Chicago hope

In the wake of two recent police shootings, rhetoric about police reform in the Windy City remains nothing more than hot air.

Published June 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Chicago police shot and killed two unarmed people last week. In both cases, the victims were black. So were the police shooters. Terry Hillard, Chicago's police chief, who is also black, refused to condemn his officers, but that has done little to slow the ever-growing daily rallies at City Hall where white protesters have outnumbered blacks while chanting slogans about "racist" police.

It's all very strange.

Once again, police brutality is making its way to the front pages of American newspapers. Last week, ministers from Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition sat down with Hillard to discuss the recent shootings, and the U.S. Justice Department is considering launching an investigation.

But this case is notably different from the recent charges of excessive force in New York and California. In February, when four white New York City police officers gunned down Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African street vendor living in the Bronx, it was easy to frame the incident in terms of race. But these Chicago shootings do not follow any familiar pattern of police racism. The realities are more complex, and in many ways more disturbing. In Chicago, where police always take care of their own and where many politicians are former police officers, achieving justice in such matters is nearly impossible.

The first shooting occurred on the night of June 4. Police on the South Side pursued a car driven by 24-year-old Raymond Smith after he'd tried to "back over" them, according to the officers' accounts. Smith fled the scene. Cops shouted at his passenger, a 26-year-old computer consultant named LaTanya Haggerty, to get out of the car. Instead, Haggerty reached for her cell phone, which an officer mistook for a gun. She was killed instantly.

A few hours later, at 1 a.m. on June 5, 22-year-old Robert Russ was driving home to visit his family in suburban Calumet City. Police flagged him for "driving erratically." A five-mile chase resulted. Russ finally spun out of control and stopped on the Dan Ryan Expressway. When he refused to get out of the car, an officer smashed the passenger window with a 9 mm pistol. Russ grabbed the gun, it fired, and he was dead.

Haggerty had no criminal record. Subsequent newspaper accounts of her life portrayed her as almost angelic: She smiled all the time, collected stuffed animals, kept a stash of junk food in her desk, and liked to vacation in Las Vegas with her girlfriends. Russ had previously served 18 months court supervision for assaulting an Evanston police officer who'd tried to break up a fight. But he'd also been an honor student and star football player at Northwestern University. He was supposed to graduate this week.

Though both victims were unarmed, the police department quickly ruled both shootings justifiable, and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley quickly rallied to their defense.

Chicago has a well-documented history of mayors named Daley giving the cops carte blanche to patrol the streets however they see fit. The city's policies on police supervision and review are skewed to benefit cops, and few are ever rebuked or reprimanded.

Police brutality complaints in Chicago are handled by the Office of Professional Standards (OPS), the police department's internal-review division. On average, OPS concludes some level of wrongdoing in 7 to 10 percent of the hundreds of complaints it receives a year. These findings are labeled as "sustained."

"To have a sustained finding, you need way beyond a reasonable doubt standard of evidence," says Mariel Manasi, a Chicago attorney who specializes in brutality cases. "It needs to be overwhelming. It needs to be 90 percent. When there's a cop's word versus a civilian's word, it is never sustained. Ever."

In the unlikely event that a complaint is sustained, the officer usually receives a short suspension, usually less than a week. The sentence then goes through the department's "command review channel," which, despite its Orwellian name, basically means that the officer's supervisors get to testify that he's not really a bad guy.

The police chief then reviews the officer's sentence, and has the power to reduce it, increase it, or drop it altogether. So does the Police Board, a supposedly independent body appointed by Daley, to whom the offending officer can also appeal.

Manasi, who has handled dozens of brutality cases, says she's never seen an OPS penalty increased by the superintendent or the board. "The Police Board cuts the number of sustained cases in half," says Manasi, "and the other half goes to legal arbitration, which then cuts that number by about 75 percent. Finally, after all of that, an officer can appeal the case to the circuit court. When it comes down to it, very few cases are ultimately sustained. In ten years, I've seen literally a handful of officers, maybe five, fired for excessive force." Departments nationwide are notorious for protecting their officers under a veil of secrecy, but in Chicago, the problem is particularly acute. The Chicago Police Department refuses to say how many or which officers have been disciplined. Instead, Manasi and other advocates must rely on their own estimates.

This system works very well for certain well-connected officers. In particular, one Peter Dignan was recently implicated, along with fellow detectives, in five incidents of torturing murder suspects. Superintendent Hillard chose to not sustain the cases, perhaps under the influence of John Townsend, the department's second-in-command (and a former mayoral bodyguard), who happened have been supervising Dignan at the time. Dignan was subsequently rewarded with a promotion to lieutenant.

The Police Department operates under a tight veil of secrecy about its internal operations. It doesn't allow anyone, other than attorneys in civil suits, access to an officer's history of registered brutality complaints. The department repeatedly denies reporters and community activists access to those files, saying they're part of an officer's personnel record and therefore not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests.

"There is no system of police accountability in this city," says Chris Geovanis, a member of Neighbors Against Police Brutality, an advocacy group. "It absolutely doesn't exist. It is a sham. And a taxpaying Chicago resident who wants information about a brutality complaint can't get it."

None of this augurs particularly well for the investigations of the Russ and Haggerty cases.

Mayor Daley said he regretted the latest incidents but pointed out that police often are killed in the line of duty. City council members bashed the police but waffled about when they would hold proper hearings. The police refused to offer any information about the officers involved. Although federal and state authorities have begun their own investigations, real police reform seems a distant dream.

In the next few months, the city will most likely settle with the Russ and Haggerty families in civil suits. That approach has worked well for Chicago in police-abuse cases. For instance, officer Rex Hayes, who has 45 complaints on file, has cost the city $2.5 million in lawsuits, with more cases pending. The city prefers the payout method to firing Hayes, who has never been suspended for more than five days despite a series of offenses that include choking suspects already in custody.

"Over and over again, even in the wake of the two shootings, this mayor telegraphs one message to officers," Geovanis says. "You're the boss on the streets. Regardless. He's given absolutely no indication that he's willing to look at the core problem of accountability."

Meanwhile, the department has revealed that police officers have shot 21 people this year, killing eight. But there's been little word about the circumstances of those shootings, the identities of the officers involved, or whether or not they had a history of abusive behavior. The same goes for those involved in the Haggerty and Russ killings. We may never know what kind of cops these people are.

"It doesn't really matter whether we're talking about one out-of-control police officer, or two, or 10," Manasi says. "The fact is that they're allowed to continue doing it. There's no mechanism in place to discipline them. They know they won't be punished."

By Neal Pollack

Neal Pollack has been the Greatest Living American Writer since the dawn of American letters in the early 1930s, or possibly before. He first came to the public’s attention writing for McSweeney’s in the late 1990s, and then through the publication of "The Neal Pollack Anthology Of American Literature," the greatest book in American literary history, and possibly in the literary history of all the Americas. The author of dozens of books of fiction, nonfiction, fictional nonfiction, poetry, screenplays, interviews, and diet tips, Neal Pollack lives in a mansion on the summit of Mount Winchester with his beleaguered manservant, Roger. He has outlived Christopher Hitchens, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and many more, and will outlive all of you, too. Follow him on Twitter at @Neal Pollack

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