Inaction over Chicago police reform
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has a famous rule: “Never let a crisis go to waste.” He got what he wanted.
The crisis with Chicago police is a golden opportunity for reform. But the only way to avoid wasting it is to pivot away from blaming individual cops and toward reforming a broken system that rewards exactly the type of inaction he displayed by turning his eyes away from the shocking film in which Laquan McDonald is gunned down by Chicago police.
Officer Jason Van Dyke has been indicted for first-degree murder and all the direct blame has been on him. But to really understand the persistence of police brutality, focus on the eight cops who stood and watched a cold-blooded killing, five of whom turned in nearly identical yet wildly inaccurate reports exonerating their fellow officer. Or the top brass who signed off on these reports, even after seeing the video they blatantly contradicted. Or the City Council, which paid $5 million in hush money without asking to see the video. Or the mayor’s lawyers, who did see the video — and insisted on keeping it under wraps.
The public wants to know: Why did nobody speak up? The answer is: because when it comes to police brutality, action is dangerous and inaction is safe. Chicago has a long sorry history of rewarding inaction and punishing action, and both the cops and the politicians know it.
Consider the story of Frank Laverty, who joined the Chicago Police Department in 1968 and became a homicide detective. But he derailed his career by blowing the whistle on the department’s illegal practice of keeping secret files of evidence never disclosed to defense attorneys. Laverty disclosed one of these files to stop an innocent man from being tried for capital murder, and then received death threats from his fellow officers. Of all those involved in this disgraceful incident, only one officer was charged with a disciplinary infraction: Laverty himself, for failing to work within the chain of command. He ended up demoted to collecting urine samples from police recruits.
This happened at the infamous Area Two, the precinct in which John Burge and his men tortured at least 117 suspects. Each complaint was dismissed as meritless, until finally in 1989 a group of civil rights attorneys received an anonymous note from someone with intimate knowledge of the police conduct — someone who plausibly claimed to be a detective. But he didn’t go public, he said, because he didn’t want to suffer the same fate as Frank Laverty.
This chain of events helps explain why a police officer, even one of good conscience, might help cover up a criminal act by a fellow cop. At the Chicago P.D., only the disloyal have anything to fear. The chances of being disciplined or even denied promotion are statistically minuscule while the risks of disloyalty are enormous. This is true all the way up the chain of command and beyond.
A good story usually has villains with evil motives and some kind of change at the end. But the story of Chicago police brutality and corruption is far more banal. When we look for villains, we miss the real story. Sometimes there is a genuine hero like Frank Laverty or a villain like John Burge. But reform isn’t stymied by a few bad cops. It’s stymied by the complicity of all those who ignore it. Complicity throughout the city — by the attorney general, the City Council and now the mayor. Even inaction by the courts, which far too often turn a blind eye to police perjury.
In this case, some have pointed to motives for the cover-up, such as the mayor’s tough 2014 re-election race. But looking away is the traditional Chicago response to police brutality in any season because it is confined to neighborhoods where poor, marginalized people reside — people without influence. For the rest of the city, it is usually invisible. When the occasional story of brutality surfaces, it becomes too easy to believe assurances that the police had to defend themselves, or that what happened was an aberration.
This is where we get to the most uncomfortable layer of inaction: our own. Few of us would explicitly condone murder or torture by those sworn to protect us. But we don’t have to approve of it. We just have to look the other way.
The videos contradicting the official story have changed the game. They have sparked outrage and created another Rahmian “crisis” that shouldn’t go to waste, even if the mayor becomes a casualty of his own doctrine.
Lasting change will come only when the official city incentives are changed — when laziness in the face of outrageous conduct becomes a liability instead of a strategy for getting through the day.
Susan Bandes is a professor of law at DePaul University and a 2015 Public Voices Fellow of The Oped Project.