Berwyn hires seven police officers, chief schedules community meeting

The Berwyn City Council on April 13 voted 6-2 to hire seven probationary police officers. The vote marks the second time this year that the council has voted to disregard recommendations from an audit of the police department that the city commissioned from Chicago-based public safety experts Hillard-Heinz.

The council was not contractually obligated by the police union to make the hires, Mayor Robert Lovero said at the April 13 city council meeting.

Independent council members Jeanine Reardon (3rd Ward) and Jose Ramirez (2nd) voted against the hires. The mayor’s Democratic Citizens of Berwyn block – Anthony Nowak (8th), Rafael Avila (7th), Cesar Santoy (5th), Robert Fejt (4th) and Scott Lennon (1st) – plus independent Alicia Ruiz (6th) voted in favor.

“If we add seven officers to our budget, what is the impact of that?” Reardon asked.

Lovero and Avila replied that the seven hires were “already budgeted for.”

The Berwyn Police Department has a budget of $26.6 million, and is financially the largest department in the city’s $121 million budget. Berwyn listed a debt of $317 million in the city’s 2019 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, much of it caused by underfunded pensions for municipal employees, including police officers.

Berwyn patrol officer base annual salaries range from $63,547 to $92,759, according to Berwyn’s roster of municipal salaries.

“This gives us the opportunity to reconsider the Hillard and Heinz report, where they suggested we had more officers than we needed,” Reardon said. “This is an opportunity for us to do that work so we can determine how our police force should be sized. Absolutely not.”

The city paid more than $100,000 for the Hillard-Heinz audit, which urged the council to reevaluate police department staffing.

The audit also stated that Berwyn police promotions were part of significant morale problems among the department’s rank and file because officers didn’t know how promotions were granted and because no one had a performance review in recent years.

The hirings approved April 13 were the recommendation of Police Chief Michael Cimaglia, who also announced a community meeting from 6 to 7:30 p.m. April 28 at the police station’s community room.

The meeting is designed to “build on the existing relationship” with the community and share the “Ten Shared Principles” established two years ago by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People with the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and adopted by Berwyn police.

The April 28 community meeting comes more than two years after residents and members of grassroots activist groups, including the Rizoma Collective and Berwyn en Acion, first asked to meet with Cimaglia and raised concerns and provided statistics about police profiling of Black and Latino residents.

The same groups were instrumental in the police department’s April 23, 2019, retraction of an article in the Berwyn Watch newsletter. Activists condemned that article as propagating profiling and racial stereotypes, and Cimaglia later apologized for it.

Near the height of civil unrest that took place in Chicago in June 2020, videos and photos surfaced of Berwyn police officers standing with white men clearly breaking curfew, some holding bats or wooden boards. Black and Latino residents spoke at subsequent council meetings about feeling unsafe because of those images and questioning why the men with bats and boards were not arrested for breaking curfew.

Lovero responded Sept. 8: “Suggesting that our department advocated for vigilantism is unequivocally false and deceptive.”

On Aug. 11, 2020, Cimaglia stationed police officers on the rooftops surrounding the crowd at a Black Lives Matter mural unveiling on the parking lot in front of city hall. A few weeks later, residents came to council chambers with concerns about policing at the rally and questions about what would become of any surveillance footage. Lovero released a statement saying a tip given to police gave the department reason to believe officers should be stationed on the rooftops.

At the Sept. 8, 2020, council meeting, Cimaglia repeatedly emphasized that the state would be mandating police body cameras in 2021 and recommended the council approve a 10-year contract for more than $3.8 million to purchase tasers, cameras and other police equipment from Axon Enterprise without going out for bid locally. The state has not made police body cameras mandatory. After residents spoke out against the no-bid contract, the vote has been indefinitely deferred.

In November, Cimaglia declined to answer questions from the city’s Diversity Commission, chaired by Ruiz. Ruiz submitted written queries to the chief about the police department’s policies on diversity and de-escalation training, choke holds and shooting at a moving vehicle. Cimaglia responded to the commission by saying that before he replied, he wanted copies of the minutes from the past five commission meetings and a roster of everyone on the commission.

For three consecutive council meetings beginning Feb. 24, residents described experiencing voter intimidation from police and DCOB supporters. Police reports involving those incidents were made, but residents say the police department has declined to release them.