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Will Cabaniss

For Black Officers in Chicago, City’s Police Crisis Calls for Action

For Black Officers in Chicago, City’s Police Crisis Calls for Action

BY DARRYL HOLLIDAY and HARRY BACKLUND

Edward “Buzz” Palmer has been at this moment before. When he first saw the July 28, 1967 cover of Life magazine—a black boy lying dead in the street, shot by police—Palmer was a young black police officer in a racially divided city, working in a department that still segregated its squad cars.

“It was the times,” Palmer explains. “The times create the conditions. King had been assassinated, Malcolm X had been assassinated. What it pointed out was the need for the black community to be protected. We saw all this killing going on.”

The July 28, 1967 cover of Life magazine featured a photo of 12-year-old Joe Bass Jr., dead on a Newark street after a shoot-out between civilians and police. (Source: Creative Commons/Life Magazine)

The July 28, 1967 cover of Life magazine featured a photo of 12-year-old Joe Bass Jr., dead on a Newark street after a shoot-out between civilians and police. (Source: Creative Commons/Life Magazine)

Palmer was moved by the image to form the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League, the first African-American police organization of its kind. He spent two years in the department before handing the role over to Pat Hill, who quickly had her own challenges to face.

“I knew the culture of the police department when I went in,” Hill said. “I knew the disparity in treatment of black officers, and I spent a lot of my time fighting against policies in the department.”

A call for more black police officers

Last Wednesday morning, Hill stood with other retired black police officers at a news conference to call for the hiring of more black officers and a federal investigation into the Chicago Police Department and the Independent Police Review Authority, the civilian body tasked with investigating complaints of police misconduct. Since then, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has replaced the head of IPRA, and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has announced a civil rights investigation of the police department.

At their news conference, the retired officers cited the persistent under-representation of African-Americans in CPD as a root cause of tensions between black neighborhoods and the police department. According to police records, the CPD is 23 percent black, compared with 33 percent of the total Chicago population.

The news conference came three days after the firing of former police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and 10 days after the release of a dashcam video that shows 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being shot 16 times by CPD Officer Jason Van Dyke. The shooting, captured and repeated on an unending loop online and on TV, was yet another moment of historical reflection for Hill.

“For me this is about the third time. It’s the third go-around. Certain concessions are always made and everything goes back to being business as usual: scandals, police brutality [and] discrimination in the department,” she said. “ I can’t be as optimistic as a person who’s going through it for the first time.”

Like the cover of Life Magazine in 1967, Hill said the latest symbol of police misconduct — the image of McDonald; a black boy lying dead in the street, shot by police — is yet another moment of striking cruelty and a call for meaningful reform.

Much like the ousting of McCarthy, past Chicago police scandals have also led to resignations and promises of reform. In 2007, CPD superintendent Philip Cline resigned amid an uproar over video footage of Chicago police beatings. The film included a widely-circulated Youtube clip of an off-duty officer beating a female bartender on the Northwest Side. Ten years before, superintendent Matt Rodriguez announced his retirement amid a series of scandals, including police corruption and brutality allegations.

Hill and Palmer sought to reform the department through diversifying its ranks, but young black activists today argue that policing itself is oppressive.

“As a black cop or brown cop, you are in a position of power over the group of people you are policing,” Janae Bonsu of The Black Youth Project 100 told The Chicago Reporter last month. “Black police antagonize us. Black police still profile us.”

Palmer and Hill agree that the problem is systemic — “violence has a handmaiden, and the handmaiden is poverty” as Palmer puts it. But Hill takes issue with the idea that an officer’s race doesn’t matter for the community they work in.

The village needs warriors to protect it, not settlers to occupy it.” —David Lemieux

“So many young people — so many young black people especially — are taking the initiative to be heard. In that respect that’s a positive,” she said. But the young activists weren’t there in 1967, she noted — while being actively engaged in the current moment, they lack the historical perspective that comes with age.

“They really can’t take it too far [back] … There’s a big difference between white police and black police. Our upbringing is totally different and we’re treated differently. We’re suspended and punished at a higher rate — we’re scrutinized differently.”

David Lemieux, a retired black police officer and 26-year veteran of CPD, added to the chorus of calls for systemic change and improved relations between police and the public.

“In order for there to be any change in the relations between the community and the police, the infrastructure has to be saturated with people that represent the community,” he said. “The village needs warriors to protect it, not settlers to occupy it. Who are the boots on the ground? That’s what’s important.”

The history of black officers in the Chicago Police Department is long and often checkered. In 1872, Chicago appointed the first black police officer to serve outside of the South, but black officers in the early years of the department weren’t permitted to wear uniforms, and were instead restricted to plainclothes duty, mostly in black neighborhoods.

