CBS Reporter Dave Savini’s Narrative Heads to Federal Court
Case Questions Relationship Between Civilian Oversight and Media Once Again
A woman once charged with attempted murder for dragging a Chicago Police officer under her car during a traffic stop in 2013 is now suing that very same police officer in federal court.
Even Cook County Criminal Court Judge Stanley Sacks ruled in 2013 that Catherine Brown dragged Officer Michelle Murphy under Brown’s car in an alley on the South Side after Murphy and her partner stopped Brown for traffic violations.
Here is what Judge Sacks ruled:
The evidence establishes that she [Murphy] was in fact dragged at least some distance, maybe not as far as she initially mentioned, but she was dragged some distance. The photographs of her, photographs of her clothing, of her shoes, all indicate, corroborate that she was in fact dragged to some extent or another.
Nevertheless, Brown is now suing Murphy and several other officers in federal court for false arrest and excessive force.
In the 2013 traffic stop, Murphy’s partner called a police emergency after Murphy was pulled under Brown’s car. Brown was not injured in the incident or in her arrest.
Murphy was hospitalized with broken ribs, cuts, and back pain. Charges of attempted murder were approved by Murphy’s supervisors and then by the Cook County State’s Attorney.
But like so many arrests by Chicago Police, the case against Brown began a powerful transformation with the help of Chicago’s activist, fiercely anti-police media. And not just the media, for the case would also hint, yet again, at a shady connection between the media and the city’s civilian police oversight agencies.
In the criminal trial against Brown, the attempted murder charge was dealt down to misdemeanor reckless conduct. That in and of itself was a bitter pill to swallow for the police. If Judge Sacks admitted Murphy had been dragged under Brown’s car and Murphy was injured as a result, how could he and the prosecutors lower the charge to a misdemeanor?
Despite Brown’s conviction, she filed a complaint with the civilian oversight agency at the time, IPRA, but that complaint went nowhere, in part because Brown refused to sign an affidavit.
But then Chicago’s media began working their magic. CBS reporter Dave Savini, notorious among cops for hit pieces on Chicago Police officers, got involved in the case.
Here is what Savini said about the traffic stop:
A woman with two small children in her car tried to pull into her driveway. That simple task ended with Chicago police officers pointing a gun to her head and charging her with attempted murder.
Sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? Couple of cops just went berserk on a woman just trying to pull into her driveway.
Well, here’s what really happened. Brown was driving into a one-way alley the wrong way with her bright lights on. That Brown was near her house or even heading home could not have been known by the officers and is entirely irrelevant. The officers, going the right way in the alley and blocked in by its narrow confines and winding path, could not easily back out of the way of Brown.
Nevertheless, the officers waved for Brown to back up for more than a minute, so they could get out and continue taking calls for the night. Brown refused. Eventually, the officers exited their car and approached. Brown kept her windows rolled up and began making hysterical phone calls to 911 and the district station. It was Brown who insisted on escalating the situation, not the police officers.
Savini ignored it all. Instead, he played up the fact that Brown was a member of a church in her community. To bolster his vilification of Murphy and the police, Savini immediately employed the Chicago media activist handbook and released citizen complaints made against Murphy during the course of her career, ignoring the fact that Murphy is held in high esteem by her coworkers and supervisors.
At the same time, Savini ignored the long list of awards and honors given to Murphy. Murphy has received sixty-one Honorable Mentions, one Life-Saving Award, one Department Commendation, one Joint Operations Award, three Complimentary Letters, one NATO Service Award, and several other awards. That is more than three awards or commendations a year.
Savini’s hit job paid off. After his broadcast painting Murphy as a villain, IPRA suddenly reopened an investigation of the incident.
Just like that.
The reopening of the case against Murphy is extremely suspicious not merely for the timing of Savini’s broadcast. The city’s civilian oversight agencies are facing accusations of having a too-cozy relationship with the Chicago media on several cases.
Chicago Police Commander Glenn Evans, for example, faced twelve felony counts as a result of an investigation by IPRA. While the case being built against him by IPRA, confidential documents were selectively released to the media Evans’ attorneys claim were clearly aimed at bolstering the allegations. Nevertheless, the charges against Evans were wholly rejected by the judge in the trial.
Now attorneys for Evans have filed a lawsuit against IPRA, claiming its members were illegally releasing confidential documents in an attempt to smear him in the public domain and bolster the criminal case against him.
