May 21, 2015

Ex-UCPD officer sues Univ. over firing after 2013 trauma protest

Tuesday, Milton Owens, a former University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) officer, filed a civil lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Cook County against the University of Chicago, University President Robert J. Zimmer, UCPD Chief Marlon C. Lynch, Assistant Chief Gloria Graham, and Deputy Chief Kevin Booker. The suit alleges that Owens was improperly fired, deprived of wages, and defamed following an incident in February 2013 when the UCPD authorized three plainclothes UCPD detectives to monitor an on-campus protest.

On February 23, 2013, the activist groups Students for Health Equity (SHE) and Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY) organized an on-campus protest to demand that the University build an adult Level I trauma center at the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC). On March 1, The Maroon reported that then–UCPD detective Janelle Marcellis had participated in the protest and marched with the protesters in plain clothes, and, according to several of the protesters, did not identify herself as a police officer. The Maroon also obtained a photo that showed Marcellis sending a text message to Owens, who was her immediate superior and supervisor during the protest. At the time, Owens was the deputy chief of the Investigative Services Bureau of the UCPD.

On March 3, Zimmer sent an e-mail to all students and faculty titled “Values and Protest,” in which he condemned “[Marcellis’s] posing as a protester…[to be] totally antithetical to our values, and such activity, which is deeply problematic for discourse and mutual respect on campus, cannot be tolerated.”

Following Zimmer’s statement, the University hired Schiff Hardin, a Chicago-based law firm, to conduct an independent investigation of UCPD conduct. On May 9, Schiff Hardin released its report, which concluded that neither the UCPD nor Marcellis nor Owens had committed any illegality. However, the report stated that Owens alone was responsible for misinterpreting the term plainclothes, which, while agreed upon by UCPD staff as part of its orders to Marcellis, did not imply participating in the protest. The report continued to cite an order from Owens to Marcellis to “blend in and get intel” as evidence that Owens alone had come up with the idea and given the order for Marcellis to pose as a protester.

“[Owens], who gave the instruction to ‘blend in and get intel’ was a party to at least two of the planning meetings wherein the details of the UCPD’s response to the protest were discussed. He was, therefore, aware of and responsible for knowing the true intent of the plan…. It was, therefore, unreasonable for the commanding officer to issue a counter-order to [Marcellis] to ‘blend in and get intel,’” the report wrote in part.

After the report was issued, the UCPD fired Owens; the lawsuit claims that this occurred on May 20. According to Alexander Vroustouris, his attorney, Owens is currently employed in security at the City Colleges of Chicago. Marcellis is still employed by the UCPD as a sergeant.

Vroustouris, an attorney with the Chicago-based firm Kelly & King who is representing Owens, recounts a different version of events than the Schiff Hardin report. He said that the University and the UCPD made Owens a “scapegoat” only when their plans to monitor the protest with an officer in plain clothes were exposed. He characterized Owens as an innocent officer who was compelled to go along with the UCPD plan to police the February 23 protest, which the lawsuit alleges was actually engineered by Deputy Chief Booker.

“They basically scapegoated my client and threw him under the bus. It is outrageous, especially because he is the least responsible person [in these events],” Vroustouris said.

According to sections 72 through 107 of the lawsuit, Lynch, Graham, Booker, and Owens were present for a UCPD staff meeting on February 18, when Booker made a PowerPoint presentation that outlined the UCPD plan for handling the February 23 protest. Allegedly, the plan called for the deployment of three plainclothes detectives. According to the suit, the other detectives were Carlton Hughes and a second officer with the last name of James. Hughes is still employed by the UCPD as a detective and The Maroon was not able to determine the employment status of James. Section 86 of the lawsuit states that at the meeting, Owens argued against sending the detectives in plain clothes in the first place.

“During this power point presentation by Booker, Owens stated that he thought the detectives under his command, Marcellis, Hughes, and James, should be in uniform and they should only act in a processing capacity,” the suit stated.

Vroustouris added his belief that the entirety of the UCPD was aware of what Marcellis and Owens were instructed to do.

“[UCPD Chief] Lynch and [Deputy Chief] Graham said that Owens was in charge of operations on the street, while Booker was in charge of the plan. [Owens] was told to follow the plan that was authored by Booker and authorized by the Chief. Also, [Zimmer] ought to have known about the UCPD plan,” Vroustouris said.

He also objected to the fact that Schiff Hardin conducted the external investigation of the UCPD conduct after the protest, which he said is not permissible under UCPD bylaws.

“Although [Schiff Hardin] was hired by the University, there is nothing in the general orders of the UCPD that allows them to outsource investigations of individual members of the UCPD to another agency,” Vroustouris said.

In response to a query as to why Owens filed a lawsuit this week as opposed to immediately after his firing in 2013, Vroustouris said that Owens has had difficulty securing employment and suffered emotional distress after his firing. He also responded to a claim in an article that appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on Thursday that stated that Owens was seeking more than $250,000 in damages.

“It is not greater than $250,000; we are not asking for a specific amount at this time, although it is greater than $50,000. We want to assess [the impact of] my client’s lost wages, lost ability to find gainful employment, lost ability to find employment in the law enforcement field, and emotional distress.”

The University of Chicago declined to comment for this story. UCPD spokesperson Robert Mason, UCPD Chief Marlon C. Lynch, and Schiff Hardin LLP could not be reached for comment.