State's attorney candidate focused on reducing homicide

As first assistant to Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine, Robert Milan supervises a 1,000-member staff of lawyers,  investigators and support staff.

Milan, who joined the office in 1988, also oversees the felony review unit and is first chair of the office's felony trial division. Milan says his two decades as a prosecutor make him best qualified to take over for Devine, who is retiring after three terms in office.

Robert Milan. Photo by Marcie Hill.

Devine apparently agrees. He gave Milan his endorsement  this month. Five other Democrats are also on the ballot Tuesday. The winner will face Republican Tony Peraica, a Cook County commissioner, in November.

Milan sat down with the Chi-Town Daily News recently to discuss how he would run the office.

Q: According to your candidate page on the Cook County election site, you stated that your first goal would be "to implement programs that would help reduce the county wide homicide rate from more than 500 per year to fewer than 300 per year." How would you accomplish this?

A: First thing I would do is expand our street corner conspiracy unit. That's the unit that goes up on the open air drug markets, the places where the gangs hang out. I would triple it in the city, and then take it out to gang-infested areas in the suburbs. By doing so, we go into these open area drug markets, watch them, then we sweep them.

For six to eight weeks, we'll take as many as 40 gang bangers off the streets. Gangs, guns and drugs. When you do that, you save a lot of lives. When those people are on the streets, those guns are on the streets. Those are the people who are doing the shootings. I guarantee if we do that, homicide rates will plummet.

On top of that, I'm going to conduct summits in the most crime-ravaged areas in our county. In those summits, I am going to include the clergy, school superintendents and teachers, police, prosecutors and community activists to talk about what's going on on the streets. To share information, to receive information from the community and to give them information.

That will do a couple things. One, it will help us to deal with crime on the streets, to attack this homicide rate. Two, it will bridge a gap because there is some distrust between the minority community and law enforcement. When they see us out there every single month working hand-in-hand with them, that will go a long way towards dealing with this distrust.

Q: I attend Community Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) meetings and they (officers in attendance) always talk about how much the police cameras cost. Are there enough funds available to support your goals?

A: There are. I will go to the county board to ask for more money. Not a lot, but I'm going to ask for more money for that program and others. I think it is an easy sell. We're talking about saving lives, and we're going to save a lot of lives by doing this. There are ways within the office.

There are a couple things I really want to do: expand our drug diversion programs and mental health courts. Initially by expanding those units, it's going to cost us money but in the long run, it's going to save us a lot of money. What we are doing is diverting people that are hooked on drugs out of criminal court and getting treatment to stop them from revolving back into the criminal courts. So you're going to save money.

The same with the mentally ill. If we divert them out of criminal court and get them treatment, they will not keep coming back in. Although it's going to cost money in the beginning, it's going to save the county and (our office) a lot of money in the long run. By doing things like that, I'm going to be able to pay for it. That's how I'll do it.

Q: You also stated that you would "increase our visibility in the community." What do you mean by this?

A: Conduct the summits every single month in the most crime ravaged parts of our community - suburbs and city. That's going to go a long way. By sharing information and getting information from the community about gangs, guns and drugs on the streets. Getting out and sharing information with them is going to go a long way. We are going to help to attack the homicide rate and the gang problem out there ... they are going to see us in the community. They are going to put a name to the face. That's going to go a long way. They're going to see firsthand how much our office cares about the community and how dedicated we are.

Q: I know for a fact it's hard to get people to attend CAPS meetings and they are actually in the immediate community, how do you propose to get people to your summits?

A: Look, all I can do is try. I'm not going to knock on their doors or drag them out, you know? If I do it, and I go out and meet with these people, I'm bringing clergy members, community activists, school superintendents, police and prosecutors. I think people are going to show up. It's going to catch a lot of attention. If the actual Cook County State's Attorney is sitting at that table, talking about this stuff, I think it's going to catch a lot of attention.

If people don't want to come, that's their prerogative. I'm doing everything I can short of dragging them out of their living room.

Q: Do you have the support of the clergy? Some of the clergy members in my community are not very supportive.

That's too bad. You know what I'm real tired of? I'm real tired of people marching AFTER the 8-year-old is gunned down at the candy store or AFTER the mother is gunned down on Halloween night. Then they gather to march. Forget it! The time to get together is now. The time to get together is every single month before the shootings occur. This is all about prevention.

I've been received very graciously by the clergy and the churches I've gone to during this campaign. Very graciously. I've had almost overwhelmingly positive experiences. So, I expect it to be the same when I do that (conduct monthly summits).

Going back to what you brought up earlier. If people don't want to help, you know, that's their prerogative. At least they are going to know that I am there.

Q: How would your approach to the problems of police brutality and police corruption be different?

A: The only thing different I'll do is increase our manpower in those units. A lot of the opponents in the race talk about we don't do enough in this area, but the facts belie that.

For the last nine years, I've been in positions of leadership. We've indicted somewhere between 150 and 160 police officers for crimes ranging from theft to first-degree murder. I personally worked on the investigation which led to the charging of Officer (Edward) Leak (Jr.) for first-degree murder. Now he's serving 60 years in prison.

It was our offices that lead the investigation into Officer (John) Herman who sexually assaulted a woman while on the job on the South Side. He's now serving a very lengthy prison term.

It was our offices that lead the investigation into the seven special operations officers who were basically a renegade band of cops committing crimes like armed robberies and home invasions. We indicted all seven of them. I can go and on pointing out examples.

It's unfortunate that in these political races people throw out accusations without backing them up. (To say) that we turn a blind eye to police corruption and police brutality is completely false. We have to keep doing what we're doing.

