Collins: No law enforcement heroes

Published Feb. 9, 2014

The Koschman report issued by Dan Webb and his team is a must-read for all of law enforcement whose job it is to serve and protect the public. But for all the rich, factual detail in the report about Koschman’s death after a punch by R.J. Vanecko, the former mayor’s nephew, what I found most instructive was what was not in the report: Where was that everyday law enforcement hero?

Where was that person who believed that it was his or her job to get to the bottom of the facts of this difficult “heater” case in order that justice could be done?

Based on the Webb report, there appears to have been a fundamental breakdown in some of the cardinal rules for successful investigations:

1.) Law enforcement must take ownership of an investigation to follow the evidence wherever it leads — and not treat a case as a game of “hot potato.”

2.) In heater cases, law enforcement cannot allow the investigation to be adversely influenced by the identity of the suspect or, for that matter, the identity of the victim.

When I had the privilege to work in law enforcement, the very best investigators I knew took ownership of their cases and treated the heater cases with professionalism and passion. If an agent found out that the suspect was politically connected, that made the agent more determined — not less — to get to the bottom of the matter.

For example, in the investigation into licenses for bribes at the secretary of state’s office, I vividly recall how the actions of dedicated line agents like Russ Sonneveld (now deceased) led to breakthroughs. Indeed, without them, there would have been no cases to bring. When their investigation turned into a heater case unpopular with some of their politically connected superiors, they did not shrink from their task. They were the everyday heroes the Koschman case seems to have lacked.

Think for a moment if the identities in the Koschman case were switched: What if the victim was related to a public figure and the suspect was a “nobody.” Without the intervention of any public official, it’s reasonable to assume that the law enforcement community would redouble its efforts to get to the bottom of the wrongdoing and proactively seek charges if the facts warranted them. Yet, that does not appear to have happened here.

Instead, the Webb report paints a picture of a collective law enforcement community concerned too little with the aggressive gathering of facts and too much with the “what if” consequences of an investigation of a politically connected suspect. The end result: A difficult case was under-investigated, and in the place of facts and evidence, individuals substituted theories, biases and otherwise positioned the case for a particular outcome.

As it was obligated to do, the Webb Report analyzed whether any members of law enforcement committed a criminal act. Yet, the lasting lessons for most of the law enforcement community are not lessons about the contours of criminal liability. There is something much more fundamental at stake.

When tough but important cases are presented to law enforcement for investigation, the investigative team has to be objective and fearless. There is no room for the investigator to concern himself with the identity of the suspect or potential consequences depending on the results of the factual investigation.

Most important, we need law enforcement to be our everyday heroes — both for the communities in which we live and for the victims of the offenses.

Patrick Collins is a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Chicago.