Chicago’s Police Problem

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tags: racism, Chicago



Simon Balto is an Assistant Professor of History at Ball State University. He is currently working on a book about policing and race in Chicago from the 1910s through the 1970s.

Diane Bond was assaulted by a group of police officers.


Earlier this week, a team of investigative journalists and legal experts unfurled an incredible new website aggregating the responses of the Chicago Police Department (CPD) to officer misconduct from roughly 2002 to 2008, and 2011 to 2015. Dubbed the Citizens Police Data Project (CPDP), the project documents 56,361 citizen allegations of misconduct and abuse, ranging from abuse of power to illegal arrest, racist insults to physical violence.

The data is, admittedly, limited. This is purposeful. As someone who has spent years researching a book on the CPD’s relationship to black Chicago, I can attest that the police department’s stultifying opacity on officer misconduct cases would be an almost impressive feat of obfuscation, were it not so maddening and socially harmful. In this case as in others, it’s not surprising that neither the city nor the police department was eager to disclose these records. A debt of thanks is owed to journalist Jamie Kalven and attorneys at the Invisible Institute, the legal arm behind the CPDP, who have spent two decades wrangling with Chicago and the CPD to drag this data out from under departmentally protected seal. Yet even that small degree of transparency is tenuous. From the beginning, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), Chicago’s powerful police union for which accountability is a bit of a four-letter word, has fought tenaciously to block the records’ release, successfully filing an injunction preventing further releases.

FOP leaders have cause for concern, one supposes. Not only do the current records present a deeply unsavory portrait; they offer no glory for the past, either. The files that the current CPDP data comes from are said to comprise citizen complaint records that date back to 1967 – a time in which, among other things, the department was spying mercilessly on political dissidents, laboring to break the back of black radicalism, and housing within its ranks a sizeable cell of Ku Klux Klan members. The intervening years from then to now have done little to burnish the department’s reputation among many Chicagoans, particularly those that live in black and brown parts of the city. In 1966, a leading member of Chicago’s black elite described the city as having a racially split “dual system of law enforcement,” and there isn’t much in the forty-nine years since that’s brought the planes back together.

To be sure, this racially bifurcated system is and long has been a systematic problem – one deeply entangled in the policies of the CPD and the politics of city powerbrokers. But the matter of individualized misconduct and abuse ought to be of profound concern, as well. And the city and the department have consistently dodged the issue. Both have a long record of avoiding public disclosure of officer wrongdoing, and have demonstrated a consistent record of throwing out (or literally throwing away) citizen cases prior to investigating them. Such evasions of transparency scar the entire lifespan of institutional mechanisms that are supposedly devoted to ensuring police accountability. Ushered in during the spring of 1960 under the modernizing impulse of Superintendent Orlando Wilson, who hoped to make the department “as clean as the driven snow,” from the moment that internal investigations have been formalized they’ve also proven to be extraordinarily dirty. Assessing the Internal Investigations Division a few years after its founding, a former member of that division accused it of practicing “purposeful and deliberate malfeasance,” and devoting “75% of the effort and time to window dressing which protects the police image in the eyes of the public.” Be that as it may, for the ancestors of the FOP, accountability measures that floundered didn’t flounder enough. Quite like how the current FOP seeks to keep the records of misconduct sealed, its most important predecessor in Chicago, the Chicago Patrolmen’s Association (CPA), tried to keep them from being opened in the first place. When Orlando Wilson began reforming the CPD and suggested more accountability as a prerequisite for better police-community relations, the CPA went mad. The organization’s president, Frank Carey, excoriated his Superintendent to such a strong degree that he was finally suspended from the force. (Carey’s response was to publicly call for Wilson’s resignation.)


Invisible Institute: a journalistic production company "working to expand and operationalize transparency, and make visible perspectives too often excluded from public discourse."


Then as now, these failures of accountability wreak tremendous damage to the public trust. Indeed, while the data made available to (and thus through) the Citizens Police Data Project is purposefully and relentlessly proscribed, it nevertheless ought to be stunning to those who don’t live with these issues every day or study them for a living.

