What Happened After Lightfoot Called Chicago Cop ‘A Walking Time Bomb?’ Not Much.

Chicago police car
A stock photo of a Chicago police vehicle. Bill Healy / WBEZ
Chicago police car
A stock photo of a Chicago police vehicle. Bill Healy / WBEZ

What Happened After Lightfoot Called Chicago Cop ‘A Walking Time Bomb?’ Not Much.

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On July 21 last year, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot sent an email to some of her highest-ranking staffers about a veteran Chicago police officer named Joshua Purkiss who, she said, sounded “like a walking time bomb” with a badge and a gun.

Lightfoot was flagging a WBEZ story from the previous day outlining Purkiss’ history of social media posts that had prompted a Cook County judge to call the officer “frightening,” a judgment Lightfoot echoed in her email.

Emails and other records obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests show that Lightfoot’s email set off a brief flurry of bureaucratic activity within the Chicago Police Department and other city agencies. The documents also reveal a slow, inadequate police discipline system that’s still broken despite years of promises to fix it.

In fact, despite the rare public admonishment by a sitting judge and the mayor’s obvious alarm, Purkiss only received a one-day suspension for social media posts like “Work, Hustle, Kill,” “Choose Your Victims Carefully” and “honesty is not always the best policy.”

Meanwhile, police records show a second investigation apparently prompted by WBEZ’s reporting is still unfinished nearly one year later. That’s despite the fact that the comments being investigated are contained in public social media posts and court transcripts that have been in the city’s possession since 2019.

“Fitness to serve”

Two days after Lightfoot sent her email, Tamika Puckett, who was then the city’s chief risk officer, prepared an “informational memorandum” for Lightfoot on Purkiss, writing to the mayor that Purkiss had been investigated for misconduct 44 times during his then-17-year career with CPD. That’s more than 98% of other officers, according to the Citizens Police Data Project.

“In totality, all of the investigations were procedural or operational in nature,” Puckett wrote. “[Bureau of Internal Affairs] confirmed that none of the investigations arouse from allegations of excessive force or other civil rights violation related.”

Puckett wrote to Lightfoot that the Bureau of Internal Affairs had launched a new investigation into Purkiss the week prior. That timing matches up with when WBEZ began asking the police and law department about Purkiss’ social media posts which he discussed on the witness stand in a lawsuit against the city.

“This investigation arises from the judges stated concerns about statements made by Officer Purkiss during his testimony regarding an unrelated workplace discrimination case. BIA is actively investigating the potential use of objectionable language,” Puckett wrote in her memo.

But despite Puckett’s representations to the mayor, there is no documented investigation at that time. The city replied to a WBEZ records request for that investigation saying there were “no responsive records.”

City records show that an investigation was opened on Sept. 2, 2020 into Purkiss for alleged “operations/personnel violations neglect of duty.”

Police records show an internal affairs sergeant emailed Judge Jerry Esrig that month asking for information about Purkiss.

“I am Investigating an officer about a Case for the Chicago Police Department in which a WBEZ REPORTER states in an article that you made claims about an officer [Chicago Police Officer Joshua Purkiss] in open court. I am trying to bring this matter to resolution and am seeking all evidence available,” the sergeant wrote.

A staff member for the judge responded that “all of the information available to the court and the court’s remarks are set forth in the transcript of proceedings” which were already in the city’s possession. In fact, Esrig had directed his comments about Purkiss to attorneys for the city, who had called Purkiss to the stand in the first place.

That case is still under investigation according to CPD records, nearly one year after Lightfoot sounded the alarm and nearly two years after Esrig called the officer frightening in open court and told city lawyers he wanted to know what the city was going to do about the fact that Purkiss was still an officer.

“It’s a complete failure of the accountability system, and I think in so many ways demonstrates what is wrong with both policing and what is wrong with the system of accountability,” said Sheila Bedi, director of the Northwestern University Law School’s Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic and a lawyer who frequently sues the city over police misconduct. “We have somebody who is already an outlier, just based on the complaints that were filed against him, then you have somebody who is putting out into the public domain these messages of really indiscriminate violence that have gotten to the attention of judges and to the mayor herself. Yet he is still policing our communities.”

Bedi said that while police officers have due process rights, “the superintendent has the discretion to strip any officer of police powers pending the resolution of a disciplinary matter.”

“Why this officer has not been stripped of his police powers, given what he’s saying about the use of violence, given what we know about his history, it really just exemplifies so much of what is wrong with policing,” Bedi said.

Both the mayor’s office and the police department did not respond to questions from WBEZ.

Puckett left city government in 2020 and could not be reached for comment.

“Stupid” and “ridiculous”

The one-day suspension for Purkiss came as the result of an internal affairs investigation started in March 2019. Emails indicate the investigation started after the city’s law department flagged Purkiss’ social media posts while preparing for his testimony in an unrelated civil trial.

That investigation closed in October 2019. Curiously, it sat waiting for a “review” until July 2020. The nine-month wait came to an abrupt end on the same day WBEZ published its first story on Purkiss, with the case moving to “level 2 command channel review” on July 20.

In her informational memo, Puckett wrote that “the reason for delay from the close of the case in October 2019 to command channel review in July 2020 was attributed to delayed implementation of the penalty module of BIA’s new case management application.”

In an email responding to Puckett’s memo, Lightfoot wrote “this delay, and the stupidity of the command channel review is ridiculous.” The mayor also expressed concern over the fact, revealed in WBEZ’s story, that Purkiss was a Field Training Officer.

A follow-up email from Puckett indicates that CPD was considering barring Purkiss from training other officers. It is unclear if that ever happened.

Sharon Fairley, who used to run Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability and now studies police discipline systems as a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, said Chicago’s accountability systems have historically taken way too long and struggled with big case backlogs. She said the slow pace of the Purkiss investigation is a sign it is still an issue.

“It is concerning because when you look at the nature of the comments this person made, it really makes you question that person’s fitness to serve as a police officer,” Fairley said. “And so given that the mayor pointed this out, and brought attention to this, you would think that it would have gotten resolved more quickly.”

Fairley acknowledged that there could be some unknown reason the investigation has been delayed. And she pointed out that police officers do have First Amendment rights that need to be considered before punishing someone for their speech. But she said there is no reason for an investigation based on existing court transcripts and public social media posts to take a year to complete.

It’s important to the community, but it’s also important to the officers that they get resolution of the matters that they’re being investigated for,” Fairley said.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Sheila Bedi’s title. She is director of the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic at the Northwestern University Law School.