Fixing the Chicago Police

Gray_union station_2012-08-02

2016-04-03 – I’m probably not the most objective person about police. I’ve never been arrested or hurt by a cop, but the many encounters I’ve had have been pretty distasteful.

I once had a car stolen and when a cop arrived on the scene he asked me, “what do you want me to do about it?” I told him that I wanted him to take a report and try to get it back. We asked for the registration, and I said, “you guys tell us to carry that in the glove compartment. That’s where it is.” “Then there’s nuthin’ I can do,” he said. I said to him, “if you had stopped me, wouldn’t you look me up in your computer?” “Oh,” he said, “I guess I would.” So, finally, he looked me up and wrote up a report. But that’s not the end of it.

The day before my insurance would have declared the car a loss and bought me a new one, I get a call from the police. They found my car abandoned in a field in a nasty neighborhood. I could go get it. So I went and found the car with all the windows broken out and the dash board gone. The side windows had plastic tinting material stuck to the glass and I could see fingerprints in the glue. In the back seat there was a weight-lifters belt and a book, both with names on them. I drove the car to the police station and told them the car had evidence in it. “What do you want me to do with it?” was the response. When pressed, the cop took the stuff, but when I later checked, the evidence was never entered into any record. Undoubtedly, it went into the trash the moment I drove away.

Another time I was stopped by a cop for going through a stop sign—even though the circumstances made it pretty difficult to do just that. It was a T intersection and I was turning from a side street onto a heavily traveled main street. It was a few days before Christmas and the cop was a little slow in either checking me out or writing a ticket or whatever cops do when they make a traffic stop. Then she began talking about Christmas and being a little short for her Christmas shopping. About $25 short, it seemed. I tried to see her name badge and she became angry. “What you lookin’ at?” she snapped. It was clear that she was fishing for a bribe. I told her to just write me a ticket and I’d see her in court. I showed up. She didn’t.

We have a number of cops who live in our neighborhood. One became incensed that Mexicans were playing soccer in our park, so he sawed down some permanent goal posts in the middle of the night. Another beat his wife. Another cop beat our dog with a stick. Another had a stabbing at his house over a heroin deal. No one was arrested.

These are cops. And these are not the only stories.

Of course, there are some good stories. For many years, I mediated disputes that were brought in through the misdemeanor court. Often cops were present at the mediation site. We had no problems. We got along well. When I moved into my neighborhood, I went to some area CAPS meetings (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy) and got to know some of the cops working near here. They all seemed to be good men and women who were earnest about protecting the neighborhood. And I would see them around and talk to them—no problem.

So I’ve had good experiences, but mostly bad. And I live in a so-called good neighborhood. And I’m white. I want you to know my bias before I tell you my opinion about Chicago’s decades-long police crisis.

And yes, it is decades long. I can’t even get into the details. It was going on when I arrived in Chicago in the late sixties. It was probably going on when Al Capone ruled the streets. I voted for Rahm Emanuel in his first election for Mayor because he promised to do something about it. And I voted against him in the last election because he didn’t.

And now, cops are on what can best be called a silent-strike because one of their bad apples is under indictment for murdering Laquan McDonald. And the murder rate in the city is up big time.

They say they can’t be aggressive in policing unless someone gives them a get-out-of-jail-free card. Either society allows them to kill indiscriminately (or discriminately) or they won’t do their job.


This is not an either or choice. And cops who think it is need to find another career. I can only hope that Eddie Johnson, Rahm Emanuel’s new choice for Police Superintendent, can find his way out of this type of either-or thinking.

Here are my suggestions.

Put a strict limit on time spent in the squad car. When we talk about community policing, it doesn’t mean driving through the community in a bubble. Get out and walk and talk to people. Make friends with the community.

Shift the weapon strategy from 16 bullets in 4 seconds to less lethal ways of stopping people. I know people aren’t happy with Tasers either, but I’d certainly rather face a Taser than a bullet. Honestly, I know nothing about weapons. Maybe there are other nonlethal options. These are cops, not executioners.

Put a big push on training cops in strategies to de-escalate conflicts. If a cop fires his gun in the first 10 seconds of an encounter, you know he’s done nothing to de-escalate the situation, especially if he’s shooting into the back of a fleeing suspect. No one’s life was in danger except the suspect’s.

Teach cops that time is often on their side. Snap decisions are often terrible decisions. In most cases, they can take time to think things through. Thinking is not just for wussies. Thinking is part of a cop’s job. It’s not a video game. If you kill, it’s a life lost, not points on a tote board.

When I was a community mediator, I attended a training session given by the head of the Chicago hostage negotiation unit. This was in the mid-eighties and shortly after the Philadelphia police department disastrously ended a hostage situation by burning down 65 houses.

Our speaker scoffed at the Philly SWAT-team approach. He told us that macho cops sneer at negotiation, but that negotiation works. At that time, while Philly had destroyed a neighborhood to catch a few perps, Chicago was routinely resolving these situations with patience and talk. Time was on their side. No perp walked free, no perps were killed, and, more importantly, no hostages were ever hurt under this approach. It wasn’t spectacular, but it worked.

They like to keep civilians out of this conversation by saying that policing is a very dangerous business. And indeed it is way more dangerous than what I do. But it’s not as dangerous as fishing or farming or construction work or driving a truck or collecting garbage.

We don’t arm fishermen or farmers or construction workers or truck drivers or garbage collectors with automatic weapons. And we don’t tell them that they are free to break the law without punishment. It’s sad when a garbage collector dies, sad for his family, and sad for society. But it’s not a political event. And the other garbage collectors continue doing their jobs.

And efforts to improve the safety of garbage collection are not met with outrage that the profession of garbage collecting is under attack.

It should be the same with cops. Reforming the department might be a challenge to the bad apples. But a new culture that really serves and protects the citizens of the City of Chicago would very likely improve safety for police officers as well and make them proud of their jobs for working in way that they never worked before (except in macho fantasy).

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