Kicking the Pigeon #12: The Traylor Case

The stunning disparity between the thousands of complaints that come to OPS annually and the handful of disciplinary actions that emerge is one perspective on the quality of its investigations. Another is provided by the occasional legal proceeding against an officer for misconduct. Bond’s lawyers cite several cases in which it was disclosed that the defendant had a thick file of past complaints judged “not sustained” by OPS. Among the most telling is a case that arose out of an incident at Stateway Gardens in the early days of the Stateway Civil Rights Project.

On July 9, 2001, Professor Futterman and several law students were using The View From The Ground office on the ground floor of 3544 S. State to interview witnesses about an incident several months earlier in which police officers had struck a young man with their vehicle and then arrested one of our colleagues, Kenya Richmond, when he attempted to document what had happened. There was a commotion outside. We ran out to State Street and found a middle-aged man on a bicycle pinned against a fence by a police squad car. Two white uniformed officers stood by the vehicle surrounded by a fast growing crowd of curious and in many cases outraged residents. Within a few minutes, the crowd had swelled to about a hundred. We immediately called 911 and set to work documenting the incident.

The name of the man trapped between the police car and fence proved to be Nevles Traylor. He was moaning in pain and distress. According to witnesses, the driver of the squad car—Officer Raymond Piwnicki—had deliberately struck Traylor’s bicycle from behind as he rode across the grounds of the development. Piwnicki had then, they said, jumped out of the vehicle and hit Traylor repeatedly in the head, as his partner—Officer Robert Smith—looked on. Piwnicki and Smith were from the Special Operations Section of the CPD. Among the witnesses were several officers from Public Housing South. I spoke with one of them who was as outraged by the incident as any of the residents I talked with. Another public housing officer exchanged sharp words with Piwnicki, then used wire cutters to extricate Traylor from under the police car.

Eventually, an ambulance came and removed Traylor. He was subsequently charged with felony criminal charges—two counts of possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver—that required, if convicted, a mandatory minimum sentence of four years and allowed a maximum sentence of fifteen years. Over the next two years, the Mandel Clinic represented him first in the criminal case and then in a federal civil rights suit against Officers Piwnicki and Smith.

In the criminal case, Piwnicki and Smith testified they had observed Traylor engage in a hand-to-hand drug transaction and had undertaken pursuit in the course of which he had fallen off his bicycle. Futterman and his law student colleagues demonstrated that it was physically impossible to see what the officers claimed to have seen from the location roughly a block away where they placed themselves. They argued that the officers struck Traylor with their vehicle in an act of “casual cruelty,” then fabricated evidence and falsely arrested him to cover up their abuse.

In the course of their investigation, Futterman and his students contacted the officer with whom I had spoken at the scene. The officer was sympathetic but apologized to Futterman, “You don’t want me to testify. If I do, I’ll spend the rest of my career paying for it—worrying about friendly fire, worrying that when I call for backup no one will come.” Futterman did not call the officer to testify.

The code of silence, it is important to remember, is not simply a matter of professional solidarity. It is ultimately enforced by violence and fear.

The judge found that Piwnicki and Smith arrested Traylor without probable cause, in violation of his constitutional rights, and dismissed all charges against Traylor. A federal civil rights suit against Piwnicki and Smith was subsequently settled.

The Traylor case provides a revealing glimpse of OPS investigatory practices in several respects:

  • Despite the presence of dozens of witnesses (including police officers) who observed some part of the incident—an incident that occurred half a block from their office—OPS investigators found the Traylor complaint “not sustained.”
  • It was disclosed in the course of the trial that Piwnicki had, within the seven years prior to the incident, accumulated fifty-six citizen complaints. Only one of these complaints had been sustained by OPS. Apart from this one instance, the CPD had not disciplined Piwnicki or identified him as needing behavioral intervention.
  • A Cook County Circuit Court judge having found that Piwnicki and Smith had violated Traylor’s constitutional rights, OPS did not see fit to reopen the complaint for further investigation.

* * * *

What will we learn, as Bond v. Utreras unfolds, about the past history of complaints against members of the skullcap crew? Bond’s lawyers state that crew members “have amassed scores of abuse complaints within four years of their abuse of Ms. Bond.” They do not disclose the precise number of complaints, but those numbers, whatever they are, can be assumed to be depressed for several reasons:

  • As a general matter, there are strong disincentives to file a complaint. OPS does no active outreach. Citizens cannot complain anonymously. It is standard procedure to disclose the identity of the complaining citizen to the officer named in the complaint. After filing, complainants are required to execute an affidavit affirming under oath that the statements they have given are true. A reasonable requirement on its face, it carries the implied threat, in the context of OPS’s record of very rarely sustaining complaints, that complaining might expose one to having the investigation turned against one. Perhaps the biggest disincentive is the knowledge that it is extraordinarily unlikely a complaint will result in meaningful discipline.
  • Members of the skullcap crew are said by residents to frustrate efforts to identify them, refusing to provide their names and badge numbers. They are well known to members of the community but not by name. Because Bond could not at the time provide their names, her OPS complaints may not even be included in the files of Officers Seinitz, Savickas, Utreras, Schoeff, and Stegmiller.
  • Victims and witnesses of police abuse say they fear reprisals from the officers who abused them. Several report being threatened. Harold Hall, a public defender who had in the course of his work noticed possible patterns of abuse by members of the skullcap crew, filed a complaint to IAD that Officer Utreras had threatened him. Hall stated that Utreras had approached him in the courtroom and, within the hearing of two Assistant State’s Attorneys, had said, “I hear you’ve been badmouthing me.” Utreras then, according to Hall, delivered a veiled threat. “I better not catch you in my neighborhood” (i.e., the South State Street corridor of public housing), he said. “You know how those traffic stops go.” If a police officer is prepared to threaten an officer of the court in open court, imagine the ease with which he would intimidate residents of an abandoned community such as Stateway Gardens.

How many additional complaints would one find, if one searched the files for street names such as “Macintosh,” or closely correlated the physical descriptions given of unnamed officers with assignment sheets and other available records at the time of the alleged abuses? How many additional complaints would have been made, if citizens had confidence OPS would vigorously investigate them? How many complaints would there be, if victims and witnesses were not vulnerable to intimidation and reprisals?

Despite the many complaints against the crew individually and collectively, Bond’s lawyers assert, crew members have never been disciplined for abuse or identified as in need of intervention. Had the City had an effective monitoring and disciplinary system in place, they argue, members of the crew would never have come to Bond’s door.

To be continued…