by Lee Williams
A lack of leadership and accountability within the Cook County Adult Probation Department have crippled the agency’s effectiveness, allowed dangerous criminals to run amok, and placed society at extreme risk.
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CHICAGO—If the Cook County probation officer assigned to supervise Acurie Collier had done his job, the convicted sexual predator wouldn’t have been able to sexually assault a 13-year-old child in her bedroom on the city’s south side four months ago, as police have alleged.
It’s not as though the probation officer ignored just one warning sign in Collier’s behavior. His colleagues told the Illinois Policy Institute the officer ignored 41 missed curfews, let them all slide and took no official action. Had he reported Collier’s misconduct and “violated” the offender back to jail, the alleged sexual assault of the child could have been averted.
Before the attack, Collier had been on probation for a charge of aggravated criminal sexual assault. He remains in jail subject to a $1.5 million bond, charged with aggravated sexual abuse of a minor.
Jesus Reyes, acting-chief of the Cook County Adult Probation Department, admitted the officer assigned to supervise Collier “dropped the ball.”
“I’m afraid so. That is absolutely the case,” Reyes told the Illinois Policy Institute.
Reyes’ department receives $43 million per year from taxpayers to safeguard the public by monitoring hardened criminals whom a judge decided to sentence to probation rather than prison or jail. Probation officers who have spoken to the Institute say not only are much of the taxpayer dollars being wasted, the public is far from safe.
The systemic failures that allowed the convicted sexual predator to go what probation officers call “off-leash” and get arrested for sexually assaulting another child are emblematic of the problems within Reyes’ department, according to nearly a dozen probation officers who spoke to the Illinois Policy Institute on the condition of anonymity. The officers said they would likely be fired if their names were used in this story.
These probation officers say the Cook County Adult Department has deteriorated into a morass of internal dissonance and conflict caused by poor or chronically-absent supervisors more concerned about their off-duty jobs than their officers, too much “clouting” of staff and employees, a near-total lack of effective standards and policies, and other destructive forces.
The department’s annual infusion of $43 million in public funds is misspent and wasted, the probation officers say. Serious reforms are needed immediately or more probationers will go unsupervised, placing the public at extreme risk.
An investigation by the Illinois Policy Institute found significant flaws within the agency, similar to what the officers have been saying:
- The alleged sexual assault of the 13-year-old child committed July 31 could have been prevented if the probation officer—who remains employed at the department, receiving an annual salary of more than $72,000—had done his job and been properly supervised.
- Senior staff and line supervisors working off-duty as a security force at the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s former church have been involved in criminal activity, according to their colleagues.
- The officers say selection, hiring and supervision of often depends on who the officer knows, or who they’re related to—their clout.
- The department has standards and policies, over 1,000 pages. However, they’re poorly written and selectively enforced—seldom against an officer with clout, the officers say. As a result, they say there is little accountability.
- Many officers said they ignore department policy as it often conflicts with what they view as the right thing to do.
- The entire department could benefit from more transparency and public scrutiny, according the Institute’s investigation.
- The department rewards clouted staff with “merit pay,” rather than using the department’s left-over taxpayer dollars as a reward for hard work, or returning them to the general fund, according to sources who spoke with the Institute.
- There are few statewide standards for probation officers, a flaw the officers hope will someday result in a legislative fix.
A preventable attack
By all accounts, Acurie Collier should never have been free the night he’s alleged to have made his way to the home of a 13-year-old girl he’d met online, using a computer that according to his probation agreement he wasn’t supposed to possess.
Collier, 34, had already been convicted of a prior sexual assault of a minor, and was being supervised by the probation department’s highly-touted Adult Sexual Offender Program, known as ASOP.
The case supervision policy for the ASOP unit, signed by Reyes’ predecessor in 2004, calls for “specialized supervision that shall include long-term treatment and intensive surveillance.”
The policy calls for three graduated phases of supervision including curfews, counseling, home visits by armed probation officers, DNA indexing, drug testing and more.
Collier’s probation officer did some of the required curfew checks, but little else.
According to Reyes, Collier missed 17 curfew checks during the nine months he was probation prior to his arrest for aggravated criminal sexual abuse.
However, Reyes’ officers say the actual number of missed checks was 41. They say the department’s senior staff “sanitized” Collier’s file, removing a number of the most egregious offenses after he was arrested for the second sexual assault, so the department wouldn’t look so bad if word got out. The senior staff also removed the file from the department’s computer, the officers said, because they were worried a disgruntled employee would send it to the media.
