City Council members expected clarity on the Chicago Police Department’s stance on extremism within its ranks, but instead were left frustrated and confused after a hearing Wednesday about how the department has handled investigations into officers’ links with hate groups.
The Committee on Public Safety hearing stretched over two hours and sometimes grew tense as aldermen lobbed tough questions at police officials. Their frustration grew as CPD and city officials answered questions — sometimes contradictory — about the department’s decision to not fire Officer Robert Bakker, who allegedly had ties to the far-right group the Proud Boys and then was reported by CPD to have made false and contradictory statements to the FBI and the department during the investigation.
He was suspended for 120 days, but not fired, and could return to active police duty March 1. CPD leaders previously said the suspension was initially set to be much shorter because of a lack of evidence, but was made longer at Bakker’s suggestion.
[ Chicago police superintendent defends 120-day suspension for officer accused of Proud Boy ties ]
“I’m exasperated like everyone else,” Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th, said near the end of the hearing. “It is a joke that we are spending this much time and money to have this conversation when everyone who hears this case knows that officer should not be in the force. It is a joke!”
Several aldermen said they felt the city isn’t doing enough to address reported ties that some officers have to far-right extremist groups.
Ald. Harry Osterman, 48th, told CPD officials that many Chicagoans will struggle to have faith in the police force if the department doesn’t more strongly confront its links with white supremacist or far-right groups.
“I worry about the trust that we’re trying to build in every community in the city if we’re not addressing these issues with the diligence they need,” Osterman said during the meeting.
Tina Skahill, CPD’s director of policing and reform, said the department is working to broaden the policies that govern officers’ associations with groups to include organizations that are “the antithesis of the mission and policies.”
Bakker is alleged to have associated with members of the white nationalist organization and posted messages in a group chat, including about meeting at a pub having a “patriot barbecue” with members.
City Inspector General Deborah Witzburg recommended that police Superintendent David Brown review the suspension after the CPD’s bureau of internal affairs first reached the 120-day punishment in mediation with Bakker.
She told City Council members Wednesday that Brown has previously said officers who make false statements should be fired because documented lies can inhibit officers’ ability to perform police duties by hurting their credibility in court.
CPD officials suggested during the hearing that the department did not have enough evidence to prove Bakker had made false statements, despite the bureau of internal affairs finding that he had.
Witzburg and Andrea Kersten, the chief administrator of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, urged CPD representatives to enforce the rules already in place even as the department seeks to update its policies.
CPD Deputy Chief Traci Walker opened her statements by saying “hate and extremism in any form have no place in the Chicago Police Department.” But later, the bureau of internal affairs representative conceded during the hearing that the department didn’t aggressively investigate allegations made in a 2021 NPR article that said 13 CPD officers were active members of another far-right group, the Oath Keepers.
“I really want you all to go back to the drawing board,” said Ald. Chris Taliaferro, 29th, the committee’s chair. “There’s still stones left unturned.”
Walker said CPD runs background checks of new officers and would not hire any who are members of hate groups, but acknowledged that the rules governing officers already in the force are different because Chicago’s police union contract grants certain due process rights.
At another point in the hearing, she asserted that the Oath Keepers organization “wasn’t what it is today” in the early 2010s, when a CPD officer was a member of the organization for several years. Several other speakers and City Council members pushed back, noting that members of the organization participated in a widely publicized armed standoff with federal authorities at the Bundy ranch in Oregon at around the same time.
“I am heartbroken right now,” Ald. Rossana Rodriguez, 33rd, said toward the end of the hearing. “We came into this hearing trying to get clarity on what their logic was for these officers still being in the force after being clear that they were members of a hate group, and we are even more confused.”
After the hearing, Ald. Matt Martin, 47th, said he left “having a lot more questions than answers.”
Ald. Samantha Nugent, 39th, told the Tribune she sensed a discrepancy between what the inspector general’s office and Police Department reported in their investigations. The hearing didn’t give her a clear sense of how CPD will handle officers’ possible extremist group affiliations going forward, she added.
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“And I find that deeply concerning,” Nugent said. “I didn’t feel like all of my questions were answered today.”
Vasquez reiterated his call for CPD to fire Bakker, though CPD representatives said earlier that they would be unable to further punish the officer unless new information and allegations come to light.
“It really speaks to the fact that CPD is not as accountable as we believe,” Vasquez said. “The superintendent should not be able to say out loud that there is zero tolerance, because clearly there is some level of tolerance that keeps those folks who are a part of far right groups on the police force.”
The many officers who aren’t a part of hate groups are put in dangerous situations when officers who are in such groups erode the trust people have in police, he added.
Not all aldermen present left the hearing frustrated with CPD. Ald. Nick Sposato, 38th, declined to say whether the department’s rules on hate groups should change or if he thought the department reached an appropriate decision in its investigation of Bakker and instead said he thought the hearing was a waste of time.
The City Council becoming involved in specific cases of police discipline presents a dangerous precedent, he argued.
“I don’t think we should be having any say about this stuff,” Sposato said. “It’s none of our business. People need to handle the letter of the law in their department.”