Prosecutor says it's time to take politics out of state's attorney's office

Chief Deputy Anita Alvarez / Photo by Chris Konopka

With 21 years of experience, including more than a decade in supervisory and administrative roles, career prosecutor Anita Alvarez says she has what it takes to run - and improve - the Cook County state's attorney's office.

Currently third in command to retiring State's Attorney Richard Devine, Alvarez has served as the office's chief of staff, deputy chief of narcotics, chief of special prosecutions and supervisor of the public integrity unit.

Recently, Alvarez, one of six candidates running for the job of state's attorney in the Feb. 5 Democratic primary, sat down with the Chi-Town Daily News to discuss what she would do to improve on her boss's record.

Q. You have 11 years of experience working under the current State Attorney, Richard Devine, and are currently his third in command. What would you do differently as state's attorney?

A. I've been in the office for 21 years. I've worked my way up and I've seen this office change as I'm going along. It's not perfect and there are things that we can do better.

I have some ideas of what I would do differently than Mr. Devine. I think he's done a good job putting us on the right track, but we need to go further.

Unfortunately because of the budget we eliminated our community prosecutions offices. That would be a priority for me to bring back because they serve an important purpose by being in the community. They were just storefront offices in certain communities, but I think it was important to have a presence. 

There is, particularly in minority communities, distrust in law enforcement. We need to do a better job at rebuilding that trust. We really do. I think part of it is to be out in the community so that everyone knows who we are and what we do, so the voters know that we're there for them.

If you're a victim of crime, we're going to be the one handling the case. My victims are minorities primarily. I think we need to do a better job at regaining that trust that has deteriorated over the years. That's a combination of not just our office but with the police department, too. One of my goals would be to sit down with the new chief of police and the new person from (the Independent Police Review Authority) ... to work out a better way to say what we are going to do on these cases. Particularly the police cases, so that the community knows that we are going to look into them and we are going to hold officers accountable. We need to rebuild that relationship. That would be a priority for me.

I have other ideas as far as specific units. Domestic violence is a unit that I worked in early on in my career. It's an issue that's important to me. Mr. Devine actually did a great job at restructuring that entire unit. As a result, we have the TAC- Target Abuser Call- which is now a nationally recognized model that is looking at screening cases and identifying those where there would be a potential for more violence. Those cases get special attention. That's a great program that's in effect, but I think we can do more. I don't think we should wait for another woman to go missing to realize, well maybe there should be more resources.

I'd like to see a domestic violence advocate in every police station in the city of Chicago. I think women need to know that there's a place that they can go. Calling the police is hard in those situations. Domestic violence cases are different. You can't handle them in the same way as you handle bar fights. They're complex. In a family unit, there's a lot just in one battery case. 

There's a program in New York where they have the 911 tapes of every domestic violence call transmitted direct to the courtroom. Those DA's in Brooklyn have the benefit of having that 911 tape right there for the bond hearing. We eventually get 911 tapes, but you have to subpoena them. If you don't subpoena them in 30 days, you lose them. So it would be nice to have that right away for purposes of bond hearings, and just for the purpose of the case as the case goes along in the system.

I think we need to step up the training of 911 dispatchers on domestic violence cases. Now that we can admit the 911 tape in court, it's essential to get as much information as you can on that tape. That would be another thing that I would like to do.

Our sex crimes unit in which we have some great dedicated assistants working ...particularly the supervisor of that unit, Shauna Boliker... She's a workaholic. She truly is amazing.

Right now we really have one assistant state's attorney that's working on Internet predators. Again, with the Internet we've seen all these young girls being solicited and ending up in situations. I'd like to be able to get the grant funding in order to expand, so we have more assistants working on that task force and looking into Internet predator crimes. That would be a priority for me. I would do some restructuring in the office that Mr. Devine hasn't done, particularly the rotation of assistant state's attorneys, so that we can keep them longer, so they don't leave after two or three years. 

The other thing I would like to establish and all the large law firms in the city of Chicago have them, is a mentoring program. I think that's important particularly with minority assistant state's attorneys because I think we need to keep people engaged and as part of the office. A mentoring program would be great.

I was a founding member of the National Hispanic Prosecutors. I served as its president in 2001. I've seen a difference from when I started in the office. There were just a few of us. Our last count was 46 which again from when I started, that's a tremendous increase. We do things like get together and do some training sessions and have somewhat of a mentoring (program) just within that group, but we need to include everyone. It's been great because we've been able to keep assistant state's attorneys longer. I think that's something we need to do more of.