The court had imposed strict conditions for Collier: he was not to possess weapons or a computer, had to adhere to a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew, was not to have contact with his previous victim or other minors, and was required to register as a sexual offender, pay fines and attend counseling, Reyes told the Institute.
As Reyes said, this ball was definitely dropped.
“There were 17 instances when he was not home. It’s noted that on November 9th he received notice he must move, as he was within 500-feet of a child care facility. The probation notes are unclear whether he moved. He was required to report in person weekly. He did not report at all during October of 2009,” Reyes said. “The probation officer did not follow the protocols we have in place, and a number of the conditions the court had ordered were not monitored appropriately.”
Reyes’ officers say after only three missed curfew checks they would have violated Collier—documented his misconduct and brought it to the attention of the court, seeking to have him returned to prison.
“The case was not well-handled,” Reyes admitted.
What came next was tragic.
Collier met a 13-year-old girl online, talked her into providing her address, drove to her south-side home and threw rocks at her window until he gained her attention. She cracked the window and tried to convince him to leave, but he forced his way into her bedroom and allegedly sexually assaulted her, according to police reports.
When the child’s mother heard screaming, she called 911 and rushed to the bedroom. Collier struck her in the face and tried to flee out the window, but was caught at the scene by police.
The probation department should have known Collier posed an extreme risk to children. He was on probation for Aggravated Criminal Sexual Assault, in which the previous victim was also 13 years old.
Even if his probation officer had done his job correctly; Reyes claims he is still not sure whether the second sexual assault could have been prevented.
“Well, I don’t know if it could have been [prevented] or couldn’t have been,” he said. “Certainly it could have improved the chances it could have been, but we can’t watch a person 24-hours. I’m not going to tell you it’s a good thing.”
The officer remains employed, which his anonymous colleagues say is a testament to his clout.
Reyes wouldn’t say what discipline was meted out. His staff said the officer received only a brief suspension.
“We have taken appropriate action with the officer, within the guidelines of the collective bargaining agreement,” he said. “He had a clean record prior to this. Our collective bargaining agreement calls for corrective action first.”
Cheryl Anderson is one of the very few probation officers willing to allow her name to be used in this report.
Anderson, who has a Master’s degree in corrections, was hired as an adult probation officer in 1988. She was recently transferred against her will to the juvenile probation department. She said this transfer was punishment for a letter she wrote to a judge complaining of harassment.
Anderson said it’s possible for an officer to simply ignore their duties and not violate an offender, as long as they have the right clout.
“There are guys who go golfing with judges,” she said. “If this guy doesn’t do something, he won’t be disciplined. Judges have that kind of power. We’re just peons.”
Collier remains incarcerated, held on a $1.5 million bond, charged with aggravated criminal sexual assault, a Class 1 felony.
When he was still preaching at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr. had a special security detail comprised of Cook County Adult Probation officers and supervisors.
The officers, and in one instance a Deputy Chief, were armed and equipped with the finest gear Cook County taxpayers’ money could buy, according to officers interviewed for this special report.
They used department-issue radios and cars, along with their department-issue handguns.
Neither the vehicles nor the radios were supposed to be used for anyone’s off-duty job.
The probation officers interviewed for this special report said the mileage of every department vehicle is recorded, at the beginning and end of every shift.
They said they began noticing that several vehicles would somehow acquire extra miles over the weekend, when no one was supposed to be driving them.
It wasn’t difficult to get access to the keys, which were kept in a locker at one of the probation offices. The supervisors had access to the key locker.
On one Sunday several months before the 2008 elections, while driving one of the probation department’s squad cars, one of Wright’s security detail got into an accident, striking two cars. Rather than exchanging information with the other drivers, he started backing away from an ever-growing crowd, and then he ran quickly away.
“The car apparently had been traveling at a high rate of speed, and then the driver lost control and hit two cars,” Reyes said. “The person called somebody on the radio. Another witness went up to the driver. The driver walked away. I send field supervisors out there. They interviewed people and got all the information they could.”
Reyes asked the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to investigate.
“We agreed to do that,” he said. “We gave them all the info we had.”
Sheriff’s office investigators created a line-up using photos from the ID Cards every probation officer is issued. Still, the witnesses and accident victims were unable to pick out the driver.
Probation officers told the Institute that the photos provided to the sheriff’s office were old, and looked nothing like the staffers working security for Rev. Wright.
The car was towed from the scene, and sat covered with a tarp in the probation lot until it was sold for scrap. The keys were still in the ignition.
Reyes refused to provide the names of his staffers working at Rev. Wright’s church, a process that he said would be difficult.
