Baltimore Sun

Feds to help Waukegan police repair strained relations with community

"We're trying to make a sincere effort here," said Mayor Wayne Motley, seen here on Aug. 17, 2015, of plans to have the Justice Department help improve the the police department's relationship with residents.

Department of Justice officials have agreed to intervene in Waukegan with the hope of improving relations between residents and the city's troubled Police Department, city officials said.

The department's shortcomings have loomed over city politics since late October, when a Tribune investigation revealed the force's exceptional history of abuse and investigative failures.


No city agency in Illinois, other than Chicago's, shares responsibility for as many known wrongful convictions as the Waukegan police. The city also has routinely paid hefty sums to settle abuse claims — many of them from Hispanic and African-American plaintiffs — against the largely white department.

City officials contacted the Justice Department and met earlier this month with representatives from the federal agency's Community Relations Service, which works to settle disputes over civil rights issues between local governments and residents, said local officials who attended the meeting.


The parties have not developed a specific plan for improving the department's relationship with the city's residents, but another meeting is slated for early in the new year, local officials said.

"We're trying to make a sincere effort here," Mayor Wayne Motley said.

The Community Relations Service styles itself as "America's Peacemaker," and its purpose differs from the Justice Department's work investigating police departments and seeking court-ordered reforms. Chicago police are undergoing a more invasive form of review, as the Justice Department investigates whether officers have systematically violated peoples' civil rights.

The Community Relations Service aims to be a neutral party that conducts training and mediates disputes arising from racial issues and other tensions over civil rights. The service's mandate is to calm tensions and prevent further conflicts. According to news reports, the organization has worked with other local towns and was active in Ferguson, Mo., after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown sparked riots.

A Justice Department spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Waukegan Police Chief Wayne Walles said he hoped the city's work with federal authorities would lead to expanded training for his department.

The embrace of federal help represents an about-face for city officials who had downplayed the department's problems. Several of Waukegan's top leaders — including Motley — are former police officers, and they gave little public acknowledgment of the agency's problems before controversy erupted weeks ago.

In the last three decades, Waukegan police have helped send to prison six men who were later cleared by DNA or medical evidence. Those cases spawned pricey lawsuits, and the city's Police Department frequently has been accused of abuse, records show. The city and its insurers paid out about $26.1 million in police-related cases from 2006 through this spring.


Most abuse claims that led to payouts came from minorities. While the city's residents are mostly African-American or Hispanic, most of the city's police officers are white. As of this summer, the department's entire upper command staff was white.

The Tribune's investigation stirred controversy in Waukegan, and officials have made changes, including several geared toward encouraging diversity. A Hispanic officer is being promoted from sergeant to commander, city leaders said, and officials plan to meet early next month with minority leaders to discuss attempts at diversifying the department. Two minority officers also will join the department board that reviews police use of force, Motley said at a recent City Council meeting.

Motley's advisory committee of African-American residents, the Citizens for Progress Committee, has played a high-profile role in the city's response to the controversy, and a member of the group, the Rev. Rick Harris, said he was at the first meeting with federal officials and plans to attend future meetings. He said the changes so far show that the mayor and other city leaders want to improve the department.

"Those are significant changes, very quickly," Harris said.

Waukegan's problems are entwined with those of the Lake County prosecutor's office, which sent innocent men to prison by prosecuting flawed cases assembled by the city's Police Department during the 22 years that Michael Waller served as state's attorney. His successor, Mike Nerheim, attended the first meeting between the city and Justice Department officials and he plans to keep attending, he said.

"If it will help make the department better in the eyes of the community and in reality, then, absolutely, we'll participate," he said.


Twitter @dhinkel