Several members of a Chicago police gang team have been stripped of their police powers amid a federal criminal probe into allegations they ripped off drug dealers, law enforcement sources told the Chicago Tribune.
The nearly yearlong investigation by the FBI and Chicago police Internal Affairs Division focused on a sergeant and several officers on the department’s Area Central gang team that operates in much of the South Side and part of the West Side, sources said.
The sergeant and at least three officers were stripped of their police powers, sources said. Authorities conducted searches of at least two of the officers’ homes Tuesday, but no arrests have been made. Criminal charges are expected to be filed, though, according to sources.
Video shot before dawn Tuesday by a neighbor of one of the officers showed agents arriving on their block in Chicago’s Pilsen community in an armored vehicle and shining spotlights on the officer’s single-family brick home. One agent could be seen popping out of a hatch on the roof of the vehicle while others in helmets and fatigues milled in the doorway of the home.
“They were going around and knocking on everyone’s doors, telling people not to go outside,” another neighbor who wished to remain anonymous told the Tribune.
The sergeant is a former member of a joint FBI task force, sources said. The investigation began after an informant went to federal authorities to complain that he had been robbed by the team.
As part of the probe, agents set up a sting to catch members of the team on undercover video, a source said.
Reached by telephone Wednesday, an attorney for the officers, James Thompson, declined to comment on the investigation.
News of the probe comes as the Police Department struggles to recover from the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald and a long list of other scandals over the years — including several involving officers accused of stealing narcotics and cash from drug dealers.
A police spokesman issued a written statement Wednesday saying “integrity and accountability are paramount” to the department.
“To that end, we cannot comment on any investigation — internal or otherwise — until or unless criminal charges are filed,” the statement read.
The Tribune has learned the identities of the sergeant and at least one of the officers but is not naming them because they have not been charged.
Police Department records show the 45-year-old sergeant has been with the department since 1996 and served as a patrol officer before joining the gang enforcement team. His wife is a Chicago police detective, records show.
At least 23 complaints have been filed against the sergeant in his 21 years on the force, including several for alleged illegal arrests, civil rights violations and improper use of a weapon, complaint data compiled by the Tribune shows. In 1998, while assigned to the Ogden District on the West Side, he was reprimanded for a complaint stemming from a “preventable traffic accident,” according to records. None of the other complaints resulted in any discipline, the records show.
The sergeant has also been named in at least four federal lawsuits since 2001, including a pending case stemming from a fatal police shooting in the Grand Crossing neighborhood in 2014 in which a fellow officer killed an apparently suicidal man who allegedly attacked them with a knife, court records show.
In 2016, the city agreed to pay $40,000 to settle another lawsuit alleging the sergeant and several other officers broke down the door of a woman’s North Lawndale home with their guns drawn. After acknowledging they had no warrant, the officers raided an apartment next door and found drugs and thousands of dollars in cash, according to the suit.
The suit alleged the sergeant gave the woman $1,000 in cash he’d taken from the search as reimbursement for “her troubles” and then left.
The ongoing federal probe marked the latest black eye for the Police Department. The 2015 release of video of Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting the black teen 16 times led to a probe by the U.S. Department of Justice that found officers routinely violated the civil rights of residents, particularly in minority neighborhoods on the South and West sides stricken by poverty and crime.
The Justice Department’s scathing report on the Police Department mentioned that the city’s first serious efforts at reform came in the wake of the Summerdale scandal in 1960 when eight officers from the now-defunct North Side district were accused of operating a large-scale burglary ring.
In the 1990s, a federal probe led to the conviction of the so-called Austin Seven, officers involved in a series of robberies of drug dealers. The ringleader, Officer Edward “Pacman” Jackson Jr., was sentenced in 2001 to 115 years in prison.
Federal authorities also charged corrupt Chicago cop Joseph Miedzianowski, whose shocking double life as a drug dealer led to the breakup of the department’s vaunted gang crimes unit. Miedzianowski was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 2003 for his racketeering conviction.
More recently, scandal engulfed the Special Operations Section after disturbing allegations surfaced that the elite team of officers routinely robbed suspected drug dealers as well as law-abiding citizens during illegal stops and searches.
The blowback was severe — numerous officers were criminally charged, stripped of their police powers and placed on desk duty or suspended without pay. In addition, the SOS unit was disbanded, and the scandal helped force the resignation of then-Superintendant Philip Cline.
Meanwhile, the city is still dealing with the fallout over a nearly decadelong run of corruption by former Sgt. Ronald Watts and his team of tactical officers, who were accused of forcing residents and drug dealers alike to pay a “protection” tax and pinning bogus cases on those who refused to do so.
Despite mounting allegations, Watts continued to operate for years despite a lengthy police Internal Affairs Division probe as well as investigations by the state’s attorney’s office and the FBI, according to court records.
When Watts was finally caught in 2012, it was on relatively minor federal charges, and he was given a break at sentencing by a federal judge who talked tough but in the end handed him only 22 months in prison.
In November, in what is believed to be Cook County’s first mass exoneration, 15 men with drug cases tied to Watts had their convictions thrown out. A review of potentially hundreds of other Watts-related cases is still underway.