Q. You mentioned earning public trust…but does the city's long list of public corruption and police scandals suggest that the state's attorney's office has not been effective in combating corruption?

A. When it comes to corruption that is an issue. I supervised the Public Integrity unit. I was made that supervisor in 1997, so I have personally handled those types of cases. I am the only candidate in this race that has actually tried and convicted three police officers from that same infamous (special operations) unit that we've seen the new indictments coming out (against), so I know how to run those types of investigations. I know how to handle those cases.

I think what the public needs to know is that ... we've not only looked at police corruptions, but city workers and city inspectors taking bribes. Not just Chicago Police --Cook County Sheriffs, the jail guards and suburban officers. We did, under my supervision, indict 57 police officers. That's a combination of state police, Chicago, Cook County and suburban. Could we do more? Could we be a little more proactive in that area? Yeah probably, but we would need more resources to do that. We have a group of financial investigators, but we would need more because so many of those corruption cases obviously are financial based.

When I was the head of public integrity we created a new unit and that unit was professional standards. That unit ... looks into the actual excessive force allegations. I think it's time that we reassess and see if the protocol that we put in force with the professional standards unit and the Chicago Police Department, whether or not that's working. 

I was a part of that training with (professional standards) investigators at the beginning of that unit, but now we've been doing it for several years. We need to reassess whether it's working. I would sit down with the new superintendent and head of (professional standards) to figure out whether there is a new protocol we should put together. Is there a new way that we should be looking at these things?

The other thing that's important and that the public needs to know is that the voters of Cook County want to make sure that the issue of corruption is being addressed. I don't think it matters to them if it's us or if it's the United States Attorney's Office. They want to see that that's being addressed. They want to see that it's being handled. 

What the public needs to know is that our core mission, of the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, is to handle violent crimes. Every murder, every rape, every domestic violence case, every gang-related homicide case is ours, not the U.S. Attorney's Office. It's ours, but they have resources over there that we don't have. The money, the resources, the agents, the FBI agents, the sentencing structures over there and the statutes of limitations is longer in the federal government. They can do these big long-term investigations. They have the resources to do it as opposed to what we have. If you think about it, they spent $25 million to prosecute George Ryan. We don't have $25 million to put in one investigation. We don't. Our total budget is $96 million and we have to cover this entire county and handle every violent crime.

When things do go over to the U.S. Attorney's office it's for a very good reason. They can put more resources into it and they can charge things like we can't, (racketeering) violations and that sort of thing. Federal charges that will garner a much better sentence than we'll get over here at the circuit court. I think you have to look at the whole picture. You have to have a good balance in this office because I certainly don't ever want to be in a position where I'm going to look at a rape victim and say to her, sorry we're not going to do anything to find your rapist, the man who sexually assaulted you, because we had to divert all of our money and energy into tripling the size of the unit that looks into corruption. Do you see what I'm saying?

Can we be more proactive? We could. We could be a little more proactive, but we also need some resources to do that.

Q. You spoke to your approach in addressing corruption. Is it different than what you've heard from other candidates? Is it different than what you absolutely know is being done under Devine's leadership?

A. I think it is. I think it's different from other candidates with the exception of Bob Milan. The other candidates don't know the inner workings of this office. I do and I think that's a benefit because I know what will work and what won't work. I've experienced it and I've done it. I do understand our budget. I know how difficult it was last year when we had to fire 43 assistant state's attorneys and cut so many line items in order to come to some sense that we have a budget that we can work with.

I think it is different, but I think what also probably differentiates me from the first assistant is that I will make changes that he won't make. I know that we can do better
in this office. I know what I've done. I don't know if you have questions ... about minority recruitment, but I know what I've done. I will continue doing that. I think we need to do a better job at retaining our minority assistant state's attorneys. Also, another way to increase our numbers would be to do lateral hires. Hire someone who has been out for a couple of years. Normally our biggest class that we hire is straight out of law school every year. In order to increase our numbers it would help if we did lateral hires, people who want to come to our office. Money is always an issue. They know they can earn more in the private sector. We have to keep people in the office to combat that.

