Complaints filed by residents against the Elgin Police Department have decreased steadily in the past five years, and experts say the number and nature of those complaints -- as well as the department's response -- signal a positive trend.
Records obtained by the Daily Herald under the Freedom of Information Act show there were seven complaints last year, and two this year through mid-July.
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That's down from 40 complaints in 2009, 25 in 2010, 22 in 2011, and 11 in 2012, Deputy Chief Bill Wolf said.
He credited the department's community policing initiatives and increased training of its 180 or so police officers.
"Every year for the last several years, we've had training on cultural sensitivity, diversity, ethics," he said. "We'd like to think that makes a difference."
The nine complaints filed since Jan. 1, 2013, involved nine different officers; four were sustained as valid after being investigated by the department, records show.
Officer Lawrence Dickman received the harshest discipline with a three-day suspension after alcohol was served to minors at a Sweet 16 birthday party held in September at his house; his wife also was there and served alcohol to the teens, records show.
Dickman, who did not contest the sanction, also was fined $500 under a city ordinance, Wolf said.
"If there's a party at a house, we don't generally charge husband and wife. We charge one or the other," he said. "We just thought that because he's an officer, we hold our officers to a higher standard."
The other three sustained complaints resulted in verbal reprimands, including two officers who didn't put seat belts on people they transported in their squad cars.
Another sustained complaint came from a woman who said an officer drove her to her house to retrieve her ID after she was arrested on charges of driving with a suspended driver's license.
The woman said the officer didn't tell her they were going to her house, repeatedly asked her where her boyfriend was, and seemed to try to hug her as she retrieved her ID from her underwear drawer, the complaint states. The officer should have followed procedure by calling a supervisor and having another officer present at the woman's house, Wolf said.
Wolf said he spoke with the woman as part of the investigation and she amended her statement to say she had OK'd going to her house with the officer. Retrieving her ID and money allowed the woman to bond out at the police station, he said.
"The officer had good intentions but violated our policy," Wolf said.
However, the incident "smacks of some issues," University of Chicago clinical law professor Craig Futterman said. "The fact that she felt creeped out at least raises some questions as to why it should be investigated," he said. "If there was something there, that could mean you have a potential problem or potentially predatory behavior."
Nine complaints in 18 months for a department and town the size of Elgin's is not much, the experts said.
The department responded to 78,000 calls last year; of those, 19,767 resulted in tickets and 4,912 led to arrests.
This year through mid-July the department wrote 10,179 tickets and performed 2,583 arrests. "A total of nine complaints in the last one and a half years and in the context of the number of contacts (with residents) isn't extraordinary," Futterman said. "It's not at all eye-popping in any way."
Also, four sustained complaints out of nine is a good percentage, Futterman said.
"(More than) one-third of residents' complaints actually lead to some form of discipline," he said. "That is a message that resident complaints aren't simply glossed over."
Robert T. Johnson, a retired Illinois State Police lieutenant colonel who serves as a law enforcement policies and practices consultant, agreed. "That indicates to me they're doing a pretty through job. They're holding people accountable."
The police department decided five complaints were unfounded or exonerated the officers involved. Those included parents who complained about an 8-year-old child being interrogated in the back of a squad car after kids were throwing rocks, and a 13-year-old who was handcuffed after she became unruly; a man who made a number of vague claims including being placed under surveillance; and a woman who said police officers were yelling at her during a traffic stop. One complaint came from a man who said $194 disappeared from his wallet after he was arrested and taken to the jail at the Elgin Police Department. The event was captured on video, including the traffic stop, the car ride, the elevator ride in the station and the man being jailed, Wolf said.
"There is nowhere in there that we could see that the officer took any money from this person," he said. "It was pretty conclusive evidence."
The widespread use of video technology has lowered the number of police-related complaints because officers and residents alike know they're being recorded, Johnson said.
Residents' complaints are reviewed by a supervisor, commander, the deputy chief and Police Chief Jeff Swoboda, as well as the city's legal department and City Manager Sean Stegall, Wolf said.
Futterman said it's important for police departments to have procedures that don't discourage residents from making complaints.
"That nine (complaints since Jan. 1, 2013) could be a really misleading number. It could be many more people tried to complain and were dissuaded, or were fearful to complain," he said.
Wolf said the department never hesitates to take complaints, unless residents have a clear mental illness.
"We believe we do have a lot of good officers and that's why we do have such few complaints," he said.
"By the same token we have a system where we hold officers accountable. We want to make sure we respect community, and the community feels they get the service they deserve."
The police department also has used its police citizen advisory committee as a sounding board, Wolf said.
"We took actual disciplinary events and changed the names, to see if (committee members) were the police chief, what would they have decided," he said. "They chose to go with less discipline than what we decided."
The police department also has a "rate your service" link at il-elgin3.civicplus.com/FormCenter/Police-Department-7/Rate-Your-Police-Service-41.