My position always has been that law enforcement should be held to a higher standard than anybody else. I have a great deal of respect for the men and women in the police department, and they know that. At the same time, if they cross the line and I am the state's attorney, they are going to pay the price.

Q: How challenging is it to actually prosecute different officers? I know you have your job to do, but we have a big huge political ring in Chicago. You have some officers that are "protected" by politics. How does that affect your job?

A: I have never once, not one time in my whole career, not even as first assistant or chief deputy, ever received a phone call from anybody asking me to protect a cop. Ever. I can look you right in the eye and tell you that. It's never happened. None of these guys, these 150 - 160 cases (over the last nine years) I just told you about - no one has ever picked up the phone and said, "Bob, give this guy a break." It's never happened. As far I know, that doesn't exist.

Q: According to newspaper reports, there is a huge influx of recently released prison inmates returning to already gang and violence-ridden communities in the county. Is this a problem for the state's attorney to address?

A: Maybe. It depends. Bottom line is, when an individual commits a crime and is sentenced to prison, he or she is placed on parole. If they violate the parole, if they don't follow the restrictions regarding their parole, they should be prosecuted. If I'm the state's attorney, that's what's going to happen.

I'm very happy to see that the homicide rate is going down in Chicago. It's the lowest it's been since 1965: 435 - 440 homicides in 2007. There have been years when the city of Chicago has had more than 1000 homicides ... The fact that it's down to 435 or 440 is a tribute to the police department. I think we get some credit for the hard work we're doing too.

Even though there's an influx of gang bangers and hardened criminals coming back into the community, so far, it hasn't affected our homicide rate.

When I talk about the 500 number, that's county wide. We have about 500 a year. Even though it's way less than it's been in many, many years, our goal should be to attack it, to get that rate down. Our goal should be zero ... that would probably never happen, but that should be our goal.

Q: You said that "the office should be more involved in community outreach, particularly in the minority communities, in order to build trust among those we most commonly represent." Why hasn't that been done adequately under Richard Devine?

A: Well, it was done. Very well. We had community prosecution offices (in different communities) where assistant state's attorneys used to work in those offices. The community could come in and talk to them about their problems. When we got cut dramatically last year by the county budget, we had to close all those offices. That was a big hit. Not just to us, but to the communities. We had to terminate 153 people; 143 actual people and give up another 10 slots. So, community outreach had to be closed down.

Here is my plan. I can't count on getting that money back in this budget because there are other things that I want to spend the money on. My plan is, let's do it for free. Let's just go out there at night. I'll go out there and bring people with me. I'll be happy to do it. I think it's vital that we do it.

Q: In which communities were the centers located?

A: We had them in different areas. We had one in Maywood, one out south, another one on the North Side and another out west. We had a number of them.

Q: What is your office's conviction rate and how much attention is paid to this rate internally?

A: Attention paid to it - very little. We are not about numbers; we are about doing the right thing. As I sit here, I can't even give you the exact number. I bet our conviction rate is somewhere around 95 percent, but I'm speculating.

Q: Does this estimated conviction rate take into account cases that are resolved with a plea?

A: Absolutely.

Q: What is the percentage of cases resolved by plea?

A: I bet in access of 80 percent, but again, I'm speculating. But I bet I'm pretty close on that.

Q: What role do you believe the state's attorney should play in the area of police corruption?

A: A vital role. We should be the leaders on it. I have a great deal of respect for the men and women of the Chicago Police Department. The overwhelming majority of them are dedicated, wonderful people. But when somebody crosses the line, when somebody takes money, when somebody goes out and intentionally hurts somebody, when somebody goes out and commits a crime while using the badge, they are going to pay the price.

Q: What is the idea behind your "shoot teams?"

A: Here's the idea. In order to take away any appearance of impropriety, I don't believe the Chicago Police Department should investigate their own police-involved shootings. What they should do is have a completely separate shoot team. Investigators that are trained to do one thing and one thing only - investigate police-involved shootings. Their job would be to go out and interview all the witnesses, to recover evidence, to put the case together and then bring it to Office of Professional Standards (OPS) and not the police department. They should be completely separate. OPS would then bring the investigation to us.

Therefore, nobody can say cops are covering up for cops. The community will know that it has been investigated properly, and no one can ever point fingers again. It's just a smart thing to do.

Q: What areas of prosecution would be your top priorities, if you are elected?

A: As I pointed out, my goal would be to attack the homicide rate by increasing the street corner conspiracy unit. Another thing I want to do is create an Internet predator unit. All you have to do watch MSNBC (news) on any given night to see what's going on out there with all these individuals trying to get to our kids. We are the second largest prosecutors officers in the country. I think it's about time we come up with the money and put together one of those units. That would be one of my top priorities - to increase the manpower in our sex crimes unit. Expand that in both the city and in the suburbs.

I also really want to create mental health courts and misdemeanor courts. We can't do that alone. We have to work with the judiciary and the defense bar. Again, it's going to cost us money up front, it's going to save us a lot of money in the future. When someone is mentally ill and is walking down the street attacking people and committing petty crimes ... if you take them out of criminal court and get them treatment, they are not going to come back two weeks later and attack somebody. They're going to be on their medications. They are going to receive treatment. You're going to end up saving money because the cycle stops. And it's morally the right thing to do. So that's another thing I want to work on.

I want to really work on making our child support division a place for career prosecutors. That won't cost us any money because that would be all grant money. Presently, we have young assistant state's attorneys handling those cases and they do a good job. There are a lot of people, men and women, that would like to do that work for a career. I'd like to make it a place for career prosecutors. Then, they would represent the generally indigent mothers who aren't receiving their child support.

Those would be my top things to do.