“When people come to work for us, they have to fill out this form whether they’re employed somewhere else. The forms go into their individual files,” he said. “There isn’t a separate file. I’d have to go through 600 of them. If somebody did, and didn’t do one of these forms, they’d be subject to discipline.”
No probation employee was ever criminally charged with the hit-and-run. No one was disciplined internally by Reyes, who said he was unable to determine who was driving the vehicle.
“At the time, someone asked me, apparently they had info from someone in the department that [the driver] was someone from the department,” Reyes said. “I told them I would take action. I meant it. To this day I would take action.”
The officers say the hit-and-run was covered up because it involved senior department officials with massive amounts of clout.
Reyes was not sure whether the two victims were ever compensated by the county.
The hit-and-run is not the only incident involving off-duty Cook County probation officers working at Trinity United.
Several months later, police were dispatched to the church to investigate a report of shots fired.
As they were arriving, they noted a car fleeing the area at a high rate of speed and gave chase. The chase turned into a police pursuit, with multiple agencies involved. It covered more than 40 blocks at speeds in excess of 80 mph, until a police supervisor ordered his officers to terminate the pursuit because the risk to the public became too great.
Probation officers told the Institute that police nearly obtained the entire license number of the fleeing vehicle, except for the last two or three digits.
It was a Cook County probation vehicle, being driven by an off-duty probation officer, who was working at the church, they said. Whether he was involved in a shooting is not known. He was never identified.
Rev. Wright retired from the ministry in 2008. Calls seeking comment from him were not returned.
The Illinois Policy Institute attempted to obtain numerous documents from the probation department through a request made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The Institute sought copies of various policies, such as off-duty employment, use-of-force, caseload supervision and others, as well as training standards, performance evaluations and e-mails pertaining to Collier’s arrest and the hit-and-run accident at Rev. Wright’s church.
In a reply sent Sept. 28, Reyes said the records of his agency are not subject to FOIA, because his department operates under the Office of the Chief Judge of Cook County, and is therefore part of the judiciary and immune from FOIA.
In Illinois, the judiciary is not subject to the transparency and FOIA requirements placed upon the other branches of state government, according to a 1995 case Copley Press v. Administrative Office of the Courts, 271 Ill. App. 3d 548 (2nd Dist. 1995).
Reyes, on his own, provided copies of several policies, but the internal e-mails and other documents that would have shed sunlight onto the practices of his department were withheld.
The Institute appealed Reyes’ FOIA denial, by requesting a review by the state’s public access counselor Cara Smith, a deputy attorney general positioned as the final arbiter of FOIA disputes.
In an Oct. 8 letter to Smith, the Institute argued that since Reyes’ probation officers are out daily enforcing the law, their actions are more in keeping with the executive branch than judicial. In addition, the department’s Web site describes the agency as administrative—well within the bounds of FOIA—which “administers a wide range of programs covering both standard and specialized probation supervision and pretrial and presentence services.”
Additionally, organizational charts on the same Web site, and that of the Cook County Chief Judge, show the Adult Probation department listed under “Non-Judicial Offices,” and therefore subject to FOIA.
Lastly, the Institute argued that when FOIA was drafted, the intent of the legislature was clearly to shield the real judiciary from undue requests for copies of their records, most of which are already available to the public. The General Assembly did not intend to offer blanket FOIA exemptions to every department falsely claiming some shirt-tail relation to the courts—especially one consisting of more than 600 employees, many of whom are armed and carrying out law-enforcement functions.
Smith denied the request for review, thus shielding the probation department from public scrutiny.
The lack of transparency at the probation department extends far beyond an unwillingness to honor FOIA requests.
Several probation officers told the Institute that sunlight is needed in the areas of hiring and merit pay.
The department awards merit pay at the end of the year—payments of $500 to $2,000. The officers say the money is not given to those who have worked the hardest. Instead it’s given to those with clout.
“People get merit pay at the end of the year, but only if you’re part of the right fan club,” Anderson said. “They give bonuses every year to people that don’t deserve it, as long as they’re riding with the right clout. If you’re in charge of the pot, you get to divvy it up.
Anderson said much more transparency is needed, such as a department-wide audit and financial disclosure by the staff.
“The first thing that needs to happen is to check everybody’s pocketbooks—checking and savings,” she said. “There are a lot of people living well above their means. Other officers say the department needs to be up-front and open about who it hires and why.
“There are a lot of nieces and nephews working here,” Anderson said.
Kathleen Schaefer, M.A, president of the Detroit-based Professional Probation & Parole Consulting, Inc., is a well-respected national probation expert.
