Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Bad Cops, Women, and Chicago

by Libby Hellmann

Chicago has been front and center in crime doings over the past couple of weeks. First there was the young man arrested for planning to bomb a Rockford shopping mall. Then there was the man who killed three people at an intellectual property law firm over a portable toilet. But the crime that captured my interest has to do with the latest bad cop scandal, called Operation Broken Oath.

For those not in Chicagoland, several months ago 4 Special Ops cops were accused of home invasions, armed violence, and burglary, mostly in the form of shaking down suspected drug dealers. Their crimes were so pervasive that over a dozen OTHER Chicago cops – in what has to be one of the biggest cases of breaking the blue code of silence – decided to rat on their colleagues. Then two weeks ago two more cops were charged. One of them, Margaret Hopkins, 32, a 7-year CPD veteran, was ordered held on $750,000 bail.

Excuse me? Did someone say “Margaret?” A woman? Alas, yes. There she was in the court sketches with long hair, charged with home invasion and official misconduct. If convicted, she faces a sentence of up to 30 years.

Admittedly, men don’t have corner on corruption and crime. Neither do police officers. But something about the fact that a woman was involved made me sad. Maybe I’m being a reverse-sexist here, but I can’t help feeling that the struggle to succeed in a male dominated environment meant that a woman had to be more competent than the men. Extra good. As in being held to a higher standard of accountability.

Most of the women I asked about this with didn’t agree. In fact, their comments were pretty hard-nosed, along the lines of:

-- “Only one in seven was a woman?”
-- “It’s about time we got equal plunder…”
-- “Finally, a woman gets in on the action…”

I understand the cop culture requires you to “go along to get along.” I also realize that cops risk their lives every day. One of the things that makes it easier to do that is the knowledge that another cop is covering your back. If – for any reason – that back-up is just a tad slow in coming, a cop is exposed and vulnerable. Not a good place to be. Is that what happened here? Did Officer Hopkins feel she had no choice but to go along in order to survive?

I asked a former female Chicago cop about that. Basically, she agreed. Within a unit, she said, you know after a month who’s dirty and who’s not. You know who you want to show up on a job and who you don't. Let’s say you’re on the West side and you see your fellow cops, including your boss, filling the trunks of their cars with meat. What do you do? Everyone suffers under tyranny of the phone call – it only takes one call to get transferred if you piss someone off. So you don’t say anything. Maybe you even take a leg of lamb.

In fact, she went on, if a woman wants a promotion, there’s often a quid pro quo. It might be sexual favors, looking the other way, or other repercussions that could be worse than transfers. Commanders in some units have been known to pressure women.. because they are women. They expect women to continue to prove themselves and use that obligation to play them.

She also brought up another interesting point: that some women cops might use their gender as leverage. Women cops are less likely to be caught , she argues, because they’re not in the spotlight. She talked about checking bar licenses on the West side. When a cop walks in, the first thing a bar owner might do is shake the cop’s hand. Inside would be a $100 bill. However if a female cop goes in with a male cop, the $100 would invariably go to him; the assumption being that female cops would be shocked by the offer of a bribe. That feeds into a sense of reverse entitlement, she says. Women cops start to do the same things the men are doing, but figure no one will notice them and they won’t take the fall.

It gets complicated, doesn’t it? And unless Officer Hopkins writes a book or sits down for an interview, both of which are probably unlikely, we’ll never really know what motivated her.

What do you think? Is corrupt corrupt no matter who does it? Or is it different for female cops?


raxelrod said...


What an interesting topic! In my younger days I have had some experience with the Chicago Police Department, mainly male, but some female cops. The female cops always seemed to the more hardass bunch of the lot, like they had to prove something – and they do. Without their sidearm and/or their male buddies backing them up, few of them are hardly physically intimidating.

What does surprise me about the incident you have reported on, is the involvement of female cops in such overtly violent and aggressive acts. I know society is changing, but the vast majority of violent crimes in this country are still comitted by men.

In a profession where aggression is part of the job description, I guess it shouldn't surprise me that cops would be involved in such a thing, but it did. The blatantly overt nature of these crimes is shocking. It makes one wonder if this behavior went unreported for so long, what less spectatcular but nontheless disturbing activities are happening right under our noses?

As far as female cops being involved, again I guess it shouldn't surprise me, but it did.

Michael Dymmoch said...

