Fixing Chicago PD The Federal Way

Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the Department of Justice “will begin a far-ranging investigation into the patterns and practices of the Chicago Police Department, part of the continuing fallout over a video released last month showing the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.”  She heard the cries of people and pundits, that Chicago, a perennial cesspool of police misconduct and abuse, couldn’t fix itself. Even Rahm Emanuel supported the move, flipping and flopping in his effort to avoid the shit staining his mayor hat.

The Justice Department has long had concerns about the Chicago department. But the current scrutiny centers on a controversy that began with a two-paragraph statement a year ago from the Chicago Police Department about the death of a young black man who had been shot 16 times by the police.

That’s how we roll.  Complaints, from black interrogation sites to hundreds of killings of unarmed citizens with nary a prosecution, had been going on for years. Only when a bad enough story hits the front page does the machinery start to crank.

And then, a weird fog overcomes the demanded reaction.  When it comes to governmental overreach, abuse, misconduct, impropriety, the federal government has taken its deserved punches.  So if it can’t clean itself up, what sort of delusion overcomes us to believe it’s suddenly got magic powers to clean up some other jurisdiction’s improprieties? 

No one wants to raise this hypocrisy, because it would force us to take a hard look at our own resources and come to the only realization possible.  When the local cops go bad, we pretend the feds are so pure that they will make it better.  Because if we don’t pretend, we’re forced to realize that there is no one, no department, no governmental agency on any level, capable of dealing with the reality on the street.

The Washington Post did a long-form review of the efficacy of federal investigations of local police.  It’s not heart warming.

“The goal isn’t that we have a perfect police department when we leave,” said Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general of the department’s civil rights division. “The goal is that they actually know what to do when there’s a problem.”

Vanita Gupta runs the DoJ’s civil rights division, which is generally viewed as being an arm apart from the prosecutorial body.  Most consider her an honest broker, willing to condemn practices that violate constitutional rights and harm civilians. Gupta is no police apologist.  But that doesn’t mean she’s a savior either.

Over the past two decades, the Justice Department has undertaken its deepest interventions at 16 police departments that had patterns of excessive or deadly force, implementing reforms under the watch of independent monitors.

The scenario goes like this: Big story of bad cop conduct. Feds announce they’re going to investigate.  By the time they issue a report, the attention of the public has long since moved on, and there’s barely a blurb about the rampant violation of constitutional rights that permeates the management of the police.

A Consent Agreement is reached and a federal monitor named.  A bunch of money is spent creating the appearance of reforms, the monitor complains that no one is listening, and indeed, no one is until the next front page story of a dead body in the streets. The newspapers remark about the existence of the consent decree, the pattern and practice of impropriety, and the difficulty of getting the cops to stop doing what they’ve always done. Rinse. Repeat.

But measured by incidents of use of force, one of Justice’s primary metrics, the outcomes are mixed. In five of the 10 police departments for which sufficient data was provided, use of force by officers increased during and after the agreements. In five others, it stayed the same or declined.

None of the departments completed reforms by the targeted dates, the review found. In most, the interventions have dragged years beyond original projections, driving up costs. In 13 of the police departments for which budget data was available, costs are expected to surpass $600 million, expenses largely passed on to local taxpayers.

Turning a huge ship takes a lot of time and effort.  Some huge ships can’t be turned at all. Maybe the only real approach is to crash it on the shoals and build another ship to take its place.  But since we pay for the ship, and it’s a very expensive ship indeed, few of us want to see that happen.

Instead, palliative measures that comport with the limited powers Gupta’s gang are willing to seize, the limited change the local government is willing to allow, the lies the public tells itself about preventing cops on the street from being angry people with guns who aren’t really willing to suffer a paper cut on behalf of the public, are the best we get.

We applaud the cops when they bring in “experts” to train the police. Chicago PD brought in an expert. That didn’t work out as well as hoped.  We like soft solutions like training, because it sounds more positive, more constructive, than nuking the joint.  Serious and somber public officials explain to wistful residents that things will get better, if only we can explain to the local cops not to violate their constitutional rights, not to shoot them in the street like dogs for no good reason.

Was that ever the problem?  Did Officer Friendly, after sitting through a three hour in-service where a paid provocateur explained that it’s really not constitutional to toss a black kid against a wall because he made eye contact, or put 16 bullets into his back as he walked away, mutter aloud, “ooohhhhh, dangit. My bad. Well, now that you’ve explained it me, that will never happen again. Ima happy to wait until the mutt shows me a glint of steel before I plug him between the eyes next time. Sorry about that.”

