By Richard Muhammad
(Editor's Note: This commentary was originally published in the April 20, 2007 edition of The Chicago Defender, one of America's few remaining daily Black-owned newspapers.)
When the mayor of Chicago speaks, people listen. Undoubtedly police recruits were listening when Mayor Richard Daley warned April 18 that officers are “in a fishbowl,” and shouldn’t be goaded into stepping over the line by wrongdoers during academy graduation ceremonies.
The problem isn’t what the mayor said, but what was apparently left unsaid. The mayor’s focus, according to a Chicago Sun-Times report was “keep your cool” and be good ambassadors for visitors to Chicago.
What appears to be missing is a strong rebuke of police misconduct and a stern warning that criminal acts by officers won’t be ignored.
Attempts to obtain a transcript of the mayor’s remarks or copy of the prepared text were unsuccessful. A mayoral spokesman declined to provide prepared remarks and said no press release or transcripts were available.
When it was pointed out that the mayor’s remarks apparently didn’t focus on the obligation to serve and protect or strongly warn recruits that violations of citizens’ rights and criminal misconduct, like beating a 90 pound woman for no reason, would result in loss of police powers and criminal prosecutions, the spokesman had a response: There is “no place in the Chicago Police Department for officers who brutalize” or discriminate in their treatment of citizens. He added that such sentiment is usually included in remarks for the mayor. But the spokesman couldn’t say exactly what words were spoken because he wasn’t present.
It’s obvious a major theme of the mayor’s remarks focused an awareness of public scrutiny and expectations. Not bad.
But coming the heels of off-duty, 300 pound officer Anthony Abatte’s videotaped beating of a tiny female bartender, his personal backdoor escort to avoid media cameras as he went to court and harassment of reporters covering the event by officers at a police captain’s behest, along with t-shirts purchased by officers to show support after that captain was disciplined, it appears plenty effort is exerted to protect bad apples as opposed to dumping them out of the barrel. Abatte’s on-camera assault was provoked by the bartender’s decision not to serve the drunken officer more alcohol.
The failure to squarely condemn criminal police misconduct is part of a failure to confront longstanding problems of police brutality and abuse. One researcher found a great number of complaints against relatively few officers, who were never disciplined or fired. The logical result is more brazen activity from bad officers and a blind eye from officers who see departmental and city leaders unwilling to uproot the problem.
The result is not just the abuse of law abiding citizens but millions of dollars spent on civil judgments. The city reportedly spent $16 million settle cases of brutality cases from about 1990 and 1995. In March 2007, a lawsuit against the city was settled for $1.75 million from a shooting after a Chicago Bulls basketball championship in 1998. One of the most embarrassing cases in city police history was the accusation that a seven- and eight-year-old boy killed 11-year-old Ryan Harris. An adult sex offender was later convicted of the crime. One of the boys reached a $6.2 million settlement with the city in 2005.
According to a 2007 study released by Developing Government Accountability to the People, the city paid out $100 million to settle civil suits filed against officers for excessive force, illegal searches and false arrest.
In the worst cases, police failures lead to the deaths, like the fatal shooting of Michael Pleasance in 2003 by an officer who violated procedures for handling his weapon and lied. It was recommended that the cop be fired, according to the Chicago Reader. Instead in 2005, the officer was promoted to detective by former Chicago Superintendent of Police Philip Cline, who resigned in the wake of separate videotaped incidents showing officers beating civilians.
The “few bad apples” excuse shifts responsibility from the department to weed out bad cops and skirts the mayor’s responsibility to oversee the department. The graduation of 46 new officers was an opportunity to send a loud and clear message:
Chicago will have zero tolerance for criminal police misconduct. It didn’t happen and that is a shame.