This is true at the levels of both macro-statistics and individual cases. In the matter of the first, consider that in a particular four-year portion of the CPDP data set, roughly 17,000 out of 27,000 total complaints leveled against CPD officers were thrown out for bureaucratic reasons, as Chicago radio station WBEZ recently reported. In other words, nearly two-thirds of such complaints were never even properly ushered through the system. For the entirety of the CPDP data, of those that did go through accountability review, more than 96 percent of those cases were deemed to be unsustained; in the cases of those that were sustained, officers faced disciplinary action only 77 percent of the time. (Even then: seldom a serious punishment. As WBEZ notes, the average penalty for illegally arresting someone is only a 2.3 day suspension.) Parsing all of this, maybe the statistic most important to know is that a citizen who files a complaint of officer misconduct has a 1 in 35 chance of departmental review both finding in their favor and seeing fit to discipline the offending officer.

It should shock no one that the odds are even longer if you’re not white, and awful if you’re black. While black Chicagoans lodged 61 percent of the complaints that comprise the CPDP data and white Chicagoans only about 20 percent, investigatory review managed to virtually invert those complaint statistics when it determined whether or not charges against officers were sustainable. (Twenty-five percent of the charges deemed sustainable were leveled by black people; 58 percent were brought by whites.) Thus, while white Chicagoans initiated only one-fifth of the charges of officer misconduct, they represent three-fifths of what the CPD would consider legitimate victims of police abuse.

But statistics cloud the human face of who exactly is doing this. Once you begin digging through the records of individual officers, patterns of abuse on the part of certain men and women begin to emerge that should stun even the most determined denier of racism and police conduct. Officer Raymond Piwnicki, for instance, who works on the Southwest Side, has had sixty-eight different complaints lodged against him since the early 2000s. In one of only three instances in which institutional review found the charges to be sustained, an off-duty Piwnicki, who is white, was found to have instigated an altercation with a black man and his wife as all of them tried to board an elevator. Piwnicki swung at the man, pushed the woman in the chest, and told the man to “Shut up, you fucking coon, you fucking cluck, I do whatever the fuck I want to a fuckin’ nigger coon.” The following year, sustaining a second charge against Piwnicki for abusing a young man and calling him a nigger, a reporting investigator noted that “P[olice] O[fficer] Piwnicki has clearly exhibited a pattern of using profane and derogatory language in his contact with citizens.”

Over and over again, Piwnicki and other high-volume offenders have been brought before investigators because of citizen complaints of abuse. A year ago, an investigation into CPD “impunity” by Truthout found Piwnicki the highest offender in the department, with fifty-five misconduct complaints in just five years. Yet he received precisely zero disciplinary penalties for that misconduct. (Indeed, the Truthout investigators reported, Piwnicki was “awarded the Superintendent's Award of Valor in 2013, for a shooting in which he is now a defendant in a civil suit that cites his ‘deliberate indifference’ to a fellow officer's deadly force.”) Together, repeat offenders like Piwnicki comprise about 10 percent of the CPD’s personnel, but are responsible for roughly 30 percent of misconduct complaints. What this demonstrates more than anything is that citizen complaints – particularly those of black citizens – have no systematic value in the eyes of the police department. Piwnicki has no negative total body of work as far as the CPD is concerned. The department, which builds commendations upon sustained record of accomplishment, for disciplinary purposes appears to treat the receipt of an average of eleven citizen complaints per year as a series of isolated cases that will hopefully (and likely) be swept under the rug.

This sort of unaccountability is a proven recipe for terror and tragedy for community members. Over the past year, Guardian journalist Spencer Ackerman has documented the most stunning systemic manifestations of this, uncovering the secrets of the CPD’s Homan Square facility, at which the department “disappeared” thousands of people for extended periods without access to attorneys or the outside world. Unsurprisingly, more than 80 percent of the people so detained (and often abused) at this site – one that many compare to a CIA “black” site – are African American. The same unaccountability is what failed Rekia Boyd, too. It’s what promotes a climate in which there will be more victims like her. It’s what causes the city of Chicago to “quickly” pay a $5 million settlement to the family of a 17-year-old black boy whom a white police officer riddled with sixteen bullets – “the bullets making the body [on the ground] jump again and again.” Whether fifty years ago or today, it’s what causes people to conjure the idioms of terrorism and occupation when they talk about the police.

