From his seat in the back of the gallery in Judge David Coar’s courtroom, Police Chief Jim Ryan listened as a federal prosecutor chastised Ryan for turning a blind eye toward misconduct. Ryan, according to Sergio Acosta for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, has a history of allowing officers to run afoul of the law and deserves no credit as a disciplinarian.
Ryan later dismissed the prosecutor’s words as courtroom rhetoric and, despite a plea of guilty from the officer in question, said he remains unconvinced that the convicted cop committed any crime.
“I don’t know,” Ryan said. “I honestly don’t know. Could he have subdued him with less force? Probably, yes.”
At a July 9 hearing at the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago – called for the purpose of sentencing one of Ryan’s supposedly rogue officers – much of the opening discussion centered on the police chief. The defense mentioned a letter written by Ryan that sought to persuade the judge not to sentence former Forest Park police sergeant Michael Murphy to prison for abusing a suspect in 2003. Citing passages from the May 12 letter, defense attorney Rick Halprin said Murphy’s conduct since 2003 has been that of a “model police officer.”
But Acosta launched into a critique of the police chief’s management skills and stopped short of implicating Ryan as a co-conspirator to the 2003 beating of Sidney Hooks. In April, Murphy pleaded guilty to using pepper spray and a baton to subdue Hooks and break his wrist while initiating an arrest. The charges filed against Hooks in that case were later dropped.
“What did the chief do about it?” Acosta asked, rhetorically. “He says that since this, nothing bad has happened-which is good, we recognize that. But a crime was committed.”
Murphy received the maximum 12-month sentence in accordance with the April plea bargain that dropped a pair of felony charges down to a misdemeanor civil rights violation.
After an internal investigation in 2003 determined Murphy used excessive force, Ryan required the former officer to go into counseling and placed a written reprimand in Murphy’s personnel folder, according to court records. Murphy was warned that further incidents could result in progressive discipline. However, in about five years following the Hooks arrest, not a single complaint against Murphy was filed with the department.
Following the hearing, Ryan dismissed the prosecutor’s statements as those of a lawyer trying to win a case.
“If he was to say that everything was handled appropriately and that Mike Murphy was a good officer, the judge wouldn’t have given him 12 months in jail,” Ryan said.
Acosta said afterward that he was trying to provide the context within which the court should consider Ryan’s letter. Asked to explain that context, Acosta declined to elaborate.
Though Murphy took responsibility for the 2003 incident, Ryan said he’s not convinced the former sergeant committed a crime. In fact, Ryan said he disagrees with the decision made by two other officers at the scene not to arrest Hooks for panhandling and creating a disturbance. The department has recently adopted a zero-tolerance policy with respect to panhandling, said Ryan.
According to a pre-sentencing memorandum filed by Murphy’s attorney, the discipline imposed against Murphy by the police chief was not universally accepted by the department’s rank and file.
Ryan said any disagreement within the department on that issue was the result of meddling. Specifically, he blamed former sergeant Dan Harder, who was fired in March 2007 following an intensely political termination hearing.
“I think Sgt. Harder’s mission was to create discord,” Ryan said.
As part of an ongoing lawsuit surrounding his dismissal, Harder’s termination was recently characterized as “arbitrary and unreasonable” by a U.S. District Court judge. Whether he must be reinstated is under appeal to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Commissioner Michael Curry was the only member of the village council to attend the sentencing hearing, though the police department falls under the mayor’s direct supervision. Curry said he trusts the job Ryan is doing as police chief.
Curry said also that it is not his responsibility to bring issues of potential misconduct to the council – or to department heads – if it does not concern the Department of Public Health and Safety, which Curry oversees. Police misconduct would most likely be brought to the council’s attention by federal prosecutors, state investigators or the individual who was harmed, Curry said.
According to Curry, it would be “disrespectful” of the other commissioners to intercede in their colleague’s departments.
“It’s not my department. I’m not going to piss off Tony and talk to the chief about it,” Curry said, referring to the mayor.
Calderone declined to comment on how other village council members might view their role as an elected official.
With respect to Murphy’s case, Calderone said he is reluctant to discuss details with the Review because, he said, regardless of what he might say, it won’t “change the spin of your story.” The mayor did say he generally supports the police chief’s handling of disciplinary matters within the department. He suggested Murphy is not the criminal prosecutors made him out to be.
“I wouldn’t say that a crime was not committed,” Calderone said. “I think there were extenuating circumstances in this case. There’s no telling what would have happened if this went to trial.”