Chicago police under state investigation over handling of U visas

A man in a suit and tie stands behind a podium with the words

Vishesh Anand/Illinois Public Media, via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul after being sworn into office at the Bank of Springfield Center on Jan. 14, 2019.

Illinois’ top law enforcement officer is investigating whether the Chicago Police Department violated state law when it denied hundreds of undocumented immigrants a chance to apply for a special visa for crime victims in the past two years.

In a six-page letter to CPD’s top lawyer, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul demanded all data and documents related to the more than 800 denials acknowledged by CPD. He also urged the department to “develop a plan to contact all individuals who received denials” and allow them to reapply.

Raoul said the inquiry was sparked by a December investigation by Injustice Watch, which revealed how CPD routinely denied certifications to victims of qualifying crimes, such as domestic battery and assault. Those victims are eligible for legal status through a U visa, which provides a path to citizenship for those who cooperate in law enforcement investigations.

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“We are particularly concerned about reports published by Injustice Watch on Dec. 8, 2022, detailing the results of an investigation into CPD’s responses to certification requests submitted by victims of crimes,” Raoul wrote in a letter drafted by the head of his civil rights bureau.

Injustice Watch revealed CPD denied victims a certification on the grounds they hadn’t suffered enough harm to qualify for the visa — an overreach of its authority, Raoul wrote. He cited the Injustice Watch report four times in his strongly worded letter.

“Determinations as to whether the victim suffered substantial physical or mental abuse or whether the victim is ultimately eligible … are the exclusive responsibility of federal immigration officials and are not permissible grounds for local law enforcement to deny a certification request in Illinois,” Raoul wrote.

Raoul warned the “improper denials” may “result in legal action” from his office as they could potentially violate the Voices Immigrant Communities Empowering Act, known as the VOICES act, a state law setting rules and procedures for law enforcement agencies statewide on how to adjudicate U visa certification requests.

At least one immigrant denied a U visa certification by CPD has already sued the department in the Cook County Circuit Court. The next hearing date is set for March.

Both Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Supt. David Brown declined to be interviewed for this report.

CPD officials said in December they would review all U visa certification denials moving forward through the office of CPD general counsel Dana O’Malley, to whom Raoul’s letter was addressed.

In his letter, Raoul gave O’Malley until the end of the month to produce data on all the U visa certification requests it has processed since Aug. 2, 2021, the day a new law took effect strengthening the provisions of the VOICES Act.

But Injustice Watch found CPD did not keep track of U visa certification requests in a spreadsheet or a database, and CPD said it couldn’t provide Injustice Watch with an exact number of requests it had approved or denied in the last few years.

At Injustice Watch’s request, CPD instead reviewed a batch of 110 closed U visa certification requests in November and determined 57 had been denied, giving the department a denial rate of nearly 52%. That would put CPD’s denial rate well above police departments in other cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Minneapolis, and San Francisco.

Chicago denied 51.8% of U visa certification requests, according to a review of recently closed cases, compared to 37.8% in Houston, 21% in Los Angeles, 21% in New York City, 1.4% in Minneapolis, and 0.7% in San Francisco.

Raoul also rebuked CPD for its apparent failure to keep the required records.

“We are concerned about the Injustice Watch investigation’s finding that CPD is not maintaining data on the number of U visa certification requests it receives or the number of requests it denies,” he wrote. “Illinois law requires CPD to compile and report such data annually to the OAG for the purpose of ensuring compliance with VOICES Act requirements.”

Injustice Watch also revealed how the two sergeants assigned to decide on many of the certifications have a troubled history in the department.

Brandon Ternand and John Poulos fatally shot people while on duty between 2012 and 2016. Investigators raised serious questions about their credibility, records show. The department recommended they be fired, but the civilian Chicago Police Board voted to allow them to keep their jobs.

Both were assigned to the records division, which reviews U visa certification requests. As of mid-December, Ternand and Poulos were “active and assigned” to the unit, according to a CPD spokesperson.

Of the 57 denials obtained during Injustice Watch’s investigation, 45 were signed by either Ternand or Poulos.

The Chicago City Council called for a public hearing on CPD’s handling of U visa cases in December following Injustice Watch’s investigation. The hearing has not been scheduled.

Read the letter from Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul to Chicago police regarding its U visa certification denials:

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