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CHICAGO � The city Police Department, which has been trying to polish its reputation for decades, is struggling to fend off 515 federal lawsuits brought by citizens who say officers infringed on their civil rights. Some of the lawsuits allege torture by officers, while others say they were coerced into confessions and others detail alleged beatings by off-duty officers. New York, with a population of about 8.1 million people compared with Chicago’s 2.8 million people, has 840 cases pending against its police department. Los Angeles reported 80, Detroit 52 and Houston 17. The counts don’t include lower-court lawsuits. Chicago’s law department partly blames the inordinate number of lawsuits on former Illinois Governor George Ryan’s 2003 pardon of four death row inmates who have sued the city for violations of their rights. Ryan cited flaws in the justice system in making the pardons and in reducing sentences of another 156 death row inmates to life or lesser terms in prison. In addition, more lawyers seem to be focusing on filing such lawsuits, said Mara Georges, the city’s corporation counsel. “It’s become a growing area of the law where more and more law firms out there are kind of specializing in police kinds of litigation,” Georges said. “Sometimes these outside counsel attempt to kind of overwhelm us with sheer numbers of cases filed.” The litigation against Chicago’s police is standing out at a time when the city is struggling to reform the department because of a string of recent high-profile problems. Two instances of off-duty officers beating up citizens were caught on videotape in the past six months at the same time the city is struggling with how to respond to a 2006 report on years of abuse by the former top Chicago detective Jon Burge. Lawrence Jackowiak, who has about 50 federal actions pending against the Chicago Police Department, said that at least half of his practice is devoted to bringing such litigation. The cases most often are settled ahead of trial, providing Jackowiak with a share of that compensation. “Historically, I realized the importance of keeping a check on police misconduct and abuse of power,” said Jackowiak, who has been a solo practitioner in Chicago for 10 years. Degree of difficulty Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago Law School professor who has also brought some cases with help from students and has two pending, rejects the idea that litigation against the department has spooled up because more lawyers are focusing on it. Futterman said that there’s a disincentive to bringing cases because they’re so difficult to litigate. The lawsuits continue because the city has not confronted the problem, he said. “Lawsuits that could help to bring system reform are blocked,” Futterman said. “The city is more likely to pay out individual settlement awards than to have their policies and practices examined.”

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