A rehab job on the criminals in blue

After the NATO summit, the Chicago police are being praised for their restraint and tolerance. But the facts tell a different story, reports Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

Chicago police clad in riot gear during protests against the NATO summit (Brian Bieschke)Chicago police clad in riot gear during protests against the NATO summit (Brian Bieschke)

CITY OFFICIALS and local newspapers in Chicago have nearly exhausted themselves in heaping praise on the Chicago Police Department (CPD) after the NATO summit held earlier in May.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel planned a ceremony at a Chicago White Sox baseball game to pay "official" tribute to the Chicago cops. Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy has been portrayed as a hero for the supposed restraint exercised by the CPD. McCarthy shed tears at one press conference when he described his pride in the police for apparently enduring mean insults from protesters.

It was a different look for McCarthy, especially compared to the sneer he wore when he declared--just 24 hours after it happened--that the shooting of Rekia Boyd, a 22-year-old African American woman killed by an off-duty cop, was justified. Boyd was shot in the head last March after a cop confronted a crowd of people, her among them, because they were being "too loud" in a city park.

Recently, a Chicago officer whose dog killed another dog was quickly disciplined. But Dante Servin, the cop who mowed down Boyd, continues to collect a paycheck while the CPD claims to investigate.

Cases like Rekia Boyd's are exactly why the political and media establishment in Chicago have wasted no time in using what didn't happen during the NATO summit as a way to rehabilitate the reputation of the Chicago Police Department.

What politicians and the media are really celebrating is that there wasn't a full-scale police riot during the summit. The Chicago police did engage in acts of brutality, intimidation and abuse throughout the week of demonstrations in the lead-up to the summit on May 20-21. But it didn't happen on the scale of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when police mercilessly beat antiwar protesters--and so the police have gotten unwarranted praise and adoration from everyone from the mayor to President Barack Obama.

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IF EVER there was a police department in need of a rehabilitated image, it's the CPD. The department has a long history and current record of racism, brutality and abuse in Black Chicago.

This, after all, is the same police force that garnered national attention for the use of torture against African American suspects from the early 1970s into the 1990s. Just last year, former police Commander Jon Burge was found guilty of lying about his role in overseeing the torturers.

Days before the NATO summit, Cook County settled yet another lawsuit stemming from police torture. According to reports, Chicago has spent $43 million and counting on Burge-related torture cases.

In 2007, the CPD again came under national scrutiny when cops in its Special Operations Sections were arrested for robbery, kidnapping, home invasion and shaking down people during routine traffic stops. The entire unit had to be disbanded because it effectively operated as a gang. This past December, another officer, Anthony Martinez, was indicted for operating as a drug dealer and gun courier for a local street gang.

The city of Chicago is paying tens of millions of dollars to protect a police force from lawsuits flowing from its corruption and racist brutality. In fact, since 2003, the city has paid $63 million to law firms to represent it in cases of abuse against ordinary citizens, according to research compiled by the People's Law Office.

And that doesn't include the costs of lawsuit settlements. The settlements range from a total of $27.6 million to the families of LaTanya Haggerty and Robert Russ--two unarmed African Americans shot by Chicago police within hours of each other in June 1999--to the more modest sum of $19,000 paid to Cordell Simmons, who was arrested for possessing $20 worth of pot and was then Tasered multiple times on his testicles and rectum by a CPD lieutenant.

In fact, the lieutenant is among a group of cops known as "repeaters" because they have multiple reports of abuse lodged against them. According to a recent Chicago Reporter article, repeaters were the targets in one-third of the police misconduct 441 lawsuits the city faced between January 2009 and November 2011. The city spent a total of $11.7 million to pay off suits about the behavior of repeaters.

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THE CHICAGO Police Department is likewise known for turning a blind eye to complaints of abuse.

A study sponsored by the University of Chicago Law School drew two central conclusions about policing in Chicago: One, low-income African Americans are disproportionately the victims of police violence and abuse; and two, Chicago cops can act violently and illegally with impunity.

According to the study, it is almost impossible to get a Chicago cop punished for engaging in illegal behavior. In more than 10,000 complaints filed against CPD officers between 2002 and 2004, for example, just 19 resulted in suspensions that lasted more than one week. In 85 percent of the cases studied, the accused officer was never even interviewed. In the more than 5,300 investigations of complaints of police brutality between 2002 and 2004, there was what researchers classified as "meaningful discipline" in just 15 cases.

All told, according to the study of what happened to complaints of police abuse, the odds of a Chicago police officer being meaningfully disciplined for abusing a citizen was fewer than one in 500. And in reality, the odds much lower, wrote the University of Chicago researchers:

Only a small fraction of people who believe that they have been abused by the police actually file a complaint with the Chicago Police Department. Among the reasons for not reporting are fear of reprisal and distrust of the investigatory process. Abuse victims realize that there is only a slim chance their complaint will be sustained and so they are understandably reluctant to risk retaliation. These fears are exacerbated by the vulnerability of victims of police abuse.

When people do report complaints against police, it simply doesn't matter. Between 2001 and 2006, there were 33 Chicago cops with 30 or more complaints against them, and 662 officers with at least 11 complaints, according to the UC study:

[T]he probability is just 0.2% that reported abuse will lead to meaningful discipline of an officer who has earned eleven or more abuse complaints in the last five years. [Seventy-five percent] of the repeaters have not received discipline of any kind whatsoever.

The documented abuse and brutality of the CPD is neither random nor arbitrary, but is regularly unleashed on Black and brown communities across the city. Chicago has the highest rates of Black poverty and unemployment in the entire country. These factors combined with poor schools, lack of access to good health care and an epidemic of foreclosures and evictions mean that the job of police is to contain the social crisis in Black Chicago.

The racial dynamics of policing and the way in which they exacerbate the existing crisis of the Black community is played out in arrests for marijuana possession, as one example. While pot use is relatively equal among Blacks and whites in Chicago, 15 Blacks are arrested for possession for every white arrested. Among those arrested for marijuana possession in 2009 and 2010, 78 percent were African American, compared to just 5 percent who were white.

The Chicago Police Department shouldn't be celebrated. It should be condemned for the racial terrorism it unleashes every day in Black communities in particular every day, as it has for decades.

One can only conclude the city of Chicago has a kind of "shadow budget" to cover settlements for lawsuits stemming from corruption, brutality and murder--something that is seen as part of the price the city is willing to pay to maintain the status quo on the South and West Sides of Chicago.

While city officials demand concessions and take back promised raises for city workers, including public school teachers, they dole out millions to defend the violence and abuse of its police force.

Now that the NATO summit is over, activists should turn their attention to the rogue practices of the CPD--from murdering innocent African Americans like Rekia Boyd to its daily practices of brutality and harassment--and demand accountability from a police force that is clearly out of control.