When Ebony Buggs followed the noise of commotion to a vacant unit below her apartment on Chicago’s West Side, she found a group of men beating teens from the neighborhood.
“I’m like, ‘Who the eff is you?’” she said of the February 2012 incident.
One man grabbed her and punched her in the face, according to Buggs, now 26.
Buggs’ mother, seeing her daughter lying on the ground, threatened to call the police.
“We are the police,” one of the men responded, as he grabbed her phone and threw it, Buggs’ mother recounted.
The man who Buggs alleges beat her is Edwin Utreras. He was part of a group of five officers that city residents dubbed the “Skullcap Crew”, who patrolled the city’s South Side public housing communities until they were torn down in the city’s redevelopment efforts, marked by forced relocation.
The members of this crew – Edwin Utreras, Robert Stegmiller, Christ Savickas, Andrew Schoeff and Joe Seinitz – have together faced at least 128 known official allegations from more than 60 citizen-filed complaints over almost a decade and a half. They have also been named in more than 20 federal lawsuits.
Citizens have repeatedly accused these men of acts of brutality, intimidation and harassment – costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal settlements. Yet over the course of their careers, these officers have received little discipline – a two-day suspension, a five-day suspension, a reprimand – according to city data. Instead, they have won praise from the department, accruing more than 180 commendations.
All of them remain on the force except Seinitz, who resigned in 2007.
Chicagoans have long complained of unchecked brutality and violence by police officers in the city’s impoverished, African American neighborhoods – much of it before the department gained international notoriety from a video that showed17-year-old Laquan McDonald’s death by 16 police bullets.
But only a small subset of officers are responsible for the vast majority of these complaints, according to a Guardian analysis of a new citizen complaint database. Most officers, about 80% of the total force, have zero to four complaints against them.
The Guardian’s analysis of known accusations from complaints against members of the Skullcap Crew shows that at least a third of these claims include use of force violations, with almost half of them involving injuries. The allegations also include at least five strip searches and more than 20 claims of false arrest or planting drugs. The vast majority of these known allegations, 87%, were filed by African Americans. And African Americans accounted for 100% of the victims of verbal abuse and false arrest allegations.
Very few of these allegations, however, were sustained and even fewer were punished.
The Citizens Police Data Project, a repository of more than 56,000 official complaints against police, has found that less than 3% of Chicago police misconduct complaints lead to disciplinary action (including minor interventions, such as reprimands), with even lower rates for African American complainants, and for officers charged with high numbers of complaints, like the Skullcap Crew.
Out of the more than 60 citizen-filed misconduct complaints against the Skullcap Crew members, only six complaints resulted in a sustained finding and a recommendation of disciplinary action. Other complaints indicate “no action taken” or a pending decision.
But even as the department has vowed to improve its relationship with communities, particularly African Americans, Utreras and the other three Skullcap Crew members who remain on the force have continued to receive complaints since their time together in Public Housing South. As recently as February 2016, Utreras and Stegmiller have been the subject of complaints for alleged illegal arrest.
After her encounter with Utreras, Buggs spent the night in jail facing a charge of battery to a police officer. “That is like one of the worst feelings, to get turned around and get locked up and you didn’t do anything,” she says.
The state’s attorney’s office later dropped the charge against Buggs on the day it was set for trial, according to Buggs’ attorney. She filed a civil rights lawsuit in January 2013 against Utreras and the City of Chicago. In legal filings, Utreras denied all abuse allegations, but in a deposition, he did admit to hitting her, in response to Buggs’ touching his arm:
A: Basically spun around as in one motion. My open hand, I believe, struck Ebony Buggs, I believe in her right cheek area or something like that.Q. Were you aiming for her face?A. No. I just kind of aimed going backwards. Hoping to strike an impact area.Q. What’s an impact area?A. Chest, head, possibly the arms. Impact areas.Q. What part of your hand made contact with Ms Buggs’ face?A. The back of my hand.Q. Did your knuckles make contact with her face?A. Possibly.
Buggs lost the case.
“It basically came down to a police officer’s word against hers, and those cases … unless you have a video, are pretty hard to win,” said James Baranyk, Buggs’ lawyer.
