I-Team Report: Poor Protection

April 24, 2008 8:29:51 AM PDT
The police department in Cook County's poorest suburb has been paralyzed by a conflict within itself. The feud in Ford Heights is costing all Cook County taxpayers. Ford Heights will never be confused with Mayberry, even though it has a police chief and just one full-time patrolman.

The safety and security of residents have become so bad that this week the Cook County sheriff announced his department will assume all police patrols. The I-Team has learned the back story of "poor protection" in Ford Heights.

There used to be three dozen officers on the Ford Heights police force trying to keep the peace in a village of 4,000 residents - half the population struggling below the poverty line. It's a town loaded with guns and drugs and high crime statistics.

"Our kids gotta grow up out here and all the shootin' over their heads and the sellin' drugs. It's not safe," said resident Marla Epps.

The past few years, the Ford Heights Police Department has been gutted by resignations, firings and corruption indictments.

"We cannot supply the help to the citizens of Ford Heights with just two officers," said Chief Earl Bridges, Ford heights police.

A year after Ford Heights' police chief said that, his village is now being patrolled 24 hours a day by teams of Cook County sheriff's police at Cook County taxpayers' expense, estimated at more than $2 million annually.

"You had a situation here where a police department vanished," said Tom Dart, Cook county sheriff.

On Monday Dart took over law enforcement in Ford Heights, saying simply that there were no Ford Heights police officers left.

"Most of the problem in the recent past has been people just not showing up," Dart said.

Ford Heights' only full-time officer, Willie Robinson, says he wanted to work, but he's been suspended by Chief Earl Bridges in a bitter duel between the men that has taken its toll on public safety and security.

"I'm on administrative leave for pepper-spraying a woman," Robinson said.

Robinson was suspended with pay for an incident in a grocery store in February, when he sprayed pepper gas in the face of a woman who was allegedly having a seizure, although Robinson disputes she was ill. The career cop says that and other punishment were all part of a vendetta by his chief.

"Any time he thinks he can do me in, he tries to capitalize on something," Robinson said.

Chief Bridges told the I-Team last week that he was "drafting charges" against Robinson and asking the police board to fire him, requests he has made on several occasions and been denied.

The chief was a no-show at this week's takeover announcement by the sheriff's department and for our scheduled TV interview.

Chief Bridges suspended Robinson two years ago after allegations of brutality when the off-duty officer attacked a mentally challenged convenience store patron.

"I didn't punch the guy, I smacked the guy because he was bad-mouthin' my little 5-year-old daughter," said Robinson.

Robinson was suspended for that too, with pay. He is now firing back at the chief with his own video.

"I have a videotape of him beating somebody in a cell," said Robinson. "I still have it."

Officer Robinson says he shot the video in a police holding room last year as a 17-year-old suspect was brutalized. The tape features angry profanity.

And according to a brutality complaint filed by the teen in custody, Chief Bridges harassed him, jumped him, hit him in the eye and groin and left knots all over his head. Chief Bridges called the I-Team Wednesday to say that he would not discuss Robinson's allegations.

Robinson says the village feud is all about his efforts to unionize the police force and bring reasonable wages for future officers.

"If they get rid of me then the union is done because I'm the last full-time employee," said Robinson.

He and the union may be done by default anyway. Sheriff Dart is assigning four county officers to each shift in Ford Heights while the village continues to pay the salaries of the feuding chief and his officer, even though they would appear to be doing nothing.

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