Portrait of Impunity – Part I

The special prosecutor’s report on allegations that African-American suspects were tortured by former police commander Jon Burge and officers under his command, released on July 19, reaches three broad conclusions:

  • Burge and other officers committed serious crimes. Although the report does not use the word “torture,” deputy special state’s attorney Robert Boyle did so at the press conference at which it was released.
  • They cannot be prosecuted for those crimes, because the statute of limitations has run.
  • The Chicago Police Department and the Cook County State’s Attorney have corrected the underlying conditions that allowed Burge and his men to commit crimes with impunity. “I don’t believe,” Boyle said at the press conference, “this could happen again.”

In a statement issued on July 21, Mayor Daley echoed the last of these conclusions. The City supported the release of the report, he said, “because the public deserves to know the full story of this shameful episode in our history.” Citizens also need to know “that the city has, in the two decades since, put in place a series of safeguards aimed at preventing such abuses.”

“As a Department,” Police Superintendent Cline declared in a July 19 statement, “we take this matter very seriously because past perceptions can erode all the good work and progress that has been accomplished over the years.”

More recently, on September 7, when four Special Operations officers accused of robbing drug dealers were indicted, Superintendent Cline and Cook County State’s Attorney Devine took the occasion to press the argument that the CPD aggressively investigates allegations of misconduct. “This case happened,” Cline said, “because the Chicago Police Department made it happen.”

The next day Mayor Daley praised Cline and his department. “They did a thorough investigation and they uncovered it. That says a lot about the Chicago Police Department—about investigating themselves.” He added, “The Chicago Police Department is doing this. No one else is doing it. They’re doing it.”

For the most part, the press has uncritically accepted official claims that the structural conditions that allowed Burge and his associates to operate with impunity have been corrected. Thus, for example, on the public television program “Chicago Week in Review” on September 8, Andy Shaw of ABC 7 News observed of the Special Operations indictments:

I’m mostly surprised at the stupidity of these elite officers to actually think that you can shake down a lot of drug dealers, and because they’re drug dealers you’re going to do it with impunity. I can’t imagine how you could think you could get away with this.

None of the veteran journalists participating in the panel discussion challenged this assessment.

Do the facts support the official narrative? Has the CPD instituted reforms that serve to prevent abuses? Do victims of police misconduct now have effective forms of recourse?

Apart from advances in technology and forensics that reduce the possibility of mistaken identity, the Mayor and Superintendent cite several major reforms. Let’s consider each in turn:

Videotaping of interrogations. “The most important step” taken to protect suspects during interrogations, according to the Superintendent, is “the videotaping of interrogations so there is a record of the conduct of officers as well as those being questioned.” He did not mention that videotaping is limited to murder cases. (Why doesn’t the same logic apply to other serious crimes?) In any case, this is a significant advance. It was one of the recommendations of the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment. The CPD, as well as a number of other police departments in the state, resisted the proposed reform on the grounds it would hamper law enforcement and be unduly expensive. It was enacted by the state legislature in 2003 and took effect in 2005. The CPD’s history of opposing the videotaping of interrogations, which it now heralds as a key measure in combating police abuse, does not make the reform any less welcome. It does underscore that meaningful change will not be achieved without sustained pressure on the department.

Policies regarding treatment of witnesses. Among “advances to protect witnesses” cited by the Superintendent is “a new special order that outlines how witnesses are treated while discussing cases with investigators.” This special order “provides clear-cut instructions to detectives on our standards on how witnesses should be treated.” Again, these reforms were not initiated by the CPD but imposed on it. The special order was adopted in the context of Ayala v. City of Chicago, a class action suit brought against the CPD by the Mandel Clinic and MacArthur Justice Center of the University of Chicago Law School. The suit claims that witnesses have been detained and held in locked interview rooms against their will, in some instances for several days. It seeks injunctive relief against such practices. The judge was at the point of entering an injunction when the City adopted its new policy in January of this year. The case is ongoing. The plaintiffs argue that CPD practices with respect to witnesses remain constitutionally deficient.

Limit on how long suspects may be held without being charged. The Superintendent stated that the CPD adopted in 2003 a policy that requires suspects to be released within 48 hours if they are not formally charged. This policy is in fact a matter of belated, minimal compliance with longstanding constitutional precedents. The United States Supreme Court held in Gerstein v. Pugh in 1975 that the Fourth Amendment requires a “prompt” judicial determination of probable cause as a prerequisite for detention. In County of Riverside v. McLaughlin in 1991 the Court interpreted “prompt” to mean that the outer limit a suspect could reasonably held without being brought before a judge for a determination of probable cause was 48 hours. Beyond 48 hours, the burden of proof shifts to the government to show that there was an emergency or other extraordinary circumstance to justify the protracted detention. The CPD only adopted this policy after many challenges, in both civil and criminal cases, to its detention practice. Again, while any movement, no matter how feeble, toward compliance with constitutional standards is welcome, such movement has only been achieved through repeated challenges to CPD policies and practices.

New personnel performance management system. The Mayor and Superintendent report dramatic improvements in the CPD’s system for monitoring officers. According to the Superintendent, the department has “made significant advances in officer accountability with the recently announced personnel performance management system.” And Mayor Daley stated: “we have put in place a new personnel performance management system to detect patterns of misconduct on the part of individual officers, so the department can intervene early, modify their behavior or separate them from the force.” They are referring to the personnel suite of the CPD’s state-of-the-art information-based management system I-CLEAR. As I reported in “Kicking the Pigeon,” the monitoring functions of the personnel suite exist only on paper. They have not been implemented. As of February 2005, academic evaluators of I-CLEAR stated that the personnel component “remained in the conceptual stage.” On April 15, 2006, the Sun-Times reported that Superintendent Cline had announced a new computerized system that will track various job performance measures and flag problems requiring intervention. The article noted, “No timetable has been set for launching the new system.” There is no evidence that the system was implemented during the three months between the Superintendent’s April 15 announcement and his July 19 statement. His phrasing is thus technically accurate: the “personnel performance management system” has been “recently announced.” But what does the Mayor mean when he says the system is “in place”?