Attempts to reach the Skullcap Crew officers at personal phone numbers were not successful. Stegmiller declined to comment in person. The Chicago police department provided this statement regarding the officers’ misconduct complaint and lawsuit history:
“The Chicago police department takes allegations of misconduct seriously and has comprehensive procedures in place to investigate any incident where our stringent standards are not met. While CPD does not comment on pending litigation, in instances where misconduct has been substantiated, those individuals responsible are held fully accountable for their actions. Additionally, the department has recently created a new Bureau of Professional Standards that has been tasked to ensure that our members treat every resident with courtesy and respect.”
‘They’re not coming to play’
“If you saw them coming up on Wabash or State street, you know what time it is. Skullcap Crew is out,” says Pete Haywood, 52, a former resident of Stateway Gardens, a public housing project in an area once considered one of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods. “They put on those skullcaps and them leather gloves. They’re not coming to play.”
Even among a police unit known as Public Housing South that generated a high number of brutality complaints, these five officers were particularly feared. Haywood, a city bus driver who calls himself a “Peter Pan criminal” for his former gang activity, remembers that residents would lock their doors when the Skullcap Crew would come around.
“You figure these people are here to protect and serve, but when they come, you more so afraid of them than you is of people who is gang-banging,” says Haywood.
Ask Diane Bond.
On 13 April 2003, members of the Skullcap Crew allegedly confronted Bond, a 48-year-old mother of three, outside her Stateway Gardens apartment, then forcibly entered the apartment with her, Bond alleges. For no apparent reason, they beat her, ransacked her room and destroyed her belongings, she reported. They threatened to plant drugs and otherwise terrorized her, her son and others, she reported. She charged in a lawsuit that an officer forced her to move aside her panties and show him “the most private areas of her body” repeatedly in search of drugs; none were found. One officer allegedly punched Bond in the face and knocked a picture of a brown-skinned Jesus to the floor, saying, “Fuck Jesus … and you too, you cunt bitch,” according to both her federal lawsuit and journalistJamie Kalven, who first documented the incident.
Bond’s lawsuit resulted in a settlement, and her case ultimately gave rise to a separate lawsuit, Kalven v City of Chicago, in which the Illinois appellate court ruled in 2014 that police misconduct records are public information.
Bond also filed misconduct complaints against the officers. But like most citizen complaints, they resulted in no discipline. Rather, Bond and her family experienced more abuse and intimidation from the Skullcap Crew, as alleged in legal filings.
Policed to saturation
Chicago’s public housing developments were until the early 2000s policed by the housing authority’s own set of officers. But in pursuit of better security, funding for public housing patrols was transferred to the Chicago police department in 2000, with promises that included more officers on car and foot patrols.
For many residents, this saturation of patrols and aggressive policing became a form of neighborhood terror. Officers in this unit logged a high number of complaints. In one 2001 incident, Public Housing South officers raided a basketball game in the Stateway Gardens housing project, terrorizing the crowd and players, as later described in a federal class action lawsuit. The city ultimately settled the lawsuit for a half-million dollars. “The police methodically subjected nearly all of the people present – from babies and young children with their mothers watching the games to basketball players in full uniform – to invasive, warrantless searches of their bodies and personal effects,” said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago attorney representing the plaintiffs, in a statement.
The Skullcap Crew – also called the Skinhead Crew by residents – were known for particular brutality.
Utreras, now an 18-year veteran of the force, tops the list with 37 known misconduct complaints, as archived in the Citizens Police Data Project and in subsequent Freedom of Information Act requests, which indicate he has only been disciplined once – a five-day suspension for threatening a public defender. Schoeff has the fewest known number of complaints at seven, according to the Citizens Police Data Project. The rest of the crew each have complaints in the double-digits.
Many complaints were disqualified because the complainant did not visit the Independent Police Review Authority office to sign an affidavit. And even when citizens did follow up, police often “won” the case and saw no disciplinary action because it was the civilian’s word against the officer’s.