In interviews, Justice Department officials defended the interventions and said that in recent years they have significantly improved the reform process. Those changes­ have led to greater oversight of police departments and to policing that better protects the civil rights of residents, they said.

What else can they say? What else do we want them to say? And besides, it lets us sleep well at night until the next video of a cop executing someone.

25 thoughts on “Fixing Chicago PD The Federal Way

  1. Michael McNutt

    So as a guy who isn’t a lawyer (and I’ve seen some of your posts where lawyers are almost as clueless as the rest of us) tell me what if anything can be done. The only thing I’ve read is insurance companies doing what local elected officials should do by insuring each police officer instead of whole dept. and giving each police officer a policy paid for at whatever rate and if actions result in higher rate than officer would pay more himself.

    The only other thing I’m pretty sure of is from having a neighbor who is officer , drug testing for police on steroids might be useful as according to him anyway more than a few of guys doing beat downs are using them for whatever reasons people do. Guess they lose their temper easier.

  2. Richard G. Kopf


    Honestly, your post here and Ken Womble’s post yesterday over at Fault Lines, really disturbed this old bastard. Each of you have experience with big city police departments. I have none. But, I hate to think that there is nothing that can be done.

    Nonetheless, as I read carefully what you two write, I am edging ever closer to the conclusion that the interaction between the police and the poor in America will always result in death no matter how the interactions are structured. If so, save for the catharsis that comes from bellowing, a realist would say STFU. A dead black kid here and a dead black kid there is nothing more or less than shit happens. After all, there is no shortage of poor black kids.

    Perhaps I should get over it just as I got over sentencing under the Guidelines. All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      Doing nothing can’t be the answer either. Cleaning up the mess afterward saves no one, and hasn’t proven to be much of a deterrent, if such a theory has any juice at all. But we can’t just throw in the towel because the problem is too ingrained, too intransigent, too complex, too easily twisted to appeal to people’s feelz and prejudice. Even poor black kids get to live.

      Edit: Maybe I’ve just blown my legal realist cred, but turning my back on dead bodies cannot be an option.

    2. William Doriss

      Methinks this comment gets posted for no other reason that that it comes from the Honorable RGK. If any of the rest of us submitted a disjointed, nonsensical comment like this, we would be trashed in a heartbeat.

      “… the interaction between the police and the poor in America will always result in death no matter how the interactions are structured.” I’m sorry, but this is unacceptable, simpley, and we don’t think you really mean it.
      So why did you say it? “Edging ever closer…”, does not cut it in our book. Your next sentence is a “run-on sentence”, and meaningless. The rest of the paragraph is shocking, really. Finally, there’s no shortage of poor black kids,… or men in blue uniforms willing to kill on the slightest provocation (or lack thereof). The rest of us older white folks stand by, choosing to wallow in our own pathetic melodramas. Torrable, torrable, torrable! Theesa bullasheeta gotta stoppa. Immediately, if not sooner. Never mind the DoJ’s Civil Rights Division.

      We called them once. The guy on the phone would not even give us his name. It was a new policy handed down from on high. This posting is dead-on, unfortunately.

      Very disappointed in this comment, and don’t know whether to take it seriously? This cannot be the Judge Kopf who bravely shows his face on SJ from time to time with insight from the federal bench!?!

      1. SHG Post author

        The good Judge throws a monkey wrench like this into the works to test our mettle. He’s not really suggesting that there is nothing left to do but punt, Bill. You would have hated being trained in the Socratic method, as it pushes people to think harder, and that gives most people a headache.

        1. William Doriss

          That is what aspirin was invented for. We were trained in the Socceratic method, and look where it got us! A job driving the bus? The Soccaratic Method is to put a sock over the head of the offending party, and pound away.

        2. lawrence kaplan

          I don’t buy it. This is not the first time you have given the judge some slack you would never allow for the rest of us .

            1. SHG Post author

              1992. If you learned to google, you could have figured that out yourself. Don’t you ever have a yearning to have a clue what you’re talking about? Ever? As they say at Faber, “Knowledge is Good.”

    3. Ken Womble

      Doing nothing is simply not an option. Figuring out what to do, that is the real conundrum. I think, behind the veil of despair, that SHG’s post is oddly uplifting. The sobering truth often is.

      But I have been working on that assignment you gave me, Judge. Keep an eye out.