Schaefer has more than 26 years of experience with the Michigan Department of Corrections. She managed boot camps and probation violation centers in Detroit, and probation and parole services in two counties. She’s also conducted on-site surveys for the American Correctional Association. She’s worked as a consultant since 2002.
The Illinois Policy Institute asked Schaefer whether additional transparency, such as placing performance evaluations of probation officers online, and the accompanying public scrutiny, would benefit the department.
“Transparency is critical. It brings a question to my mind in terms of resolving problems and trying to remedy high caseloads,” she said. “What Michigan did was implement a statewide caseload auditing system, which helps bring accountability in terms of how supervision is administered by a PO [probation officer]. It brings accountability too in terms of the ratio of staff to clients. That’s the real problem for field agents.”
Dave Beery, the chief probation officer for Dewitt County, is president-elect of the Illinois Probation and Court Services Association, Inc. With more than 1,000 members, the IPCSA is one of the largest probation associations in the country.
Beery supports increased transparency for all probation departments, but balked at the concept of placing an officer’s performance evaluation online.
“I’m pretty sure that would be a violation of some kind,” he said.
As to immunity form FOIA, Beery said, “That’s a complex question. It depends on what type of information is sought. Information with respect to offenders should be protected. General information about the department, we’re here to serve the public and protect the public. The public has a right to know what we do.”
The IPCSA, Beery said, would support placing policies and standards online for public review, as well as increasing transparency in hiring, to curb nepotism.
He’s never personally thought about releasing the names of merit pay recipients because he’s never doled out merit pay.
“If there’s money left over in my budget I could do that, but that’s never been a practice here,” he said. “I’ve never done it and I don’t intend to do it.”
No policy or standards
The Cook County Adult Probation Department is proud of its accreditation with the American Correctional Association (ACA). It touts the achievement on its Web site.
The officers refer to the ACA accreditation surveys, which take place every two years, as the bi-annual dog and pony show.
Policies are updated and floors are scrubbed, they say, adding that recent inquiries from the Institute caused a similar scurry to re-do policy and training syllabuses.
The officers point to a lack of real standards as the most significant issue facing the department.
“Standards? There are none. It’s all based on favoritism—whether they like you, whether you’ll be a lapdog and do whatever they want,” said Marie Averhart, who worked as an adult probation officer from 2001 until she was fired in 2006.
Averhart brought a degree in sociology with an emphasis in criminology, and five years of experience in social services to the department.
She said she ran afoul of the wrong supervisor and was fired for a case note she says was written by someone else.
Averhart and many current officers who requested anonymity said there is no real guidance on how they should do their job.
“The only real standard is who your clout is, what race they are, and what race you are,” she said. “Those are the real standards.”
Reyes disagrees, and points to the 1,000-plus pages in his policy manual as proof his department has standards.
“I don’t know why they’d say that,” he said. “We have policies. We have a clear chain of command. They’re supposed to follow the standards in terms of policy. The number of incidents that happen are few. That would suggest to me something is going right.”
His probation officers point to the rigid state standards and requirements for police officers. By comparison, there are relatively few for probation officers, even though some perform a similar function.
They hope the legislature will get involved and put pressure on the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts to codify requirements for their job.
As it stands now, the officers say they often ignore the 1,000-plus pages of policies, because they’re vague, ill-conceived and conflict with how things work on the streets.
For example, the officers say if they conduct a home visit and find the probationer using drugs, policy requires them to back away, not get involved and call police. Instead, the armed officers say they handcuff the suspects, safeguard the evidence and call 911.
Schaefer examined the Illinois probation system at the Institute’s request, and noted the inherent lack of standards caused by county-based probation departments, rather than one statewide agency.
Other states, she said, overcame similar problems by consolidating their probation departments.
“It’s tough to have statewide standards when each county has their own control,” she said. “Each county has their own regulations, overseen by the chief judge.”
Michigan, Schaefer said, had county-based probation departments in the 1970s, until all the departments were assumed by the state. The county probation officers became state employees.
“What that meant was, there was one governing agency in the state that controlled policies and how probation services would be administered,” she said. “It sounds to me like it could be helpful to Illinois.”
She recommended a statewide audit, an evaluation of the probation services in the state.
“Because you have so many different agencies involved—probation departments, courts, sheriffs’ departments, prosecutors—it’s hard to get everyone working in sync,” she said.
Beery said the IPSCA would likely oppose any statewide consolidation.
“We’ve got enough bureaucracy,” he said. “It would create a bigger bureaucracy, with less-efficient delivery of services.”
He pointed out his association is not responsible for setting standards, which is the purview of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts.
