In September, less than a month before police chief Nicholas Weiss left office with a $30,000 severance agreement, the River Forest board of fire and police commissioners unanimously upheld Weiss’s three-day suspension of 26-year veteran Lt. Craig Rutz. On July 31, a circuit court judge took a single sentence to overturn that decision and order Rutz’s record cleared. The village and the fire and police commissioners now have 30 days to appeal that decision.
Village president John Rigas, who was not on the village board during last year’s events, was not immediately available for comment regarding how the village intends to respond. Trustee Steve Hoke said Tuesday that as far as he knew, no decision had been made regarding any appeal.
In reversing the fire and police commission’s decision to uphold Rutz’s suspension, Judge Stuart E. Palmer ruled the decision was “contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence.” Lawyers.com defines that phrasing as “a deferential standard of review under which reversal of a decision or verdict requires showing that it is obviously erroneous and unsupported by the evidence and that an opposite conclusion is clearly evident.”
Palmer’s ruling is a repudiation of the village’s handling of the Rutz case, which so far has cost $27,406 in legal fees: $18,013 on Rutz’s prosecution and another $9,393 defending against his appeal. That figure doesn’t include time spent on an internal investigation.
Rutz’s attorney, Heidi Parker, declined to elaborate on the judge’s ruling when contacted Aug. 4, saying only, “He’s saying the evidence did not support the commission’s decision.”
Former trustee Russ Nummer, who was highly critical of the Rutz prosecution last year, was more blunt. “The judge is saying this never should have happened. It turns out we were not only wrong, we were really wrong,” Nummer said.
Poor judgment or ‘officer discretion’?
Weiss ordered Rutz suspended three days without pay on June 30, 2008, following an internal investigation by the department’s two then-deputy chiefs, Kendra Sullivan and Dan Dhooghe.
That investigation found that Rutz had exercised “poor judgment” in handling a May 14 retail theft investigation when working with the store owner and the thief. Weiss charged that Rutz violated departmental policy when he failed, in his role as a police officer, to dissuade a cigar store owner from pressuring an admitted thief to pay the $1,800 cost of a video surveillance system, rather than compensating the $100 worth of stolen merchandise in order to avoid a criminal complaint.
Weiss had originally authorized subordinates to contact the Cook County State’s Attorney about possible criminal charges, but opted for internal discipline after the state’s attorney declined to get involved. Weiss suspended Rutz for failing “to follow established procedures and use sound judgment in carrying out” his duties, and not obeying verbal and written department orders.
On July 26, 2008, Rutz filed an administrative appeal. At his fire and police commission hearing, he denied knowing that the store owner was demanding $1,800 rather than the $100 cost of the stolen merchandise. He insisted he was only trying to broker appropriate restitution for stolen merchandise, and that he had no intention of using his position to sway either the owner or the thief for payment for anything else.
According to numerous veteran officers, Rutz’s actions were common police practice, done with the intention of allowing people the option of avoiding a criminal incident report and court involvement.
“It’s done all the time. It’s called officer discretion. It’s used at all levels,” said one such veteran patrol officer on Friday.
The bigger picture
“You had to look at all the other factors,” said Nummer, who noted that Rutz and Sgt. Thomas Ludvik had settled a pair of federal discrimination lawsuits against the village for $500,000 just months prior to Rutz being investigated. Every supervisory officer in the department but one, including both Sullivan and Dhooghe, had formal grievances or harassment complaints pending at the time. Rutz had filed a formal grievance about being hit with a Taser during a training seminar.
“It was my opinion that the police department was a wreck as far as management control and the charges and countercharges were concerned,” Nummer said. “Long before Weiss had the ability to send this to the fire and police commission, someone should have told him to back off.”
That in fact happened, according to Hoke, who recalled meetings with Weiss at which then-Village President Frank Paris and Village Administrator Steve Gutierrez were present.
“I worked very hard to get this resolved, but there was too much animosity,” Hoke said Friday. Saying he was not surprise at the judge’s ruling, Hoke advised turning the page.
“I think it’s time to put an end to this and stop spending money on it,” he said.
Parker said she’s waiting to hear the village’s formal decision. “If the village appeals, we’ll get notice and we’ll go from there,” she said.