Caption: Police chiefs of local departments like Evanston (in photo) concerns with State’s Attorney’s office had been building for some time.

Suburban Chiefs’ ‘No-Confidence’ Vote Was About More Than the Smollett Case

By Bob Seidenberg

The North Suburban Association of Chiefs of Police recently criticized the handling of the highly-publicized Jussie Smollett case by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s Office, but the Smollett case was just one of many long-standing factors resulting in the chiefs’ no-confidence vote earlier this spring.

The group, which represents chiefs and deputy chiefs from more than 30 North Suburban Cook County Police Departments, including Evanston, announced April 1 they had passed a “no confidence” vote related to Ms. Foxx’s overall performance.

The group’s statement highlighted the State’s Attorney Office’s centralization of felony review, non-prosecution of certain low-level offenses, as well as the handling of the Smollett case as factors figuring into the chiefs’ action.

The group had already raised concern about centralizing felony review under Ms. Foxx’s predecessor, Anita Alvarez, and had held several meetings with Ms. Foxx or her senior officers prior to and after her election in November 2016, said Duane Mellema, Deputy Police Chief of Park Ridge president of the group.

“We thought there was a real possibility of the return of felony review back to the local districts,” Deputy Chief Mellema said. “But those conversations never went anywhere, so it’s been a growing source of frustration for all the municipalities outside the City of Chicago.”

With attorneys based outside local communities, “when Felony Review attorneys change shifts, officers can waste countless hours reviewing the same evidentiary facts of cases with incoming attorneys,” Deputy Chief Mellema said in the group’s statement.

“For suburban departments, the geographic removal of your felony review staff and lack of responsiveness to many questions strains our local resources, adding additional time to the investigatory process and overtime expenses to our communities. Moreover, our officers must explain your decisions not to prosecute to our local victims,” the statement continued.

Deputy Chief Mellema said the problems are particularly frustrating in light of the numerous meetings between police and the State’s Attorney leadership staff. He was critical of the lack of responsiveness the chiefs received regarding important issues they raised at those meetings.

“They’re not looking for our input,” he said. “They’re telling us what their policy is going to be.”

The charge of non-responsiveness was the only piece of the chiefs’ statement that Ms. Foxx’s office responded to when asked for a comment.

“Our Assistant State’s Attorneys work tirelessly with our law enforcement partners to address violence in our communities,” a statement by Ms. Foxx’s office said. “Senior staff and district supervisors engage with representatives of suburban police agencies at monthly and quarterly meetings to discuss their concerns and how the office prioritizes resources to increase public safety and reduce harm.”

Former Evanston Police Chief Richard Eddington, a Chiefs Association member, said the long driving distances within Cook County work against centralized review. 

“Do you want to wait for [someone] to come from 26th and California or Skokie?” he asked.

If the department calls on Felony Review attorneys during their shift change, Mr. Eddington said, victims and witnesses may wait around the station lobby for several hours before the attorneys arrive.

“It’s almost a condescending arrogance that we expect people who are good citizens, trying to step up to help the victim, help the police department, help the criminal justice system,” to put them in that situation, he said. “It’s like, ‘Take a number, we’ll get to you when we get to you.’”

The Chiefs group also expressed dissatisfaction with decisions made by Ms. Foxx’s office — the Smollett case being only the latest.

The group cited Ms. Foxx’s action during her first weeks in office not to prosecute retail crimes under $1,000 as a felony. The directive was not in accord with State law, which classified retail theft as a felony if the goods taken were valued at more than $300.

In Evanston, police and merchants felt “blindsided” by the action, which came with little lead time, Eddington said.

Deputy Chief Mellema maintained in the group’s statement, that “this interpreting of prosecution contrary to Illinois law sends the message to police departments and the business community that you don’t care about individual accountability. The unwritten message is the commission of retail thefts is now permissible behavior.”

At the time, she made the announcement, Ms. Foxx maintained it was a matter of prioritizing resources. She said that shoplifting cases often involved non-violent offenders, dealing with mental or drug issues, and that the cost of locking them up would be picked up by taxpayers.

Similarly, the Chiefs group criticized Ms. Foxx’s more recent decision not to prosecute marijuana cases, despite their illegality.

Several police executives added concerns about a slackening in prosecution of driving on suspended licenses and unlawful use of weapons to the list. Failure to prosecute in those areas can “have real life consequences,” Mr. Eddington said.

He cited the death of Illinois State Trooper Gerald Ellis, who had been struck and killed by a wrong-way driver found to have multiple driving offenses, according to numerous reports, including driving while his license was suspended or revoked.

“What’s been expressed to me by other chiefs is that we are talking about the difference between proof beyond a reasonable doubt — that’s the level for achieving a conviction – versus cause to arrest and charge someone. If the only time we charge somebody is where we are absolutely certain we’ll win a conviction, you’re very rarely going to charge,” he said, adding that many cases will never get heard and go through the process allowed.

To that end, the Smollett case represented” the very last straw that has been building with a lot of underlying issues,” Deputy Chief Mellema said. The chiefs’ statement underscored the 1,700-plus hours police devoted to investigating the claim of a hate crime.

“They diverted significant resources and a substantial portion of a limited overtime budget to build this case with your staff,” the Chiefs Association letter said. “To have the charges dismissed, with no explanation and a sealed court file shows a lack of respect for the professionals you work with.”

Deputy Chief Mellema said the idea of a no-confidence vote came from members. The North Suburban Association of Chiefs of Police, composed of more than 30 departments, had 40 members representing 25 departments, and the vote was unanimous, he said.

Current Evanston Police Chief Demitrous Cook and retired Chief Eddington were among the voting members.

Asked about the chiefs’ action last month, Chief Cook, Evanston’s first Black chief in nearly two decades, expressed concern that the group’s action not be viewed as racially-motivated with Ms. Foxx, a Black woman in the top prosecutor position.

At the same time, when serving as chief in the south suburbs, “there was a lot of frustration about Felony Review,” he acknowledged. He said communication between the departments and State’s Attorney’s Office have just reached “a level of frustration,” and lack of trust.

Deputy Chief Mellema said the group is not calling for Ms. Foxx’s resignation, but rather seeks to open the lines of communication and foster a better relationship between the State’s Attorney’s Office and individual departments. as a whole works with the individual departments.

The chiefs group was scheduled to meet May 15. Deputy Chief Mellema said he hoped in the discussion the group could move forward with a plan for dialog with the State’s Attorney’s Office.

“It’s quite possible at the end of the day, police executives and the State’s Attorney’s Office are not going to see eye-to-eye,” he acknowledged. “But even if that’s the case, we still have to have open dialog and a much better understanding of each other’s points of view and try to resolve the shared problems we have.”

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.