In her book Anatomy of a Secret Life, Gail Saltz points out that the difference between secrets and secret lives is a matter of degree. So taking anything is a step onto the slippery slope. For anyone.

Behavior that works is repeated. That goes for aggressive behavior as well as unpunished theft. What keeps most women from being aggressive is socialization. But police training teaches aggressive (not necesarily violent) behavior. So it's not strange that a policewoman who's stumbled down the path toward the dark side would be as aggressive as any policeman.

The cliche men put women on a pedestal so they won't have to look them in the eye is trite because it's true. As long as women have to be better at their jobs than men to be considered competent or more moral than men just because they're women, we'll continue to be unequal.

Maryann Mercer said...

Assuming the "go along to get along" applies to both genders, I'd have to come down on the "corruption is corruption" side of the discussion. Gender shouldn't be used by either side as a justification for excessive anything. Perhaps the fact that we hear more about 'bad male cops' than we do about their female counterparts is what makes Margaret's involvement stand out. Sadly, if she had embezzled funds from a bank, no one would have been as shocked. That particular crime seems to be unigender, at least in my city.
That said, we don't know the reasons behind her (or their) actions. Doesn't make it right, but that knowledge might at least allow some insight as to why she felt the need to 'go along'.
Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Libby.

The Home Office said...

Taking the stray leg of lamb is quite a ways from home invasions rating a $750,000 bond. I think most people might lament, but understand, not causing a scene over the former. As for the the latter, a line from Lonesome Dove comes to mind. Jake Spoon is about to hanged for falling in with a murderous gang. Jake says he was just trying to get across the prairie without getting scalped. Gus McRae replied by saying it seemed to have taken Jake an awfully long time to take his leave.

Going along to get along is one thing. A line has to be drawn somewhere, preferably before a series of major felonies.

Libby Hellmann said...

Thanks for everyone's comments. This blog is perhaps a mirror image of Sara's last week. Women, whatever their situation, still face issues that are the result of interactions with men, who dominate the society. And while I love men and couldn't live without them, I often wonder how life would be different if we lived in a matriarchal, female-dominated society.

Sara Paretsky said...

Nicole Hollander's bartender Harry once asked Sylvia what a world without men would be like and she said, "No crime and lots of fat happy women." Girls can get just as angry as boys, but don't act out their anger as often. Is it because we're socialized to be more passive, because we don't rely on our physical strength to handle situations, or because our brains are wired differently--there are a few library-ful books supporting any of those views, and we just don't know. But the pressures that can be put on women to go along are different than those put on men, as Libby's cop friend testifies. And Libby, like you, and other women of our generation who worked hard to knock down barriers--I think we expect more of the sisters, and are disappointed when they turn out to be all too human.
Thanks for putting so much thought into a great post.

ab said...

I'd say we are wired differently, and I recommend Norah Vincent's "Selfmade man", a journey that took unexpected turns and ended with her absolute feeling of a very deep difference between men and women. A lot is definitely socialization, more than was believed 50 years ago, but a lot is definitely not.

Imagine men falling asleep tomorrow. What do you believe what happen in Iraq?

In Israel/Palestine?

In prisons in Pakistan, Jordan, Kurdistan, where women are locked up simply to save them from being killed bu their family in the name of honor?

As for female cops, I know many are very tough indeed - at least partly because they have to in the environment. As for female crimes, fraud is one of the most frequent. Question is: Would Hopkins have started this on her own?

Anonymous said...

As a retired female CPD I'd have to say we ran the gamut. The really smart ones knew how to use their brains instead of their brawn. I came from a big tough irish family and learned how to BS at my mothers knee. Many, many big bosses thought that someday we would la-di-dah. It was the thrill of the promise I think that they liked. Once a copper has sex with a female cop, she becomes a pig. Do they think we are deaf and don't hear how they speak of their "date's"? The fem. police, however, that do not fool around and are hard working street officers are "the real police" and they will go to the ends of the earth for you. The poster that said you must keep your mouth shut about anything going on, is 100% correct. Just find somewhere else to go. Could be why you saw so many females working inside in the eighties.

Anonymous said...

In Wheeling, the most disrespectful, disgusting officer on their police force is a female. Why her behavior is tolerated is bewildering.

Anonymous said...

Sara wrote; " Girls can get just as angry as boys, but don't act out their anger as often. Is it because we're socialized to be more passive, because we don't rely on our physical strength to handle situations, or because our brains are wired differently?"

Uh, ever hear of a thing called testosterone? DUH!