Friday, July 25, 2008

A Chicago Cop's Story

by Libby Hellmann

This post isn’t meant to be an apology for or a defense of the Chicago Police Department. It’s not meant to excuse. Or explain. I’m just passing on information from a friend who’s a Chicago cop. Part of the rank and file.

I bring it up because I think it’s representative of many organizations that undergo significant and rapid change. And because, while I was on the other side of the barricades forty years ago, writing crime fiction has given me – if not an appreciation – a respect for the men and women who put their lives on the line with every traffic stop.

Given that, something is wrong in the CPD. Something beyond politics.

For those of you who don’t live in Chicago, the Chicago Police Department has a new superintendent. Former FBI Special Agent Jody Weis was brought in from Philadelphia by Mayor Daley last February. Weis’s mission was to shake up the Department after a wave of scandals threatened the city’s political and economic climate as well as Chicago’s Olympic hosting hopes.

Weis did what he was told. Within a couple of months, he’d dismissed 21 of 25 Commanders and made other wholesale changes to CPD’s leadership and structure. The objective was to weed out the worst of the rogue cops and the corruption. The problem is that Weis might have gone too far too fast. In trying to clean up, he has weakened the average cop's ability to do his or her job.

Now any officer who doesn’t dot every “I” or cross every “T” risks sanctions from the upper echelon. Although they may be guilty only of minor or procedural mistakes, they’re being lumped together with cops accused of criminal activity. Long time cops are being taken off the street and put into desk jobs -- mostly because no one knows what else to do with them. The administration doesn’t yet know how far Weis wants to go, or even exactly what he wants, so a lot of good officers are being sidelined and sentenced to a purgatory of bureaucratic limbo. In a way, my friend says, criminals have more rights than do police officers accused of misconduct. He knows of officers who've been stripped of their powers for over nine months and still haven't been told what the allegations are.

More problematic, the cops on the streets no longer know what’s expected of them. And because they don’t know, and can’t count on support from the administration, they’re not going the extra mile. “Why even try if they’re gonna be hung out to dry?” My friend asks. For a police force that, my friend admits, has always been pretty aggressive, this is a huge change. And not for the better.

Even worse, some of the organizations designed to help cops who’ve gone afoul of the rules aren’t. The Police Sergeant’s organization, for example, can’t represent its own members because one of the attorneys is already representing Keith Herrera, one of several SOS cops accused of robbery and kidnapping.

The result? There’s been a spike in crime. Chicago’s murder rate is up 13 per cent; so are shootings and other street violence. While a down economy is a contributing factor, the media is feeding on it, regularly bringing out stories critical of cops, some of which may or may not be significant. My friend didn’t mention it, but a case in point might be the tow truck bribe scandal, which is just now being reported, even though a federal investigation has been ongoing since 2003. An investigation, btw, that was initially brought to the Feds by the CPD.

Consequently, morale in the department never been lower. Some of it is because people still trying to figure out what “the new guy” wants, but much of it is the lack of support for the officer on the street. “It’s just not happening now,” my friend says. And he’s worried.

OK. To be fair, there’s another side to this. Some people feel that cops like my friend are just whining because they’ve finally been taken to task. That, for the first time, they don’t have carte blanche to operate in their erstwhile aggressive and freewheeling ways. Some are applauding the fact that a high profile case of police brutality was actually referred to the Feds by CPD. Some are encouraged that Weis is trying to clean house. And they’re happy that he's an outsider and the city finally has a Superintendent that's not beholden to the "Chicago Way."

Still, I feel uneasy when the people we count on to keep chaos at bay don’t feel they can do the job they’ve been trained to do. There are too many examples where it’s triggered the breakdown of something more fundamental.

What do you think?

Finally, depending on which side of the fence you’re on, you’ll either love – or hate – this.


Dana King said...

I don't live in Chicago anymore, so I'm out of the loop on the day-to-day stuff, but it sounds here like you have a quintessentially American situation: the pendulm of what's acceptable has swung too far one way, so it gets pushed back the other with such force everyone in its path is knocked around.

I am regularly amazed that police forces can function at all, considering what political footballs they are. Living between Washington and Baltimore, and with a daughter who has Baltimore cops for an aunt and uncle, it's safe to say anything seen on THE WIRE was not an exaggeration.

I'm not excusing crooked cops; criminal or brutal behavior should not be tolerated, and those cops should be booted off the force, and face criminal prosecution, if appropriate. The trick is not to let the perfect get in the way of the good. Does it really adversely affect law enforcement if a cop get a discount on a hot dog? If a report has a few errors that do not adversely affect the outcome of the incident? Retrain him if you must, come down when necessary, but no one benefits if cops are spending more time looking over their shoulders than looking for crimes.

guyot said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
guyot said...

This was an episodic arc of THE WIRE, based on real events, I think.

Baltimore is very similar to Chicago in a lot of ways. I believe corruption doesn't start at the bottom and roll up, it's the other way around.

Daley bringing in someone to "clean up corruption" is kind of like a mob boss bringing in someone to get rid of organized crime.

There will always be good cops and bad cops, like every other aspect of human life. I don't know if there's a more difficult or more underpaid job in this country.

I don't excuse corruption in any form, but I'll always be more inclined to take a cop's pov when talking about the life of cops, rather than someone who's never carried a shield.

Sara Paretsky said...

these are real and troubling concerns, Libby, and I don't think there's an easy answer. A cop I know shares your friend's perspective, that the spike in murders in South Shore/West Englewood is a direct result of the disbanding of SOS. He also thinks every citizen should be armed.