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Chicago police misused placards to park for free near Bears, Cubs games, probe finds

Jeremy Gorner, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

CHICAGO -- Chicago police officers improperly used department-issued placards to park illegally with their personal vehicles in police station parking lots so they or their friends and relatives could attend Cubs and Bears games, an investigation by the city's government watchdog found.

Officers also regularly parked their cars in a tow-away zone along a narrow street near City Hall, creating potential safety hazards by blocking fire lanes and emergency exits, Inspector General Joseph Ferguson's office reported Tuesday.

Ferguson also chided Police Department leaders in the seven-page report for not reminding officers during roll calls about a February 2018 directive prohibiting such preferential parking.

"The blatant disregard of the directive perpetuates the appearance that CPD members are exempt from the law and provide special treatment to friends and family," Ferguson wrote in the report to police Superintendent Eddie Johnson.

The 2018 directive was passed after a separate probe by Ferguson's office found Police Department employees provided illegal, free parking to off-duty cops, their friends and family outside the United Center to attend Blackhawks games.

The latest investigation uncovered that the Town Hall district station, located a few blocks east of Wrigley Field, provided free parking in its lot for off-duty officers to attend Cubs games in May 2018.

Ferguson's office said Town Hall had an organized system with sign-in sheets that required officers to list the make and model of their vehicles and the names of their guests. Officers received parking passes on a first-come, first-served basis.

Months later, in December 2018, Ferguson's team looked on as officers and their guests used the department-issued placards to park for free in the Central District station lot to attend Bears games at Soldier Field, located just blocks away, according to the report.

The investigation also found evidence that officers parked their personal vehicles -- with the police placards in their windshields -- for free on Court Place, blocking emergency exits and fire escapes behind the Cadillac Palace Theatre. Many of the officers were assigned to work at nearby City Hall, according to the report.

The officers' cars were never ticketed or towed despite numerous emailed complaints and calls to 911 and the City Hall help desk, the investigation found.

 

The theater's records showed more than 100 such violations on Court Place between March 2016 and December 2017. Police frequently failed to respond to the calls and complaints about the unsafe parking, Ferguson's office said those records showed.

"Theatre personnel expressed concern that an emergency requiring evacuation of the venue would be hindered by these vehicles continuing to park on Court Place," the report said. "This avoidable and unnecessary risk existed for years because CPD officers sought to avoid paying for parking downtown or taking alternative means of transportation to City Hall."

One sergeant told Ferguson's investigators that officers assigned to City Hall had routinely been parking on Court Place since at least 2000, according to the report. The sergeant also said lieutenants, commanders and deputy chiefs knew of the practice.

One commander interviewed by Ferguson's investigators denied knowing about officers parking illegally near City Hall, but the report said he "brazenly" downplayed the issue by saying he didn't think it was a big deal to give someone he knew his placard to park in the Central District station lot to attend a Bears game. "Hundreds of people" park in that lot to attend Bears game, he told Ferguson's investigators.

Ferguson's office recommended that the Police Department seek to discipline any officers who violate the 2018 directive.

In response, the department said it has reserved parking at police stations for only on-duty officers. But Ferguson's office cautioned that if police don't patrol their own station lots, officers and civilian department employees "may be able to park without detection."

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