State's attorney candidate cites experience, independence

Chicago defense attorney Tommy Brewer says his
experience in the criminal justice system makes him a good choice to replace retiring Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine.

Brewer, sometimes referred to as a "perennial candidate" brings a lot of election experience to the race as well..

In 2004, he ran against Devine for the position and lost, but earned the endorsement of the Independent Voters of Illinois.

Chicago lawyer Tommy H. Brewer / photo by Jeff Smith

This time around there is no incumbent to face, but plenty of  competition. Five other Democrats, including County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, Aldermen Howard Brookins, Jr. and Tom Allen and two of Devine's top prosecutors are also vying for the party's nomination in the upcoming February 5 primary.

In 1990, Brewer, a graduate of Northwestern University School of Law, ran an unsuccessful campaign for Cook County sheriff with support from the now inactive Harold Washington party.

Brewer’s career in the criminal justice system includes work as a prosecutor, a federal agent and a private criminal defense lawyer.

Recently Brewer sat down with the Chi-town Daily News at his downtown office to discuss the experience and goals he brings to the race for Cook County state’s attorney.

Q. Why do you believe you are the most qualified candidate for Cook County State's Attorney?

A. For a number of reasons. not only do I have a lot of experience, but I have balanced experience. I grew up in public housing here in the city of Chicago, went to public schools. I am a former special agent of the FBI, so I have law enforcement background as a special agent. I have prosecutorial experience, as a former supervisor in the Cook County States Attorney's office as well as the Massachusetts Attorney General's office, where I headed the civil rights division as well as the Medicaid Fraud Control unit. I'm a former assistant state's attorney. I was supervisor in charge of the gangs prosecution unit, and for the past 12 years I've been doing criminal defense work. In 2002, I was appointed assistant special prosecutor of the (former Chicago Police commander) Jon Burge investigation on police torture. So I have the experience.

And equally as important for this particular office, is political independence. I've never been a part of the Democratic central committee and I've never had a public office before. I think being politically independent is extremely important for this particular office. Those are the two things you need the most and are the most important, experiences and independence.

Q. You've been a private criminal defense attorney for some time now. What made you move into private litigation?

A. Well, I'll be here until I get elected. This I know, I have a drawn aptitude to criminal justice. I want to make a change, so I like doing this work.

Q. How have you prepared yourself to return to a public role?

A. I interface with the state's attorney's office all the time. And it wouldn't be difficult for me to transition because most of my career has been in the public sector.

I think that it's good to have been on this side, it gives you another kind of perspective as a state's attorney. You can see both sides of an issue and I think that is a tremendous plus. In addition, I can help train state's attorney's to be better at their job, because I do battle with them all the time and I know the things that we use to get a favorable ruling from the judge.

And I noticed a trend in the state's attorney's office, way back when I was working in that office. When police officers come in and make errors in their reports, there is no organized effort to show them where they made a mistake.

Normally, the judge will find a person not guilty and then the police officer walks out and blames it on the system. But normally it's because a police officer hasn't done their job, crossed their t's and dotted their i's, and they should. They've become sloppy. I believe the state's attorney's should train the police officer to do a better job, based on the things that are happening in the court room. And I'm not aware of that being done.

Q. What has this experience shown you, as far as strengths and weaknesses, about the cook county state's attorney office itself?

A. You know, being a criminal defense attorney I'm in the Cook County courthouse almost every day, and I see the best of the system and the worst of it. But what it does show me is that there is a certain culture in the way things are done, that needs to be changed.

And basically there has been created a trust gap between the police and various communities that needs to be bridged. That stems from false confessions, wrongful convictions questionable shootings, which create a real credibility problem for the system. And I think we need a leader in the position to bridge the gap, particularly between the African-American community and the criminal justice system. I think I am someone that community knows, has seen me over the years, has heard me advocate for changes that people are now coming forward and saying ...need to be (made).

Back in 2003, when Gov. (George) Ryan declared that the criminal justice system was broken, I was the only attorney out of thousands of attorneys in Cook County to come forward and challenge (State's Attorney Richard) Devine and give voters an alternative to the status quo. And I did so at a personal and professional loss. It wasn't politically expedient to do because Devine was an incumbent and endorsed by the party, but it was the absolutely right thing to do. For those reasons I have the experience, and I have the willingness to apply that experience to make the needed changes to help restore the waning public trust in the criminal justice system and help restore its ability to administer justice equitably and fairly.