  3. Tom H

    I agree, not doing anything isn’t an option, but as Scott points out, the Feds solution really hasn’t made a difference. I’m all for sinking the CPD ship, but that is not realistic and won’t happen.
    It seems that protests in the streets and even riots sometimes do result in government action in individual cases. That isn’t really going to bring long term cultural changes and accountability to law enforcement.

      1. Peter Orlowicz

        Ugh. The whole issue here is that changing the figureheads at the top almost never changes anything structurally. Does anybody really think that replacing Garry McCarthy will suddenly change the culture of the Chicago PD? Why would replacing the State’s Attorney suddenly change the culture in the Cook County SAO?

        See also one of the previous occasions a Chicago mayor convened a special blue-ribbon commission to study police accountability, which resulted in the police Office of Professional Standards (haha) being transformed into the Independent (hahahahahahaha) Police Review Authority (HAH). That’s worked great. Oh, but we’re replacing that administrator too, so I’m convinced happy days are just around the corner.


  4. Pingback: Laquan McDonald & Police Perjury Prosecutions: A Plan Forward

  5. Ken Mackenzie

    The recommendations of the Fitzgerald Inquiry in 1989 restored a rotting hulk of a police force. The ingredients required were:
    1. The right lawyer to head a public inquiry;
    2. The powers, resources and a hand-picked team of investigators to get the job done;
    3. Front page scandals every day for months;
    4. A complete collapse in public confidence in the police;
    5. Local politicians shamed into implementing the recommendations “lock, stock and barrel” in an attempt to save their own skin.
    It’s not a bad model to follow. So, bring on the Greenfield Commission.

    1. SHG Post author

      The Fitzgerald Inquiry followed a familiar path after scandal. After police corruption scandals here (think Knapp Commission), we go through the same dog and pony show. Maybe it changes things for a few hours, but before long, we’re back to business as usual.

      A few other commenters brought up third-hand stories about how one city or another overcame problems. I deleted the comments, both as off-topic and nonsense, to avoid going down a path of arguing/explaining why the Frisco PD wasn’t special and wonderful, even if NPR says so. So we know how to throw a great scandal, but even if it cleans up the mess for a day or two, no one has as yet figured out how to permanently change the culture.

      1. Ken Mackenzie

        The Fitzgerald report was no temporary fix. It stood for about 20 years. It changed the culture. Sadly, in the way these things go, the lessons are now gradually being forgotten by a new generation. The report is still there. This was no dog and pony show. It was meant to be, but Fitzgerald wasn’t having that. He took a small scandal, easily dismissed with the usual spin about a few bad apples, and turned it into complete exposure of the system. He took the public with him. The Police Commissioner went to prison. The Premier (equivalent to a Governor) was put on trial. Everything you say about the difficulty of achieving real change was equally true here until about 1987 and then, Fitzgerald. He shattered the public’s faith in the police. All the prejudices you butt heads with in Simple Justice – the blind faith in the good guys, the no-one cares until it affects them and their family – they do not frame or limit the discussion for people of my place and generation because, Fitzgerald. The police were crooks. The police were thugs. The culture was rotten. This is all generally known and accepted, and it made a real difference. It can be done.

        1. SHG Post author

          I was talking more about the US, not Queensland. Sadly, the Aussie experience isn’t really the focus here.

          Whether the FI cleaned up the mess for a while (20 years? Not bad.), and then it returned to its natural state is nice, though whether it really did that as opposed to giving rise to the appearance that it did so, is another matter. But the point is that these blue ribbon commissions/investigations don’t “fix” the problem. They may get cops to lay low for a while, but if the problem was fixed, it wouldn’t return. They always do.

          1. Ken Mackenzie

            Indeed. The similarities between US criminal justice systems and pre-Fitzgerald Queensland are striking. I often read your posts and think, “That was us in the 80s.” It all changed when even your Great-Aunt Masie at the Christmas table knew that the great and the good had turned out to be uniformed criminals, working in league with some ordinary crims. The governance of police changed. The recruitment process changed. The law changed – particularly around questioning of suspects, and so did the procedures. Judges took a more sceptical approach to police evidence. Juries were more prepared to accept that police officers might lie. Reformers won some of the internal battles of police culture. Draw up your wish list for building an ideal criminal justice system in New York or Chicago, then compare it to Fitzgerald’s demands. I expect many of the reforms will be the same. He got the job done.

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