In Elgin, the police department fired 17-year veteran Jason Lentz for posting on Facebook that a white Ferguson, Mo., police officer "did society a favor" when he shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.
A year later, an arbitrator overturned that ruling in favor of a six-month suspension.
In Bloomington, a four-year legal battle ended this earlier this month with the city paying Officer Scott Oglesby $322,000 in exchange for his resignation. The case revolved around an incident in which Oglesby was accused of grabbing a 7-year-old special-needs boy by the throat.
He was dismissed by the department but given his job back by an arbitrator. A McLean County judge ruled in favor of the city's actions but was overruled by an appellate court.
The locations change. The officers change. The details change. But the resolutions often don't.
Across the state, police departments struggle to make firings of officers stick because of the strength of unions and the decisions of arbitrators.
A ruling by a Milwaukee-based arbitrator overturning Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb's firing of Officer Matt Rush, who faced multiple accusations of using excessive force, sparked a mass protest around last week's city council meeting. Among those speaking up: state Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, who called for Rush's resignation and proclaimed: "Citizen action has more power than the arbitrator."
"It looked like Champaign tried to do the right thing with Officer Rush, and he was able to get his job back through his union. It's a big problem that I see a lot," said Louis Meyer, the Peoria-based attorney who represented William Brown in a lawsuit against Rush and Champaign that was settled Dec. 1 for $25,000.
Meyer also represented Gary McFarland in a case that never made it to court but that Champaign settled for $50,000 in 2012. Rush was not involved in that case.
Rush's "is not the outlier case," Meyer said. "My personal opinion of why ... is the protection that the officers have through the police union."
Compared with other states, arbitration laws in Illinois are stacked against local governments — and that needs to change, Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing said.
"We want to make it fair to the cities," Prussing said. "This event happened in Champaign, where they can't even fire someone. We need to change the state law."
Prussing has already jump-started the discussion, having the city's labor attorneys — Lowenbaum Law of St. Louis — draft legislation for the Illinois Municipal League to consider. Prussing sits on the league's board of directors.
The mayor said Urbana does everything it can to avoid involving arbitrators because of the inconsistencies of their decisions and the lack of ability to negotiate. In contract negotiations, she said, arbitrators compare contracts across cities without considering what a particular city can afford.
"In order to avoid arbitration, we have to offer more than we can afford," she said.
Prussing said the problems extend beyond contract negotiations, and the Rush case is a perfect example.
"It ought to be more in the city's power to decide whether they want to keep the employee or not," she said.