Recent investigations by WBEZ and the Weekly uncovered domestic violence allegations against interim police superintendent Fred Waller that prompted Karla Altmayer, the chair of the City’s task force on gender-based violence, to demand a meeting with Mayor Brandon Johnson, who hand-picked Waller for the job in May. In a letter to the mayor obtained by WBEZ, Altmayer wrote that the task force was “deeply concerned” about the allegations against Waller. “The truth is that there is a deep culture of misogyny and sexual assault within the Chicago Police Department,” she added.
In both cases, Waller was cleared of wrongdoing and underwent no discipline. Advocates say it’s indicative of a larger pattern of domestic-violence complaints against officers being dismissed.
“It’s not a bad apple, it’s a bad barrel,” said Amanda Pyron, a member of the task force and the executive director of the domestic violence advocacy group The Network. “[If] it was acceptable for the interim police chief, then who is it not going to be acceptable for?”
Records the Weekly obtained from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and CPD show that at least thirty-eight officers — most from CPD but also including the Cook County Sheriffs and suburban municipalities in Cook County — were charged with domestic battery between 2011 and 2023. At least thirty-one of them had their cases dropped or dismissed, three were found not guilty, and two are active. Only two officers were convicted. That’s not altogether unusual: a 2018 study by the US Department of Justice found that prosecutors in state courts secure convictions for misdemeanor domestic violence offenses, like domestic battery, in less than one-quarter of cases.
Records show that twenty-four of the Chicago police officers who were criminally charged with domestic battery remain CPD employees, some even after multiple alleged incidents of gender-based violence. One is Sergeant Richard Bednarek. He was charged with domestic battery twice, once in 2017 in Tennessee, and again in Cook County in 2020. The Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), which investigates police misconduct, sustained the allegations against him in the 2017 case.
Another is Steve Jedd, who is detailed to a K-9 and explosives team. In 2016, he was charged with domestic battery. The year before that incident, Jedd allegedly pushed and punched a pregnant Black woman, before saying, “You better be lucky I didn’t hit your black ass hard enough to make you lose that damn baby.” In 2019, COPA sustained the allegations against Jedd.
Six of the officers still employed by CPD are currently assigned to beats patrolling the city’s streets, according to police attendance records obtained by the Weekly. As beat officers, they may themselves be responding to domestic violence incidents.
Advocates for survivors of gender-based violence say that far from being an unlikely event, this is taking place with alarming regularity. “Survivors across our city who reach out for help because of gender based violence, only to find out that the people responding are actually perpetrators,” Pyron said.
The criminal cases represent just a fraction of domestic violence complaints reported against CPD officers. Between 2017 and June 2023, 399 CPD officers were investigated by COPA for domestic violence allegations, according to data obtained by the Weekly via a Freedom of Information Act request.
The data show that only twenty-six of the 399 cops investigated from 2017 to 2023 had the allegations sustained, meaning COPA investigators found substantial corroborating evidence that the domestic violence allegation in fact occurred, and recommended the officer for discipline.
The percentage of officers COPA recommended for discipline, 6.5 percent, is lower than the eight percent of cases that the COPA’s predecessors, the Independent Police Review Authority and Office of Professional Standards, recommended for discipline from 2000 to 2017. COPA took the serious step of recommending that four of those twenty-six officers be separated from CPD. COPA’s average recommended penalty was less than two months of suspension.
But these recommended penalties do not immediately go into effect unless CPD’s superintendent signs off on them. Without the superintendent’s agreement, these cases head to the Police Board for review, a process that can take years to play out as appeals wind their way through the courts. Pyron says this is evidence of a flawed process that leaves survivors with little trust in the system.
“For COPA to be successful it needs to be fully independent,” she said. “It needs to support survivors in civil judgments and civil processes against officers. It needs to protect their confidentiality.”
Studies estimate that between twenty-eight and forty percent of police families experience some form of domestic abuse, which, if true, would mean that this issue affects upwards of 3,000 CPD households.
“Law enforcement officers are often very skilled abusers who are trained to maintain the key elements of domestic violence: power and control,” said Amy Fox, an attorney and the executive director of Life Span, an organization that offers legal services and advocacy to victims of domestic violence. Since its inception in 1978, Life Span has assisted hundreds of survivors whose abusers worked in law enforcement.
“[Officers] are trained at using force to maintain control. They are adept at surveillance and have access to information that allows them to track victims. They know the location of shelters. They carry firearms. Their very position as an officer conveys credibility that may be used to discredit a victim’s version of events,” Fox said.
The lack of serious punishment is consistent with a 2013 investigation by the New York Times and Frontline which found that police officers are less likely to face severe disciplinary consequences for domestic abuse than for other kinds of misconduct, let alone criminal prosecution. While investigators rejected disciplining officers who had multiple domestic violence incidents on their records, others who were found with trace amounts of marijuana in their system have been immediately fired.
“CPD is deeply committed to supporting and protecting victims of domestic violence,” a spokesperson for CPD said in a statement to the Weekly. “Allegations of domestic violence by Department members are taken seriously and investigated thoroughly.”
But Pyron says that the department is not taking them seriously enough.
“When…the interim police chief is a person who’s most well known for making a comment derisive to sexual assault survivors, you’ve got a problem,” Pyron said.
Although the small number of sustained violations by COPA could suggest that the actual incidence of CPD officers committing domestic violence is quite small, in only two cases out of the nearly 400 investigated did COPA find evidence to show that “the reported incident did not occur.”