Still, black officers were better represented in Chicago than in most American cities. Between 1872 and 1930, Chicago appointed more black officers than any city except Philadelphia, and in 1940 the city had its first black captain—one of only two in the country. Yet black officers couldn’t arrest white citizens, and black sergeants were assigned exclusively to supervise black officers.

Pat Hill was among a group of retired police officers who on Dec. 2 called for a federal investigation of the ‪Chicago Police Department. Hill, who retired from the force in 2007, is the former executive director of the African American Police League, formerly the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League. (Max Herman/Chicago Reporter)

Pat Hill was among a group of retired police officers who on Dec. 2 called for a federal investigation of the ‪Chicago Police Department. Hill, who retired from the force in 2007, is the former executive director of the African American Police League, formerly the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League. (Max Herman/Chicago Reporter)

Pat Hill was among a group of retired police officers who on Dec. 2 called for a federal investigation of the ‪Chicago Police Department. Hill, who retired from the force in 2007, is the former executive director of the African American Police League, formerly the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League. (Max Herman/Chicago Reporter)

A scandal over police involvement in a string of burglaries ushered in the era of O.W. Wilson, a prominent police reformer who reorganized the department around principles of efficiency rather than patronage. Wilson promoted sergeants and recruited more African American officers, but his retirement in 1967 preceded a new era. The 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and Mayor Richard J. Daley’s order to “shoot to kill” rioters, caused mounting racial tensions. “Shoot to kill” was the backdrop for the formation of the Afro-American Patrolmen’s Union by Buzz Palmer.

The AAPL brought a lawsuit against CPD in 1973 for discriminatory hiring and management practices, and won in 1976 with a judge ruling that CPD must hire more blacks and women.

Hill noted that while Wednesday’s news conference achieved its goal of having black officers speak out, it failed to comment on the systemic nature of racism in the Chicago Police Department by focusing too closely on a single individual.

A similar issue is raised in the handling of McCarthy by Emanuel. Hill and others didn’t support McCarthy’s hiring when he was confirmed in 2012 and while she agrees with his dismissal, she sees the way politicians are “kicking him on the way down” as political posturing.

“I don’t think it’s about one individual,” she said. “I think it’s important for black officers currently in the department and retired to take positions on this because the black community needs that.”

Palmer and Hill also agree that the black community needs the Black Lives Matter movement, including Chicago-based groups like BYP100.

“We’re living in a new era,” Palmer explained. “One of the reasons why things always died down was because blacks did not have access to the media. Now they have access to social media. When Ferguson went up the newspapers didn’t cover it, but all at once all these young people were on their smartphones and they got a million hits and people had to pay attention to it.”

He added, “This is not an issue that is going to go away.”

This report was published in collaboration with The Chicago Reportera nonprofit investigative news organization that focuses on race, poverty and income inequality. Additional reporting by Will Cabaniss.

The Origins of IPRA

The Origins of IPRA

BY WILL CABANISS

This fall, journalists with the Invisible Institute will publish an interactive online database of all allegations of police misconduct in Chicago between March 2011 and March 2015, as well as partial data from earlier years. These records, obtained by the Invisible Institute through years of Freedom of Information Act litigation, offer an unprecedented view into the City’s system of police accountability. This series, produced in partnership with City Bureau, is meant to provide context for the forthcoming database.

The series of events that would eventually lead to an overhaul of the bodies that oversee the CPD started on February 21, 2007, when Officer Anthony Abbate, then a 12-year veteran of the force, physically assaulted a bartender named Karolina Obrycka.

Only after Obrycka’s attorneys released security footage of the incident – nearly one month later – was Abbate arrested. Police officials said they had been “unable to locate” him in the intervening weeks, even though they had apprehended Abbate in the confines of his own home. That claim took five years to disprove, when a federal jury found the police guilty of brushing Abbate’s case under the rug.

The Abbate case was not the only one on Chicago’s mind at the time. The city settled another high-profile dispute in December 2006, when it awarded $150,000 to a woman named Diane Bond. Bond had accused five CPD officers abusing both her physically and psychologically in and around her Stateway Gardens apartment.

November of 2007 saw the release of a study led by Craig Futterman, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, which alleged that Obrycka, Bond, and others were the victims of a CPD-wide code of silence.

“The odds are two in a thousand,” the study found, “that a Chicago police officer will receive any meaningful discipline as a result of being charged with abusing a civilian.”

Futterman and his team provided hard evidence that the department’s internal investigations were nearly meaningless. The evidence of cover-ups and inefficiencies within the Office for Professional Standards, the branch of the Chicago Police Department formerly responsible for investigating police misconduct, struck a particularly painful chord. But other broad swaths of the CPD were implicated in the report as well, from administrators down to officers.

