A ranking officer under federal indictment for using excessive force and falsifying police records has, during his career in Forest Park, been named in more lawsuits alleging similar tactics than any other officer.
According to a Forest Park Review analysis of civil cases filed in Chicago’s U.S. District Court, which has jurisdiction over such matters in Forest Park, Sgt. Mike Murphy was named as a defendant in four suits dating back to his third year with the department in 1993. That total represents twice the number of complaints brought against any other officer during that same period.
During Murphy’s 17-year career with the village, four other officers were named as defendants in two federal lawsuits. For three of those officers, the cases are still pending.
Late last month the U.S. Attorney’s office of northern Illinois announced the indictment of Murphy by a special grand jury. Local and federal records show Murphy is accused of assaulting a homeless man on Aug. 6, 2003, with a baton and pepper spray. Prosecutors are also accusing Murphy of falsifying a department report on the incident in an effort to hide the abuse. Murphy, 42, is facing a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and $500,000 in fines.
Police and village officials declined to open up Murphy’s personnel file for public scrutiny or discuss the specifics of any disciplinary action taken against him during his career. Such information is exempt from disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, according to the village.
Police Chief Jim Ryan did, however, emphatically state that not a single complaint has been filed with the department against Murphy since Aug. 4, 2003 when Ryan took over as chief. Though the incident that is the basis of the indictment occurred two days into Ryan’s tenure, the police chief said the alleged victim in the case, Sidney Hooks, never brought his concerns to the police department.
In February 2004 Hooks filed suit against the village and Murphy. That case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
“Anybody can force an attorney to file a nuisance lawsuit,” Ryan said of the Hooks case. “It doesn’t have to be an extremely good case or a factual case for an attorney to agree to take a case.”
Village Administrator Mike Sturino said he too, is unaware of any complaints filed against Murphy since his own tenure began in early 2005.
Under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, the Review has requested copies of all complaints filed against Murphy during his career. The Review is also seeking the disclosure of any financial awards paid by the village in lawsuits filed against the department since 1994.
Ryan also discounted the validity of a civil complaint filed by Robert Wilson in 2004 against Murphy. That case was handled by the same firm that represented Hooks and again, the plaintiff never filed a complaint with the municipality, Ryan said. Court records show that case too, was settled out of court.
The chief said he suspects both of those cases were prompted by a “very vindictive” employee within the department.
Gerald Frazier, Sr., is the president of the board of directors for Citizens Alert, a police watchdog group in Chicago. Frazier’s organization focuses on police brutality but also led the charge to bring the Chicago Police Board’s monthly meetings out from behind closed doors, and is working with legislators to mandate police interrogations be videotaped.
Frazier disagreed with Ryan’s assertion that lawyers are quick to pick up frivolous suits in the interest of making a quick buck. The need for evidence and credible witnesses is too heavy a burden for law firms to take a weak case, Frazier said.
“Usually lawyers won’t take the cases where somebody’s just trying to give a police department a bad name,” Frazier said.
With more than 20 years of experience with Citizens Alert, Frazier said it’s typical for a police department’s legal troubles to center around a small percentage of the department’s staff. That tendency, he said, is due to a lack of discipline both on the part of the officer and the supervisor.
Ryan’s theory that the department has been victimized by a vengeful employee is one that has been advanced by Mayor Anthony Calderone as well. In an undated memo responding to a Dec. 13, 2005, request from former commissioner Patrick Doolin, Calderone dismissed the need for a third-party investigation into claims of police brutality.
“Commissioner, please know there is no pending litigation against the village of Forest Park pertaining to brutality and I’d like to keep it that way,” Calderone said in his response. “However, it is apparent there are disgruntled employees who are trying very hard to shift the focus from their very real and serious personnel issues.”
Calderone did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.
All four of the lawsuits brought against Murphy in his role as a village police officer were settled out of court.
Sturino, the village administrator, was not on staff during the settlement negotiations for any of the lawsuits filed against Murphy and said he can’t speak to what strategies may have been employed. As a general rule, though, any organization wants to avoid developing a reputation for being an easy kill, which would only increase the likelihood of frivolous lawsuits.
Of the four federal complaints currently pending against nine officers, Sturino said he has no intention of settling.
“We absolutely plan to fight each and every one of these pending cases,” Sturino said. “We believe they’re without merit and we will prove it.”
As for the criminal charges now pending against Murphy, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office said the officer pled not guilty on both counts during his Nov. 1 arraignment and is free on personal recognizance. Murphy remains on paid administrative leave from his policing duties.