“There are state standards with respect to qualifications for hiring, supervision of cases, transferring cases,” he said. “Are they sufficient? Yes, but some need improvement and updating.”
The probation officers who spoke to the Illinois Policy Institute say clouting is perhaps the most destructive force facing their department. Clout undermines the chain of command, kills morale and turns policy and standards into a joke. It’s created two classes of officer, the haves and the have-nots. Often, this determination falls along racial lines.
There are two kinds of clout they say: internal and external.
Who you ride with refers to one’s internal clout. What ward you got refers to an officer’s influential friends and relatives outside the department.
Officers who spoke with the Institute claim those with the right clout can let a probationer go “off-leash” and remain employed.
Those without clout can, like former officer Marie Averhart described, be dismissed for little or no reason.
Averhart tried to fight her dismissal through her union, to no avail.
“The union did nothing for me,” she said. “The union man told me to go ahead and resign. There was nothing we could do. My supervisor was too connected. He had too much clout.”
If clout is a problem within his agency, or if it even exists, Reyes said he’s never seen evidence of it, since being appointed acting-Chief Probation Officer in 2005.
“In all that time, I have not had a single person promoted that I did not personally recommend,” he said. “Every single supervisor, deputy chief, regional manager or administrative staff have been the people I’ve selected. I’ve selected them based on the work they’ve done, and the potential work they do.”
Solutions and recommendations
The Cook County Adult Probation Department is a massive organization, one of the largest probation departments in the country, and the largest to receive accreditation by the American Correctional Association.
The agency supervises more than 25,000 individuals annually—convicted criminals who received probation as a sentencing option rather than incarceration. More than 90 percent are felons.
The department also supervises 8,000 people on “pre-trial” status—defendants who have been arrested and were released on bond, awaiting further court hearings.
The Cook County Probation Department has nearly 700 total employees, of whom 450 are probation officers. It operates out of 18 offices, and has an annual budget of approximately $43 million.
If the department does not function properly, the public is put at risk and millions of taxpayer dollars are wasted.
To improve the operations of the department, the Illinois Policy Institute proposes the following recommendations:
The Cook County Adult Probation Department needs more transparency in hiring. It needs to adhere to civil service regulations and hire the right candidate for the right reasons. Greater transparency of its current and future staff would reduce the nepotism that plagues the agency.
The department needs to end the practice of issuing merit pay at the end of each fiscal year. If there is money remaining in the budget, it should be returned to the county’s general fund. The Department’s Inspector General should investigate merit pay disbursements over the past five fiscal years.
The Illinois General Assembly needs to pass legislation ending the judiciary’s exemption to the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Not only would this provide increased transparency of the judiciary, it would allow for greater public scrutiny of agencies that claim they fall under the court’s jurisdiction, such as the Cook County Adult Probation Department.
The Cook County Adult Probation Department should place all of its policies online for public scrutiny.
The Cook County Adult Probation Department should place the performance evaluations of its staff online to allow scrutiny from the public. This could have exposed the misconduct of the probation officer who failed to supervise Acurie Collier, which led to the alleged sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl.
The Illinois State Police should update its Sex Offender Information Web site, which still describes Collier as “compliant.”
The state should retain the services of a national probation consultant to examine whether the current practice of county-based probation departments is as efficient as the statewide probation departments used by other states. This expert should also examine whether the state would benefit from outsourcing the supervision of misdemeanants and non-violent felons through private probation firms, a practice used in other states that has already proven successful and cost-effective.
The Illinois General Assembly should pass legislation outlining specific training requirements of armed probation officers that are similar to the training requirements of certified police officers, (i.e. use of force, weapons qualification, less-than-lethal training, first-aid).
The Cook County Adult Probation Department should review the off-duty/secondary employment of every staff member to determine whether the employment interferes with the employee’s ability to satisfactorily perform their duties, and whether the secondary employment impairs or reflects poorly upon the department or the reputation of the Circuit Court of Cook County.
The Cook County Adult Probation Department should conduct a complete and thorough review of its policies and procedures with assistance from the American Correctional Association.
The Cook County Adult Probation Department should conduct criminal records checks of its staff every six months to determine whether any have been arrested and failed to report the incident.
The Cook County Adult Probation Department should create an internal affairs unit to conduct both proactive compliance investigations and to investigate allegations of misconduct made against its staff.
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This story is from the Last Honest Man tip line and Web site: www.illinoispolicy.org/lasthonestman. Got an idea for a future story or have something to share? Contact investigative reporter Lee Williams at 217-638-8054 or email@example.com.