The Abbate scandal led to the ouster of Superintendent Philip J. Cline, the CPD’s top administrator, who resigned in April 2007. Headlines concerning police misconduct dominated Chicago media outlets for months following both events, forcing city leaders to act or face the political consequences.

This environment set the foundations of the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA). That summer, the city council voted to dissolve OPS and establish an independent agency to oversee police investigations, a proposal championed by Mayor Richard M. Daley. The founding of IPRA was set to begin a new era of accountability and discipline with the CPD. Some praised the mayor, while others called the move a transparently political calculation.

To lead the new organization, the mayor tapped Ilana Rosenzweig, an attorney who had kept an eye on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office at the city’s Office of Independent Review. The mayor also brought in a new police chief from outside the department, a former FBI agent named Jody Weis.

Futterman said that at the time, he and his team were encouraged by the decision to establish an independent oversight committee and to bring someone from outside the CPD to lead it, but had reservations about the mayor’s motivations.

“There was a real risk of federal intervention in Chicago,” Futterman said, referring to the period after Cline stepped down, “and one of the ways in which they very adeptly attempted to head that off was to bring in someone from federal law enforcement themselves.”

The key to IPRA was built into its name – it would investigate cases independent of the police and city government officials, and that caseload would not be small.

The agency, as it is currently structured, intakes all claims of misconduct, investigating those that involve “excessive force, domestic violence, coercion through violence, or verbal bias-based abuse.” All other complaints are forwarded to the CPD’s Bureau of Internal Affairs (BIA).

Disciplinary recommendations for officers found guilty of misconduct, if issued at all, range from simple reprimands to suspensions. “Separation,” IPRA’s harshest possible recommendation and one of the many institutional euphemisms the agency employs, is police-speak for being fired.

IPRA then investigates complaints that involve “excessive force, domestic violence, coercion through violence, or verbal bias-based abuse,” its website says, and forwards all other cases to the Bureau of Internal Affairs (BIA).

How much attention and money these reform efforts received, however, was ultimately dictated by public outrage. While the scandal initially dominated Chicago headlines, the shock soon waned. As a result, Futterman said, IPRA wasn’t given the funding or the resources it needed to conduct thorough investigations or even find more people capable of carrying them out.

Just months after Rosenzweig’s appointment, IPRA was already facing difficulties. The Tribune reported in December 2007 that the agency, “budgeted for 85 positions … is short 24 people.” Each investigator was taking on thirty cases at a time – triple the number Rosenzweig thought was appropriate.

More important was the perception of critics that nothing had changed. Beyond the acronym swap, some initially saw few differences between OPS and IPRA.

“(Rosenzweig) inherited the exact same staff (from OPS) that was inadequate and had a culture of protecting the police,” Futterman said.

IPRA now has almost a decade of experience under its belt. It has a new leader, a former Drug Enforcement Administration officer named Scott Ando. (Rosenzweig abruptly left the agency in 2013 when her husband accepted a job in Singapore.)

But whether it has succeeded in gaining Chicagoans’ trust is unclear. Questions about its efficiency and supposed impartiality remain unanswered, too.

Eight years later, IPRA’s record shows few recommendations for punishments as severe as “separation.” At press time, the latest high-profile case of a police-involved shooting to pass through IPRA’s doors is that of Officer Dante Servin, who fatally shot 22 year-old Rekia Boyd nearly three and a half years ago. Servin shot into a crowd while off duty in Lawndale, claiming that he saw a man in the group produce a gun. Boyd was caught in his line of fire. No weapon was ever recovered.

On September 16, 2015, IPRA recommended to police chief Garry McCarthy that Servin be fired. It was only the second such verdict the agency had ever issued related to a police-involved shooting. (IPRA has also never found an on-duty shooting to be unjustified.) Before Servin’s case was that of Officer Francisco Perez, who fired 16 bullets at a car while off-duty. Perez was fired this past summer not for his actions, according to Supt. McCarthy, but for lying about them during the investigation.

Yet the reality is that, even after this most recent decision, Servin’s career with the CPD is by no means over. In fact, should McCarthy reject IPRA’s recommendation, he would save Servin from the ignominy of facing the Police Board, a panel of nine private citizens who make the final call on allegations of misconduct. IPRA’s recommendations are still no more than that – recommendations. The case against Servin, should McCarthy want it to, would come to a standstill.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that “IPRA has also never found an on-duty shooting to be justified.” This article has been updated to reflect that IPRA has never found an on-duty shooting to be unjustified.

Published in partnership with the South Side Weekly.