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CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago's independent watchdog said the city's police officers are abusing parking privileges with the help of department-issued placards that allow them to avoid parking fees and rules.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson said the Chicago Police Department used police placards to park illegally in fire lanes, no-parking areas and tow-away zones near City Hall. An investigative report released Tuesday also found officers parked their personal vehicles illegally in police station lots so they or loved ones could attend Cubs and Bears games for free.

Police officers regularly block fire lanes and emergency exists while parking in an alley across from City Hall, creating potential safety hazards, Ferguson's office reported.

The probe also found there were many complaints over officers parking their personal vehicles with police placards for free on Court Place, blocking emergency exits and fire escapes behind the Cadillac Palace Theatre. But often police failed to respond to those concerns.

"Theatre personnel expressed concern that an emergency requiring evacuation of the venue would be hindered by these vehicles continuing to park on Court Place," the report said.

Ferguson pressured the department two years ago to issue a directive, requiring only authorized officers to use placards at designated locations for official police business. It eventually passed February 2018 after a separate probe found that department employees provided illegal parking to off-duty officers and their families for Blackhawk games.

Ferguson's office recommended that the department look to discipline any officers that do not follow the directive. In response, the department said it only allows on-duty officers to park at the police stations. Ferguson's office cautioned that if police don't patrol their own station lots, officers and civilian department employees "may be able to park without detection."

Ferguson said when police blatantly disregard the rules, that sends a message that members of the police department believe they are above the law and provide special treatment to family and friends.

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This story has been corrected to say the report was released Tuesday, not Monday.

The Associated Press