The Public Housing South unit was dissolved in 2004, but most of its officers are still on the force. The Guardian analysis of the history of the Skullcap Crew and the rest of the Public Housing South officers over a decade and a half (with three years not included in the data) found that, in addition to a disproportionate number of complaints, at least 80 lawsuits have been filed against Public Housing South officers, including the Skullcap officers, either during their time assigned to that unit or subsequently.
‘I didn’t even feel like a human being’
Public housing resident Katrina Lias came home one summer day in 2012 to find nearly all of her possessions on the floor. Her mattress was torn to the springs. Hundreds of dollars were missing. Her TVs and other electronics were broken.
Lias had received a call earlier that day to warn her that she might find her home in disarray: it was the police who had ransacked her apartment, her property manager told her, as Lias recounted.
Police said they had a search warrant for her home, but after a series of complaints and a lawsuit against the police department, it became clear police had searched the wrong home. Lias’ lawsuit, which resulted in a $48,750 settlement, names Skullcap Crew member Robert Stegmiller, who has racked up more federal lawsuits than any other Skullcap officer.
“I didn’t even feel like a human being,” Lias says. “They had no respect or any regard for my property.”
After two days of cleaning up, she had to throw almost everything away and start over.
Stegmiller is named in 13 other federal lawsuits, one of which is pending. Nine cases have settled; the rest have been dismissed or decided in his and other co-accused officers’ favor. One lawsuit alleges that Stegmiller and co-accused officers assaulted a Chicago boy on his walk home from school, slamming his head into a fence, causing him to bleed. In another lawsuit, officers including Stegmiller are accused of interrupting an unarmed man’s 911 call for emergency assistance; drawing their guns; spraying him with pepper spray; breaking his window; dragging him from his car; punching, kicking and hitting him; destroying his cellphone; hog-tying him and arresting him without cause, which later caused the citizen to lose his job.
Stegmiller is accused in 26 known misconduct complaints. Only two of the known complaints against Stegmiller have been “sustained”, and the only discipline in those cases was a reprimand and a note on his record. In the complaint narratives obtained for this story, Stegmiller is accused of violence against citizens, including 12 use of force violations (punching, choking, slapping, beating, pulling out a braid and slamming a citizen’s head against a car); inappropriately searching and touching a woman between her legs; as well as multiple money, property and inventory allegations, including shorting inventory or not properly accounting for confiscated money, for which he received a reprimand.
Where are they now?
Today all the Skullcap Crew members except Seinitz remain on the force.
Schoeff has been promoted to sergeant since the disbandment of Public Housing South, and has served as an investigator of complaints against police. In 2011 and 2014, he investigated seven misconduct complaints, all resulting in “unsustained” findings.
Stegmiller is now relegated to desk duty, taking calls from the city’s non-emergency 311 number. In November 2015, he was arrested and charged withretail theft in suburban Orland Park, where he was accused of stealing more than $300 worth of men’s clothing, baby supplies, Christmas decorations and other merchandise from a Target store. Police records also indicate Stegmiller went back to the store for a second cart of merchandise before his arrest, captured on surveillance video. The case is pending in Cook County, where Stegmiller has qualified for a treatment program to drop his misdemeanor charge.
Since leaving the force in 2007, Seinitz held a variety of jobs, including training security forces for the Department of Defense in Iraq, according to his social media accounts and online résumés. Meanwhile, he has apparently continued to weigh in on criminal justice issues, via social media. On 9 November 2015, “Joe Joe Seinitz” commented on a Facebook post about Tyshawn Lee, a nine-year-old African American boy lured into an alley and executed by Chicago gang members:
On 21 November 2015, Joe Joe Seinitz opined on an article about Laquan McDonald, the 17-year-old shot 16 times in 2014 by a Chicago police officer.
Utreras has recently been named in filings for a federal criminal prosecution against a man accused of a 2006 drug-related murder. Lawyers for the defendant are challenging the truthfulness of Utreras’ affidavit for a search warrant.
The jury in Ebony Buggs’ lawsuit wasn’t allowed to hear about Utreras’ record of allegations. But Buggs learned about it, including Bond’s sexual abuse claims. Buggs said she would “rather get punched in the head” than, like Bond reported, have Utreras “feeling on me”.