Kicking the Pigeon #16: The Regime of Not-Knowing

In view of the gravity of harms to citizens, communities, and institutions that flow from police abuses, what are the impediments to instituting an effective monitoring and disciplinary system? Clearly, they are not technological. The City could, with available technology, have put an adequate system in place years ago. So what is the basis for resistance? Rogue officers have obvious reasons to resist effective oversight, but why do their supervisors protect them?

As a matter of logic rather than direct knowledge, it seems clear that senior CPD officials are less concerned about protecting rogue officers than about protecting the institution from the consequences of what an effective early warning system would reveal. The purpose of such a system is to detect signs an officer is beginning to stray. As the Mayor’s Commission on Police Integrity put it, “small problems become big ones if left unattended.” An early warning system designed to perform this function in the future by organizing available data will necessarily disclose the consequences of not having had an effective system in the past. When the City institutes such a system, it will have to confront a number of problems, once small, that having been “left unattended,” are now “big.”

The patterns of abuse disclosed will demand action. They will make visible the extent of the suffering inflicted by rogue officers—the number of convictions based on false testimony and abusive practices, and in cases of arrests in public housing, the number of families made homeless by “One Strike” evictions. The costs for the City—politically, institutionally, monetarily—will be substantial. The courts will be flooded by legal challenges brought by those who claim to have suffered at the hands of officers identified as abusive. The recent experience of Los Angeles is instructive. As of April, 2005, it had paid out close to $70 million to settle more than 200 lawsuits arising out of the so-called Rampart Scandal involving, in the words of the City attorney who handled the claims, the abuses of “a handful of rogue officers.”

Yet the costs of the status quo, though partially hidden because spread over time, are even more staggering. The City currently pays out millions of dollars each year to settle excessive force cases (and additional millions to provide legal representation for the officer-defendants). The total cost of settlements in 2004, according to the Chicago Reporter, was more than $20 million. By settling rather than allowing cases to go to trial, the City avoids judgment, disclosure, and acknowledgement. It avoids the possibility that a judge will dictate reforms.

Apart from the settlements, it is hard to assign a dollar figure to the cost of investing so much institutional energy in not knowing about patterns of abuse. Taken together, the code of silence among officers on the ground, the OPS machinery for converting citizen complaints into findings of “not sustained,” and the institutional resistance to effective monitoring form a single, unified system—a regime of not-knowing.

This system is enabled by the ideological/narrative medium of “the war on drugs”—the official myths and social scientific folklore, the reflexive journalism and popular entertainment that shape our perceptions of abandoned communities such as Stateway Gardens.

As you read this account of the abuses Diane Bond alleges Chicago police officers committed against her—so raw, so appalling, so unacceptable—did you find yourself thinking, “But maybe she’s a drug dealer. . . maybe someone close to her, her son perhaps or her boyfriend, is a drug dealer. . . maybe her community is overrun by drug dealers”? Did you find yourself searching for reasons that could somehow explain and perhaps justify the police conduct alleged?

The impulse is understandable. Indeed, it is hard to resist, because we do not want to believe police officers would act this way. But consider the implications. Are “the series of horrendous acts” (to quote the City attorneys) alleged in the Bond case any less horrendous, if the officers had probable cause to come to her door? The defendants are not making that argument. They are flatly denying any contact whatsoever with Bond on the dates of the alleged incidents. Yet is there perhaps a sense in which we are inclined to make the argument on their behalf? Are we so conditioned to apartheid justice—to “the war on drugs” as an exception to constitutional norms akin to the exception being carved out for “the war on terror”—that we can no longer confidently recognize the heinous nature of the crimes at issue?

This summer one of the University of Chicago law students who participates in the Stateway Civil Rights Project interviewed for a job at a Chicago firm. The lawyer interviewing him asked what he had found most interesting in law school. He described his work on the Bond case. The lawyer became incredulous and hostile. He refused to accept that there was not a rational explanation for the Bond incidents.

“I know cops,” the lawyer told the student. “I know good cops, and I know bad cops. There is always a reason.”

After decades of mass incarceration and the practice of guilt by association embodied in policies such as “One Strike,” have we so lost our bearings that the mantra “gangs and drugs” suffices as an all-purpose rationale for any act a police officer commits in an abandoned neighborhood? Has the process by which those who live in such neighborhoods come to be defined as “criminals” rather than “blacks” (or “fellow citizens” or “neighbors”) advanced so far that it now blinds us to the character and antecedents of what we are allowing to be done in our names?

To be continued…