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The failure to bring accountability to police departments like the CPD conjures other things, as well. It creates breathing space for lies to get their lungs. In and beyond Chicago, there’s a growing backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement and ideologically affiliated groups – a backlash that insists that police misconduct and abuse is infrequent, unsystematic, or nonexistent altogether. For an extreme case of the latter, see recent comments by Sheriff David Clarke that “there is no police brutality in America. We ended that back in the '60s.” (Clarke is the Sheriff of Milwaukee County, ninety miles to Chicago’s north; a FOX News darling when it comes to talking tough about race, crime, and law enforcement; and real-life embodiment of Dave Chappelle’s “black white supremacist” character, Clayton Bigsby.) More commonplace: a few days ago, I was privy to an uncomfortable conversation in which a white man insisted that while he believed that police violence against black people “happened” (note the passive construction), it didn’t “happen” “as much as people say” – as if the denial of basic rights of citizenship to black people was acceptable so long as it was “occasional.” Consider, too, the case of Internet commenters trolling a cell phone video for evidence that a young women sitting in a chair at her high school “deserved” to be flung about the room by an officer with a record of excessive force. (See, again, the problem of accountability.)

Of course, such backlashes and equivocations and denials live in fictions. They crumble before the data that the CPDP data shows, the grief that Rekia Boyd’s family knows, the horror that the families of other victims killed by police under questionable circumstances choke upon with terrible and terrifying force.

It’s a favorite (and very tired) trope of the deniers of Black Lives Matter – proud denizens of a whitewashed unreality – that black folks wouldn’t die by police guns if they’d stop being criminals. There are dozens of pieces of writing by better authors than I that expose this notion as racist, intellectually vacant, and statistically unsound, and I won’t rehash those points here. But what’s worth noting is that what those deniers are advocating is more accountability – that people need to be accountable for their actions, and that society needs to hold them so accountable if they don’t do so themselves.

Against that, what the actual evidence tells us is that it isn’t black protestors who are undermining the legitimacy of police departments like the CPD. Departments, rather, undermine themselves through their own failures of accountability – or perhaps more accurately, their refusal to be accountable. Through evasions and dedicated opaqueness, police departments continue to ensure not just the legitimacy, but the necessity, of organizations like Black Lives Matter and its affiliates. The sort of staunch unwillingness by police departments to address their own failures, so clearly in evidence in the CPDP data, only guarantees further anguish from the community, and therefore greater struggle from within it. Will better investigatory and accountability practices solve everything wrong with the police’s relationship with the community? No. But there is no doubt that better accountability would at the very least alleviate some of the deep and penetrating grief of those communities worst hit by police violence – most obviously by driving the most violent, reckless, and overtly racist officers off of police department payrolls.

Finally, without greater accountability – without paying attention to what the CPDP data and other studies show – the CPD and other departments are not likely, anytime soon, to get out of their own muddy and often ugly histories. In the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson last year, MSNBC commentator Melissa Harris-Perry recited the names of young black people killed by the police, and paired them with a reading from the infamous 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision. This was the decision that effectively ruled against the possibility of black citizenship, with Chief Justice Roger Taney infamously quipping that a black man had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” When I heard her do this, I couldn’t help but think about Chicago’s long tradition of what black activists of today and times past alike have called police “terrorism.” The catalog of offenses shaping that idiom is too voluminous to list here. But more than anything, I flashed to 1958, when the Chicago-based black newspaper Crusader, beating Harris-Perry to the point by some fifty-six years, wrote that, “In the eyes of the police, no Negro has any rights that a policeman is bound to respect.” History is inescapable, even if it bears a badge.

Earlier this year, a protracted struggle in Chicago to get the city to pay reparations to victims of police torture succeeded, thanks to the extraordinary work of community activists, attorneys, and victims, as well as to the sheer ubiquity and sadism of police officer-executed torture that included simulated drownings, beatings, and cattle-prod electrocution. (Like basically everything else that informs these matters, these tortures have a history in Chicago that dates back a century – a genealogy that winds serpentine through the midcentury decades and that culminates in the person of former CPD Commander Jon Burge, orchestrator of the torture of more than a hundred police suspects, mostly black.) The reparations plan that activists achieved includes $5.5 million paid directly to victims, free counseling services, and tuition at city colleges. Importantly, it also includes an educational component. Starting in the near future, students in Chicago Public Schools will be taught about Chicago’s history of police torture, abuse, and impunity.

In other words, Chicago’s schoolchildren will soon have some understanding of the consequences that follow from acute institutional unaccountability. Maybe CPD administrators and some representatives from the mayor’s office should consider heading back to school on the days those lessons are taught.



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