Departing inspector general sounds alarm about police issues on his way out the door

By Fran Spielman
Inspector General Joe Ferguson speaks to members of the City Council during a budget hearing Thursday. | Anthony Vazquez, Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Inspector General Joe Ferguson is closing out his extraordinary, 12-year run as Chicago’s top watchdog by taking Mayor Lori Lightfoot to task on three issues with the Chicago Police Department: its ShotSpotter technology, shoddy record-keeping and error-filled gang database.

Testifying Thursday evening for the final time at City Council budget hearings, Ferguson went out the way he came in: fiercely independent and refusing to pull punches.

On ShotSpotter technology — which his office recently concluded rarely leads to investigatory stops or evidence of gun crimes — Ferguson urged council members to ask tough questions and decide for themselves whether the contract is worth the cost.

The Committee on Public Safety is scheduled to do just that next week, essentially launching a “cost-benefit analysis” of the system, which alerts police to the sounds of gunfire.

“Superintendent Brown is absolutely right. There are cases made and there are bad actors caught because of a ShotSpotter alert,” Ferguson said. “But are enough of them caught to offset the harms that come from aggressive policing? From false positives that result in the police going in numbers into the community to chase after something that actually turns out to be nothing having to do with violence or gun offenses at all?”

He urged council members not to be deterred by the fact that the contract was recently renewed. “The renewed contract has a provision for cancellation. It’s been renewed. But we can say, `Thanks but no thanks’ under certain conditions.”

On another issue, Ferguson noted that the gang database continues to be used, even though it’s riddled with errors and there is still no appeals process.

“It’s been 2 12 years and promises made and promises not kept,” Ferguson said, obviously referring to Lightfoot who campaigned on a promise to get rid of the gang database and replace it with a mistake-free one includes an appeal process.

“I know work is being done,” he continued. “But… we’re still utilizing a system that we know and that IG reports have established is just not accurate and hangs over the lives of tens of thousands of Chicagoans, over 96 percent are Black- and Brown-skinned. We need to clean that up.”

Then there’s the matter of the grossly inadequate record management system at the police department.

Ferguson mentioned it when Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) asked him to identify his “top two or three priorities” that he would like to see his successor continue.

“Our work around the record management system … is impeding the ability of officers to draw upon all of the historical records of the people that they’re investigating that are within the department’s possession,” he said.

It is “affecting clearance rates and affecting the integrity of the criminal justice system as cases proceed to decisions of whether to charge, how to prosecute,” he said. “Cases have to get dismissed if we don’t know where our own records are.”

But those weren’t the only red flags Ferguson raised on his way out the door.

He warned that city department heads are no longer executing recommendations to rectify problems pinpointed by his office’s exhaustive program audits, even though they agreed to implement them.

In fact, they’ve “fallen off the cliff,” Ferguson said.

The departing inspector general took an indirect swipe at Lightfoot, claiming there is “no consequence at all to failing to execute on promises made in response to” his recommendations.

Ferguson urged aldermen to pick up the slack by holding more briefings on his reports and audits. He put in a renewed plug for his 2019 report recommending that tree-trimming be handled on a grid-system, instead of ward-by-ward.

“It would cost us less with less consequences coming from storms, better water management with lesser climate consequences that affect our more disadvantaged parts of the city,” Ferguson said.

He also urged the City Council to hire its own attorney because of the inherent conflicts of having the corporation counsel represent both branches of government.

Ferguson is a former federal prosecutor who served together with Lightfoot in the U.S. attorney’s office.

When he was appointed by former Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2009 to replace departing Inspector General David Hoffman, Lightfoot was among those who vouched for and recommended her friend Ferguson.

That close relationship initially raised questions about just how independent Ferguson would be in a Lightfoot administration. Since then, however, there has been tension behind the scenes, as there almost always is between a mayor and his or her watchdog.

Last fall, Lightfoot hinted strongly that she would not reappoint Ferguson because she “favors term limits” and does not believe “people should stay in office indefinitely. “

In July, Ferguson decided to go out on his own terms. He announced that he would leave at the end of his term on Oct. 15.

His replacement will be chosen by a search committee comprised of three mayoral appointees and two people chosen by the City Council.


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