Q. What are the three most important issues in this race?

A. I don't know if the voters of Cook County have said that corruption is the biggest issue or it's the media that have said corruption is the biggest issue, or one of my opponents that said corruption is the biggest issue. I think that voters of Cook County want to be safe. They all want to be safe. Public safety is the main issue. What are we doing to combat guns and drugs and gangs? Wherever you live in the county, north, south, wherever you're at, you want the same thing. You want your kids to be safe, go to school, go to church, and go to the park. Whether you live in Englewood or whether you live in Wilmette, everyone wants the same thing. I think public safety is always the key issue.

Guns. It's sad to see especially in the gang cases that I tried every year that the shooter was younger and younger and younger. A 13-year-old is doing the shooting as opposed to an 18-year-old. There are too many guns out there. I think those are issues that to the community, to the voters, that's what's important to them. It may not be what's important to the editorial board or to the media, but I think that's what's important to the voters.

Q. What sort of support have you received from Party leaders?

A. From party leaders? I have some aldermen who are supporting me and committeemen, but not from lead politicians.

Q. How does running against one of your bosses affect your working relationship?

A. Well, I'm on a leave of absence right now. There's no way you can do this being in the office. It's all time consuming. In the past couple of months I've been on leave. It is awkward, but I still think that I'm the best person for the job.

Q. How did you handle the challenge to your petition by Alderman Howard Brookins? What was the story behind his challenge of signatures from your alma mater, Maria High School?

A. (Laughter) It's true! He challenged all the signatures of the petitions that the nuns had signed. This is all new to me, the political world. So I just had to have volunteer staff, a member go down there and line by line sit through the challenge. He actually ended up withdrawing (the challenge) after I had reached more than enough of good signatures.

It was interesting to see that the two people that he challenged in the race were the other two minorities in the race, Tommy Brewer and myself. I did point that out to the press. What is he trying to do? He talks about inclusion, about minorities in the office, but inclusion means just him I guess, because he was challenging just me and Mr. Brewer. The nuns were ready to come down on buses and swear that they signed those petitions.

Q. In your video on being a woman prosecutor you talked about being mistaken for the Spanish interpreter. Do you believe there is a glass ceiling for women prosecutors? For Hispanic prosecutors?

A. I hope not. I've said this before to other people who have interviewed me. I've been doing this job a long time. I dispel the myth that you need to be, number one, a male to do this job, or a white male for that matter. We all know that when you see something on TV it's always a man. It's always a man who is the tough prosecutor. I can be just as tough in court as anyone and I have been. I also have a different perspective. You don't have to play hardball all the time to do this job. You don't. That's not how I've done it and I've succeeded. I think being a good listener is so important. Just in being a lawyer in general, when you're listening to your witnesses, you have to listen. Every witness brings a different perspective to one case. That's important.

Here's an opportunity for me to achieve the top spot. Now with my boss supporting Mr. Milan, I was disappointed because he gave me his word that he wouldn't endorse anyone, he was going to stay out of it. He usually is a man of his word. I had respect for him. Endorsing Bob tells me that he's resistant to change just as everybody else. That part's disheartening. There are many women DA's across this country. In fact, Wayne County in Detroit, an African-American is the DA, San Francisco, an African -American woman. I think we can do it. It's never been done in Cook County before. We always do things different in Cook County. It's time. It's time. It's time, that's what I think, it's time.

Q. Your website says that you plan to "provide steady leadership free of political influence" and to bring the State's Attorney's Office "closer to communities." How will you accomplish these goals?

A. One of the things that I point out is that I don't see this office as a stepping stone to something else. I don't plan on running for something else. I don't want to be an alderman or a commissioner. If you have a politician at the head of this office, it's dangerous because we have an awesome power, the power to indict, the power of the grand jury, and the power to charge or not to charge. If you make charging decisions for political reasons, that's dangerous. You want somebody in there who is going to be independent, going to be fair, to call it as she sees it. If the evidence is there regardless of who the target might be, so be it. You don't want to have conflicts of interests or too close relationships that would put you in a situation where you may not do the right thing. In that respect, it's better to have someone running this office who is not a politician. Across the country the DA's in their respective jurisdictions tend to be career people like myself, not politicians. But again, we're in Cook County, things are different.

I can name Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Houston, and Miami. I can name all these places, and the woman in Detroit. They tend to be, not career politicians but career prosecutors.