In another case, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) filed a complaint against COPA, the civilian oversight agency that replaced IPRA and employs many of the same personnel as its forerunner. In the FOP complaint, the FOP claimed COPA was violating COPA’s mandates by releasing information to the Chicago Tribune about a fatal 2015 police shooting that everyone, save COPA, had ruled justified. These media leaks cast the officer’s actions in a negative light.
In response, FOP Second Vice President Martin Preib instructed FOP attorneys to file a Freedom of Information request. Sure enough, that request revealed that COPA had hired outside investigators on the case, but kept that fact hidden from everyone, including prosecutors and the superintendent. COPA has suspiciously refused to release the actual findings of these outside investigators, and Chicago’s activist media certainly isn’t pressing the agency to do so.
The selective leaking of information by COPA was another example to the FOP that IPRA/COPA was using the media to bolster their rulings against officers, just as IPRA was accused of doing in the Evans case.
Then, just a few weeks ago, another bombshell lawsuit was filed against COPA/IPRA. Attorneys for a former COPA investigator announced that they too were filing a lawsuit claiming that their client was told to lie about his investigations to make a police-involved shooting appear unjustified.
Former investigator Kelvin Lett outlines his bombshell allegations in a federal lawsuit against the Independent Police Review Authority and its successor COPA.
Lett alleges that while he was working there, agency head Sharon Fairley suggested he needed to have a more devious mind and ordered him to “lie in his reports that a gun was planted on the victim by the officers involved in the shooting.”
Imagine the media frenzy that would follow if even a fraction of these allegations arose against the police department. But in these allegations against COPA/IPRA, there is largely a media silence, beyond only the most obligatory reporting.
Back to Savini. In covering the Murphy case, Savini began hounding Murphy, following her in public, asking questions. As a reporter, Savini knows that police officers are not allowed to talk to the media.
In broadcasting these attempted interviews, CBS included Murphy’s vehicle plate. Shortly afterward, threats were made against Murphy on social media, calling for her loved ones to be kidnapped and tortured.
Murphy filed a case report about the threats. FOP’s Preib protested that CBS had put Murphy’s life in danger by broadcasting her license plate. CBS blurred the video, but the damage had been done.
Now Murphy has gone from victim in an attempted murder case to a defendant in the federal trial.
But even in this transformation, Savini’s narrative has taken some heavy blows.
Murphy’s attorney, Larry Kowalczyk, recently scored a huge victory in the federal case. Judge John Robert Blakey ruled that Murphy and her partner had probable cause to stop Brown in the alley, as she had committed two traffic violations. If the officers had probable cause to stop Brown for the traffic violations, what right did Brown have to resist?
This ruling adds to the sense that Savini’s coverage of the Brown case looks as if the intent is to build public pressure against Murphy and the police department. It might not be the first time Savini has done so. In fact, he’s even admitted it.
Let’s go a long way back in Savini’s career.
Much earlier in his career, Savini covered a controversial wrongful conviction case spearheaded by former Northwestern professor David Protess. In the case called the Ford Heights Four, four men were exonerated for the rape of a woman and then her and her fiancé’s murder. Despite their exoneration, many people close to the case believe they were involved in the crime.
Protess left the university in a scandal in 2010 after the school admitted he had lied about his investigations. Since then, a litany of accusations against him and Northwestern have unfolded, including allegations of misconduct in the Ford Heights Four case.
Here is a list of allegations against Protess and a private investigator, Paul Ciolino, working with Protess from a letter by attorneys to then Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez. The letter was a demand that Alvarez review a key wrongful conviction investigation spearheaded by Protess and Ciolino:
Here is an account of Savini’s and Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn’s reporting on the case from a June 1997 article in the American Journalism Review:
In 1996, Zorn wrote a series of columns about the Ford Heights Four case, and WMAQ, NBC’s local affiliate, aired nearly 40 stories on it. Protess was the spark, says Dave Savini, a WMAQ investigative reporter who covered the story. “People like us and Eric Zorn kept the flame burning by doing our jobs,” says Savini. “That created a sense of public pressure, and the guys eventually got out.”
There it is again: journalism as a means of public pressure. Probably no one knows the power of that public pressure better than Officer Michelle Murphy.
Murphy’s trial is set to begin in early September.