Q. And are there any specific things you are hoping to do to help rebuild that trust?

A. Well, there is. I just want to remind the law enforcement community of their duty, to adhere to the Constitution - -the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments. If a person doesn't want to talk, you don't use physical or mental coercion to get statements, they have a right to remain silent. If they want a lawyer, you make every effort to provide a lawyer. Also, to discourage the police from lying.

Police officers lie more today than they ever have, and no one has been prosecuted. Despite all the men and women coming off death row, no one's ever been prosecuted for them having been there in the first place. We have forensic scientists giving false testimonies, nobody has been prosecuted for that. And we must warn them that things have changed. If you lie on the witness stand, or perjure yourself, you will be prosecuted if we can sustain the case.

Also, we want to prosecute people for using excessive force. We don't want to discourage the police officers who are on the street. I understand the things they have to go through, but even in the police station, they are still beating prisoners. And I'm not making this up. There is certainly physical abuse present, and we want to discourage that. Not by telling people that they can sue, but by prosecuting the police for their failure to uphold the Constitution, which they take an oath to do, just like I do.

Q. The position of special prosecutor seems to have had an influence on your view of the police and court system. What exactly was your role as special prosecutor?

A. I was given police torture victim cases to investigate their merit and see what they had to say and follow whatever leads that resulted. The thing that struck me during that is that one night before we had a meeting, I was in the police station, and they refused to let me see the client.

It really upset me because here I am looking back 25 years, and the same thing is happening that did then, they are denying me access to my client. The one thing that allowed for the torture was the denial of access to family members and attorneys, because that creates a coercive environment. I figured, I don't like this. I'm going to work for the state's attorney and use my experience to try to bring about a change in that culture.

Q. So you left the position of special prosecutor?

A. Right, because I was not able to reconcile what was going on in the present with those practices I thought were a thing of the past.

The police force doesn't have the leadership to extricate themselves, they need an intercessor to do it. I think I am the right person to do that.

Q. Gang violence and crime is serious issue in Cook County. What will you do as states attorney to address gang crime?

A. Rarely ever do I use the word "gangs" when I make speeches because it has become such a catch word for politicians to get voters' attention. Of course, we will prosecute violent offenders, gangwise or otherwise. People use "gang" for African-Americans males, period. Everything that happens to involve males is "gang related," which it isn't. I know from being a criminal defense attorney, that is not the case, but they use that term. So, we will continue to prosecute violent offenders and that's not a problem for me. State's attorneys have always done that.

The issue becomes, how do we increase public safety? And one of the ways we do that is pushing for expungement laws. There are a lot of African-American males who have felony convictions for Class 4 felonies, and those are the lowest felonies that you can get for drug cases. And once you get that you can never have it expunged. That's the way the law is presently situated.

So what happens? You have people who can't get apartments, who can't get jobs, who are not able to access mainstream America. And what those individuals do, if they sold drugs the first time to make a few dollars, now have to do it to earn a living. And that is what we want to stop.

And that has other related problems too. If a man can't find an apartment, you know, he lives with a woman. And sometimes this is not a voluntary arrangement. It starts off that way, but they just become squatters. This situation allows for domestic violence and child abuse. It creates a lot of problems, and that's what I'm talking about when I say "public safety." If the demographics of a particular community are ex-offenders that can't get jobs, then that community will never be stable, will never be viable, and obviously you going to have a "high crime area" and that, we want to avoid. So we want to be more holistic in our approach to fighting crime. Because that's what we need to increase public safety.

If you want to get elected, you can just say "let's put gangbangers in jail." Of course, every state's attorney has done that. That's not the issue. But there's a lot more state's attorneys can and should do to increase public safety.

Q. You have stated on your campaign site that you would like to address (issues facing the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community). How would this play out in the role of state's attorney?

A. The population is victimized by hate crimes, and for some of the issues that flow from their community I intend to have a gay and lesbian liaison to help deal with and address. Those issues relate to AIDS, and how people are housed in jail. Or if there is a trend that needs to be articulated that would increase the public health, in how people are incarcerated or ways that the criminal justice system can impact AIDS awareness and that sort of thing, not just to say that that is strictly a gay and lesbian issue, but they have been in the forefront for years in addressing those issues.