attorney, Jon Loevy, was quoted as saying in the Sun-Times, "while at the same time, they publicly profess the virtues of openness and transparency."

You might wonder what other legal battles the city is fighting in its campaign to let sleeping dogs lie. Here's a good one.

"Killed by a Cop Car," a feature by staff writer Tori Marlan in the June 8 Reader, told the story of an 11-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy who were crossing Grand Avenue one May afternoon in 2004 when they were struck by police driving west fast in the eastbound lane. The boy died. The two officers in the car insisted they'd seen some guy waving a gun in a car just ahead of them and then swerved into the opposite lane to catch up. It was a fishy story. Rush-hour traffic in their lane was crawling along so slowly any chase would have been over before it began, the officers didn't report a chase to their dispatcher, and a prisoner in the backseat of the police car said he hadn't heard the officers say anything to each other about a gunman.

The girl's mother sued the city and the officers, accusing them of driving "in a dangerously reckless manner and at an excessive rate of speed." Marlan heard about the suit and called the attorneys who filed it. One was Jon Loevy. "The police are just flat lying, and that couldn't happen in a police department that was functioning properly," he told Marlan. Amanda Antholt of the same firm, Loevy & Loevy, added, "The officers should have been punished and there should have been apologies to the families, and instead what they're doing is defending the case, they're fighting it, they're continuing on with their fabrication."

If you hoped the city would react to Marlan's article, it did. It went to court to try to shut the lawyers up. In a motion filed in federal court June 20 asking for unspecified sanctions, the city said Loevy and Antholt had violated a local federal court rule governing "trial publicity." According to Local Rule 83.53.6, "a lawyer shall not make an extrajudicial statement the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is likely to be disseminated by public media and, if so disseminated, would pose a serious and imminent threat to the fairness of an adjudicative proceeding."

The city explained it wasn't complaining about Loevy and Antholt speaking to Marlan, "only that their comments were in such stark violation of the rules established by this Court to ensure fairness to all parties." For example, "The police are just flat lying." The city said, "It is impossible to imagine a more flagrant violation of the [subsection of the rule] which prohibits attorneys from commenting on the testimony or credibility of a prospective witness."

The city hinted at collusion. "Given the timing of the article, which was prompted by neither an external event nor an imminent court proceeding," its motion reasoned, "it appears to be an extrajudicial strategy to strengthen the Plaintiffs' hand in the litigation. As such, it is an attempt to create an unfair trial, and to decrease the likelihood that the Defendants will be able to obtain a fair and impartial jury, which is precisely what the Local Rule was designed to prevent."

As they say, the best defense is a good offense. But if Chicago taxpayers are going to fund blowhard legal counterattacks like this one, we should at least insist they make sense. How can Loevy and Antholt's comments pose a "serious and imminent threat" to a fair trial if no trial is imminent? And we know it isn't imminent because the city's own motion says so.

In its response, Loevy & Loevy agreed: "The reality is that there is no trial in sight. . . . There is no way that this case is going to trial in 2007, and no guarantee even for 2008." And when the day comes, the law firm reasoned, all the judge has to do "is permit the Defendants to strike any juror who has read the article."

Given that a trial is far off, the law firm argued, and given that lawyers, just like all other Americans, "have a strong First Amendment right to speak out about evidence suggesting government abuses," and further given that Loevy & Loevy had already called the two police officers liars in court documents and therefore was merely repeating itself in Marlan's article, "Defendants' brief must be seen for what it really is: a misguided and unsupportable attempt to enlist judicial support in silencing critics of the police department."

Loevy & Loevy then offered its own critique of rogue cops. "The corruption of the Department's disciplinary system is nowhere more apparent than this case," the firm said in its response to the city. "After killing a child and seriously injuring another, the Defendant police officers invented a ridiculous story to try to avoid punishment. . . . The police are lying here, and everyone involved knows it. Moreover, no police officer would believe that they could engage in such brazen dishonesty unless he or she was confident that the Department's review process was meaningless."

As the mayor says, that review process has now been overhauled and just needs time to work. Lawyers like Jon Loevy might want to give it a little less time than the mayor does.

The Reader Has New Owners

The staffs of the Chicago Reader and its sister Washington City Paper learned this week that the papers have been sold to a southern chain, Creative Loafing Inc., which publishes alternative weeklies in Atlanta, Tampa, Sarasota, and Charlotte. The news is shocking but oddly unsurprising--these are hard times for newspapers everywhere, and in consolidation lie the theoretical advantages of scale and fresh energy.

"We never thought it would come to pass. We've received so many overtures over the years and they've never come to pass," Bob Roth, a founder of the Reader in 1971 and president of Chicago Reader, Inc., told me. But when Creative Loafing made its overture in March, "we got a better offer than I expected. And I guess it was time. We've been here for 36 years." Roth, who turned 60 this spring, said all ten people with an ownership stake in the company supported a sale. "I'm looking forward to a younger, energetic management," he said. "Maybe it'll be an improvement over us guys."

If times were better, I asked him, and the Reader were still making money hand over fist, do you think you'd all be so ready to call it quits? Roth thought about that awhile. "Yes, I do. But I think that's because we're ready to retire," he said at last.

"We have built our Creative Loafing brand by offering valuable content to people who influence public opinion and public tastes in culturally vibrant markets," says Creative Loafing's CEO, Ben Eason, in a prepared statement heavier on jargon than I wish it were. "The addition of two top-ten markets--and two of the industry's most respected alternative news products--offers us a pivotal gateway of connectivity with the young adult audience." He went on, "While others may be looking at publishing companies through the lens of old print media, we are pioneering the opportunities offered by convergent print, web, and new media applications."

Mike Crystal will stay on as publisher of the Reader, and Alison True as editor--that's good news. I'm told Creative Loafing, which began in 1972 as an Atlanta paper founded by Eason's parents, doesn't meddle particularly in the local operations of its papers, which publish the kind of serious journalism the Reader is known for--though not as much of it. How the Reader will change, and how much it will change, are questions that preoccupy everyone concerned at the moment.

For more, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jon Loevy photo by Carlos J. Ortiz.

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