Instead, the data show that 170 officers had “No Finding” determinations from COPA — that is, there was insufficient evidence to determine whether the domestic abuse occurred or not. For many of those cases no information is provided for why investigators concluded their investigations without a finding, but that information exists for others.
Investigations involving sixty-two officers were closed because of the lack of affidavits signed by the complainant. (Experts have said the affidavit requirement has a chilling effect on complaints; in 2021 the Illinois General Assembly amended the Uniform Peace Officers’ Discipline Act to remove that requirement for complaints against officers below the rank of commander.) Five investigations were closed because the victims refused to prosecute. This suggests that many domestic violence complaints do not move forward not because there is no underlying factual basis to the complaint but instead because victims of the alleged abuse choose not to cooperate with investigators.
That was the case for Carisa Parker, who now serves on the 22nd Police District Council and is herself a survivor of abuse at the hands of a CPD officer. She says she endured significant physical and emotional abuse by her ex-husband, who is now retired from the department.
After one violent incident, Parker’s parents called 911. Officers responded to her home and escorted her to a police station where she could be interviewed separately from her then-husband. She was interviewed by two female officers who she felt were sympathetic, she said, but nevertheless faced a difficult choice regarding whether to move forward with her case.
“When I asked, ‘Would he lose his job if I bring this case forward?’ They looked at me like they knew that I wouldn’t go forward with it,” Parker said, “like they’d seen it before.”
If she had chosen to bring charges against her husband and got a restraining order against him, he would have lost his firearm and therefore would not have been able to serve as a CPD officer, according to the departmental regulations. That would have meant losing the financial support Parker depended on from her husband to take care of her young child and the second baby she was pregnant with at the time, she said.
Parker said that people experiencing domestic violence at the hands of police officers often feel caught in a bind like she did, and ultimately decide not to press charges because they fear their partner will lose their job.
“It has a lot to do with where that survivor is or that victim is in the moment, and to what level or degree they have been isolated from their families such that they feel like [their spouse] is who they solely rely on,” Parker said.
“Even if the survivor is no longer with the abuser, if they have children [and] the abuser loses his job, he will no longer be able to pay child support significantly impacting the survivor’s economic stability,” Fox said. That can mean survivors are not able to put food on the table for their children, pay their bills, or meet rent.
On the negative effects of police domestic abuse, though, Parker was emphatic. “It affects not only the person, but families and children,” she said. “I definitely think domestic abuse is something that should disqualify you from police work.”
Stephanie Love-Patterson has also worked with survivors from police households over her extensive career. She is the executive director of Connections for Abused Women and their Children, a Humboldt Park-based nonprofit that has worked with survivors since 1977.
“There’s no stereotypical sort of picture of persons who cause harm,” she said. “They can be police officers, they can be preachers, they can be doctors or attorneys or reporters. They can be anyone.”
Some of the survivors Love-Patterson has worked with have expressed concerns that nothing happens to their abusers precisely “because they are police officers.” These fears were grounded in experience, she said. In some cases, survivors told her that police didn’t even respond to their 911 calls when they reported abuse by their spouses. Sometimes when officers did respond, they simply separated their fellow officer from the victim, talking to each party, but making no arrest, leading the victim to be even “more fearful,” according to Love-Patterson.
Love-Patterson said officers investigating domestic violence complaints involving other cops should never advise survivors that their spouses may lose their jobs because that “sends a horrible message that this person maintaining their job is more important than the victim’s life or their safety and well-being for themselves and for their children.”
Survivors already appreciate the seriousness of bringing allegations forward when they make the difficult decision to call the police for help, Love-Patterson said. What is essential, in her view, is that victims know all the available options and have the support, both financial and emotional, to bring cases against their spouses forward should they so choose.
Fox said that a prevailing concern among some of the survivors she’s worked with is that if officers lose their jobs because of a domestic violence complaint, they will hold survivors responsible, causing further harm.
Highlighting the complexity of the issue, Fox noted that officers’ employment can also temper their abusive behavior. “If they lose their job, they may have nothing left to lose,” she said. “Being employed in law enforcement is therefore a deterrent in some cases.”
CPD’s response to domestic violence has varied over the years, often based on the direction and priorities of the top brass, Fox said. While CPD used to have a groundbreaking, nationally recognized program to help survivors that included confidential advocacy services paid for by the City, over time, those positions were phased out and replaced by services provided directly by CPD employees at headquarters, she said. And she claims that the resources for CPD’s internal domestic violence office have dwindled in recent years.
In 2023, the City allocated a little over $1.3 million for CPD’s response to domestic violence. Out of CPD’s total budget of $1.9 billion that represents just 0.05 percent of the budget, and is less than the four times as much as the department spends in a single day.
“CPD could be more innovative and victim centered in their response to officer involved domestic violence,” Fox said.“There are very few supports or treatment options, including Partner Abuse Intervention Programs, for officers, and so the recourse for the department is often suspension or termination.”
“This may not be safe for the victim or what the victim wants, so they no longer choose to engage in the process,” she said.
Pyron said this amounts to a failure of leadership to take the issue of gender-based violence seriously, stretching back decades.
“Given the fact that violence against women and gender minorities is rampant within the police department, this should be a priority area,” she said. “CPD needs leadership that’s committed to ending violence against women and gender minorities externally in the community but also internally when that violence is perpetrated by their own officers and their own leadership.”
Max Blaisdell is a fellow with the Invisible Institute and a staff writer for the Hyde Park Herald.