COPA finds “probable cause” in phone-related arrest that sparked lawsuit against police, Ald. Gardiner, former 45th Ward superintendent; arresting officers exonerated, although lawsuit still pending
by BRIAN NADIG
The Civilian Office of Police Accountability has determined that there was probable cause to arrest a man in 2019 after he was accused of allegedly stealing a cell phone belonging to then-45th Ward superintendent Charles Sikanich.
The incident sparked a federal lawsuit in which the suspect, Benjamin George, claimed that police, Sikanich and Alderman James Gardner (45th) abused their powers by having him falsely arrested. The lawsuit, filed in 2020, is still pending, while the criminal case against George has been dismissed.
COPA’s finding is related to allegations of false arrest and improper search of the suspect’s vehicle and seizure of his handgun.
The complaint filed with COPA is separate from George’s federal lawsuit, and at this time it is not clear what type of impact, if any, COPA’s investigation, may have on the outcome of the lawsuit.
The complaint to COPA was against two of seven officers named as defendants in the federal lawsuit. The two officers, including a detective, were exonerated on all of the allegations.
George has claimed that he mistakenly took Sikanich’s cell phone from a counter at the 7-Eleven convenience store at 6000 W. Higgins Ave., and that he intended to return it after he was done with work.
COPA issued the following conclusion in its report:
“The totality of the facts and circumstances known to police here include (his) act of taking (the) cell phone from the counter at 7-Eleven and leaving the store without consent as documented on the 7-Eleven video, his act of not informing anyone that he had the cell phone for an unreasonable amount of time, and his act of not returning the cell phone to the police until he was contacted by the police to do so.
“These known facts created probable cause for (the officers) to arrest (the suspect) notwithstanding (his) explanation that he took the phone by mistake and always intended to return it.”
The report adds that there were “contradictions” in the complainant’s statements to COPA, and “the objective known facts at the time of the arrest establish probable cause.”
The report also states that the arresting officer indicated to COPA that he “was open to not arresting (the suspect), but the victim was adamant, and he wanted him arrested and signed complaints.”
The report also states that a witness who reportedly was with George after they left the convenience store claimed that the cell phone was powered off because it kept ringing and that George had indicated he “got a new phone.”
The following is a link to COPA’s full report, which was issued earlier this spring:
George was taken into custody at the 16th (Jefferson Park) Police Station, 5151 N. Milwaukee Ave., after he went there to return the phone. Police had earlier in the day contacted George’s roommate, who reportedly put police in touch with George, whose name of his business was on the van he reportedly left 7-Eleven in, according to COPA’s report.
The report also indicates that Gardiner visited the house and talked to the roommate, who like Gardiner also was a firefighter, the report states. The report adds that the roommate claimed Sikanich was parked nearby in a city pickup truck while Gardiner was at his home.
Police later found a gun inside George’s vehicle, and the lawsuit claims the gun had not been returned to George by the time of the lawsuit’s filing. George, who had an empty holster at the time of his arrest inside the station, had a firearm owners identification card and a conceal carry license, the lawsuit states.
The COPA report states that the officers acted properly in securing the gun inside the suspect’s vehicle.
Charges were dropped against George about a month after his arrest when police officers did not show up in court for the case, according to the lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, while in the station’s lockup, an officer allegedly told George that "I wasn’t going to arrest you, but this person has power and I have bosses." The lawsuit states that the quote is "substantially similar" to what the officer said.
George’s attorney Daniel Massoglia of the First Defense Legal Aid said in 2020 that police created what amounted to a "task force" to track down a missing phone.
The lawsuit also charges that an officer allegedly called George "a gypsy" in an apparent reference to his Romanian ancestry and threatened to upgrade the charge against him to a felony.
Due to the incident, George eventually was required to leave his home by his roommate, lost business income and suffered a mental breakdown leading to a psychiatric commitment at a hospital, according to a news release issued by his attorneys in 2020.
Gardiner also is a defendant in two other lawsuits, including one in which some residents claim their rights were violated because they were prohibited from commenting on Gardiner’s official aldermanic Facebook page.
Sikanich was arrested in 2022 after he allegedly tried to sell a World War II-era submachine gun to an undercover federal agent during work hours at his city job.
The gun reportedly was a family heirloom and the weapon was “plugged and unusable” at the time of his arrest, according to his attorney. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reportedly was able to render the gun useable in less than an hour.