Watchdog: CPD overlooked incriminating evidence while investigating cop’s ties to Proud Boys
CHICAGO - The city’s top watchdog says the Chicago Police Department overlooked incriminating evidence while looking into an officer’s ties to the far-right Proud Boys, and failed to consider whether he should be fired for lying to investigators.
Officer Robert Bakker’s relationship with members of the Proud Boys ultimately resulted in a 120-day suspension — a decision that has sparked a firestorm of criticism at City Hall, with some alderpersons calling for his dismissal and grilling police brass at a budget hearing last week.
On Tuesday, Inspector General Deborah Witzburg added her voice to the outcry, telling the Sun-Times she believes Bakker’s case sets a dangerous precedent.
"The outcome of this case represents a determination that someone who made ‘false’ and ‘contradicting’ statements about his association with the Proud Boys should continue to wear the uniform of the Chicago Police Department," Witzburg said in a statement.
"Members of the public and the people who do good and honorable work in that uniform deserve a police accountability system in which they have reason to be confident," she added.
Letters from her office to top police officials, obtained by the Sun-Times, details what Witzburg believes were glaring flaws in the police department’s internal investigation of Bakker.
The inspector general’s concerns stretch back to early 2020, when the FBI interviewed Bakker about his relationship with the Proud Boys. Bakker told police department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs that he had already "ended his friendship" with three Proud Boys members when he sat down with agents.
Bakker insisted he had no involvement with "the Proud Boys organization," though a police department investigator reported being unable to "obtain any verifiable evidence to disprove the statement."
Witzburg noted that the police department’s case file appears to show Bakker "made inconsistent statements" to the FBI and the internal affairs bureau. The file also includes messages showing Bakker’s close links to the Proud Boys, she said.
Bakker’s claimed he left a "F— Antifa" chat channel after a single day when he learned "who the Proud Boys were." Yet Bakker had posted on the channel over a two-month period in the summer of 2019, Witzburg said.
SUBSCRIBE TO FOX 32 CHICAGO ON YOUTUBE
The officer also reported meeting two members of the group at a Proud Boys event at a bar, she said, "indicating that he knew who the Proud Boys were from the first time he met them."
Chat logs show Bakker had whisked away a Proud Boys member after a bar fight and didn’t report it to police, Witzburg said.
While Bakker acknowledged that he invited members of the group to social events, messages show he apparently lied to investigators about attending a Proud Boys barbecue, Witzburg said.
Internal affairs investigators found that Bakker failed to tell police officials about being interviewed by the FBI. But they did not sustain allegations that Bakker associated with criminals and members of the Proud Boys.
A five-day suspension was recommended.
On Nov. 11 of 2020, Witzburg urged former Internal Affairs Chief Karen Konow to reassess the evidence against Bakker.
"BIA’s analysis and findings do not account for all of the available evidence in support of the allegations that Bakker associated with … individuals known to have been convicted of crimes and members of the Proud Boys," Witzburg wrote.
Probe reopened, no dismissal
The internal affairs bureau did reopen the investigation and this time sustained five allegations against Bakker: that he made "contradicting statements" about his activity in the chat channels; made a "false statement" about attending the Proud Boys barbecue; failed to report the fight in the bar; and discredited the department by chatting with members of the Proud Boys and specifically supporting a member.
Early this year, the police department reached a "mediation agreement" under which Bakker accepted a 120-day suspension.
Several months later, on Sept. 12, Acting Deputy Inspector General Megan Carlson wrote Police Supt. David Brown and appeared to urge him to fire Bakker.
Carlson asked Brown to look into whether Bakker’s testimony warranted a violation of a department rule prohibiting false statements — a violation that can lead to dismissal. "Even in the presence of a mediation agreement, you may seek separation," Carlson wrote.
She quoted the former head of internal affairs Tina Skahill — who now leads the department’s reform efforts — as saying the department has "recommended separation" for officers found violating the rule since 2008.
She also included an excerpt from a letter Brown wrote last year as part of a different disciplinary case in which he detailed the consequences of retaining an officer who is a known liar.
"Such a violation impairs an officer’s ability to testify in criminal cases, to effectuate arrests, hinders an officer from signing affidavits in support of search warrants, and participating in joint federal task forces," Brown wrote.
But the inspector general, in a recent quarterly report, said her office never got a response from Brown.
Testimony raises more questions
The department declined to answer a list of questions seeking comment on the case.
Brown and the current internal affairs chief, Yolanda Talley, defended Bakker’s suspension during sometimes baffling testimony at a City Council budget hearing last week.
Brown claimed investigators didn’t have enough evidence to prove Bakker "associated with or was a member of a hate group, Proud Boys or any other hate group" — even though his own internal affairs bureau had found links.
Talley focused on the "hate group" designation, saying "this investigation would have look totally different" if the FBI had labeled the Proud Boys as a hate group.
But the FBI "does not designate hate groups," agency spokeswoman Siobhan Johnson told the Sun-Times.
The Proud Boys has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the internal investigation found that Bakker had clearly associated with members of the group.
Five of the group’s members have been charged with seditious conspiracy in connection to the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. One of them has pleaded guilty.
Continuing her testimony, Talley claimed the suspension "would not have been more than five days for what we were able to prove." Then she disclosed an apparently privileged exchange with Bakker.
"We brought him in for a second interview and he just felt so bad that he was accused of this, he mediated for 120 days," Talley said. "We didn’t offer him 120 days. He came in and spoke to us and said, ‘I’ll take 120 days.’"