It is department policy that Cicero Police officers are not to associate with convicted felons. It is also rude to snub an old friend who asks to take a picture with you, says Police Supt. Jerry Chlada Jr.
That was the situation Chlada said he found himself in shortly after he was sworn in as chief in 2014, and he ran into former Cicero cops Jim DiSantis and Dino Vitalo at a Palos Heights restaurant.
DiSantis lost his job in 2005 after he was convicted of beating a man during a traffic stop. Vitalo was sentenced to two years in prison in 2011 for obstructing a federal investigation of a video poker operation run by the reputed leader of the Chicago mob’s Cicero Street Crew.
A profile picture recently posted on DiSantis’ Facebook page — and removed Friday, about an hour after a Chicago Sun-Times reporter called DiSantis for this story — shows Chlada and DiSantis with their arms over the stocky Vitalo’s shoulders, smiling gamely for the camera.
“I have known these guys since we was kids,” Chlada said. “We’re not making plans, going kumbaya, having dinners and stuff like that.
“If I do run into ‘em and cross paths with ‘em, it is what it is . . . There’s policies against associating, and there’s not necessarily policies against running into people in restaurants.”
Sergio Acosta, the former federal prosecutor who handled the case against DiSantis, said it’s not a crime for a sitting police chief to pose for a photo with felons, but it is a bad idea.
“It’s not a good idea for someone in law enforcement, particularly in a position of authority, to be consorting with known convicted felons. I don’t think that’s a stretch,” Acosta said.
“It sends the wrong message, not just to people in the community, but members of the department itself. Especially with someone like DiSantis, who abused his power as an officer and was convicted.”
Chlada and DiSantis are hardly strangers. From 2001 to 2003, they owned a Berwyn bar together, a building they sold to fellow police officer and future Cicero Mayor Larry Dominick, according to a 2005 Chicago Tribune investigation. DiSantis was under federal investigation for the on-duty beating of several people in 2003, when he was deputy superintendent.
City spokesman Ray Hanania said Dominick was not concerned about the photo.
“I don’t believe it’s an issue with anyone at all,” Hanania said. “It was nothing more than happenstance, two people connecting in the same place. Just because you know somebody doesn’t make you responsible for their problems.”
DiSantis said he didn’t recall when the picture was taken, though there are Christmas decorations in the background of the photo, and it was posted on DiSantis’ web page in January.
“I don’t talk to (Chlada) anymore. We were acquaintances and business partners. It doesn’t mean we hung out,” DiSantis said.
“I know where you’re going with this. You’re trying to say he’s friends with a felon. It could be an old picture.”
DiSantis was found guilty in 2007 of beating a man who claimed the veteran officer attacked him in 2003 after DiSantis spotted him videotaping the officer assaulting a homeless woman. During a lengthy investigation, federal agents looked at DiSantis’ connections to organized crime, according to Acosta.
The charges against DiSantis came just a year after Cicero Chief Emil Schullo was indicted in two corruption schemes, an insurance hustle involving then-Mayor Betty Loren-Maltese, and a kickback scam involving a detective agency connected to reputed mob boss Michael Spano Jr. Schullo was on hand at Chlada’s swearing in in 2014 — he pinned a badge on his son, Dominic, who was promoted to assistant deputy superintendent.
“That’s his son,” Chlada said. “What’s he supposed to do, not be there for his son?”
Vitalo could not be reached for comment. He pleaded guilty to running license plates for a friend, Mark Polchan, who was worried the FBI was staking out his Cicero pawn shop, which was a hive of criminal activity.
Vitalo admitted to helping out his pal, though he was wrong when he assured Polchan that the feds weren’t watching him. Vitalo was charged along with Polchan, who was indicted for running a burglary ring and fencing stolen goods for Michael “Big Mike” Sarno.
Sarno, who the feds say also once ran the Cicero Street Crew, oversaw a lucrative video poker racket on the city’s West Side and western suburbs.
Former Cicero Chief Thomas Rowan and several active fellow officers wrote letters on Vitalo’s behalf ahead of his sentencing.
Chlada said he isn’t worried about the vestiges of the Chicago mob infiltrating his department. If he learned one of the officers under his command had been photographed in the company of felons or known criminals, he admits he would have “concerns” but said he hasn’t gotten any such complaints since taking over as chief.
“I’d have some concern and definitely have a conversation with the officer and find out what was his story,” Chlada said. “That was all news to me when them allegations surfaced back then (about DiSantis and Vitalo) . . . I have never had any complaint or anything come across my desk of any association with any mob.”
The gangs Chlada said he worries about are the Latin Kings and their rivals, and boasts that gang-related shootings have dropped to around 10 a year, well below the totals of 60 or 70 three years ago.
“That’s a story,” Chlada said of the dramatic drop in shootings. “You should do a story about that.”