Public outrage over the fatal shooting of African American teenager Laquan McDonald by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke inevitably will lead to procedural tinkering that Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez (assuming they survive the scandal) will hail as “reform” — modified, perhaps, by such superlatives as “sweeping,” “comprehensive,” or “extensive.” None, alas, will utter the adjective that history tells us most likely is warranted — “meaningless.”
The history of Chicago police reform is long and hardly glorious. The reforms implemented by Police Superintendent O.W. Wilson in the aftermath of the “Burglars in Blue” scandal in the early 1960s were impressive, but they prevented neither the “police riot” during the Democratic National Convention in 1968 nor the “murder of Fred Hampton” in 1969. Similarly, the reforms emanating from Congressman Ralph Metcalfe’s campaign against police brutality in the 1970s have had little, if any, enduring impact, as recent events have illustrated. What endures is the brutality. The reforms were transitory palliatives.
A thorough investigation of the shooting of Laquan McDonald, of course, is in order, as are investigations into every other recent and ensuing use of deadly force by Chicago police. Chicagoans deserve, and have every right to demand, honest answers — but the answers by themselves won’t change the status quo.
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Police brutality, like violent crime generally, is largely impervious to deterrence through legislation. Stemming it, thus, is by default the province of police leadership — which has been sorely lacking in Chicago almost continuously since the retirement of O.W. Wilson in 1967.
Although post-Wilson city contracts with the Fraternal Order of Police obstruct internal investigations of police brutality, an effective means of addressing the problem remains open to the superintendent of police. That is the power to reassign officers with apparent propensities for violence to jobs with less potential to harm those whom the police are sworn to serve and protect.
While the culture that produces and protects violent and crooked Chicago cops predates McCarthy’s 2011 arrival in Chicago by multiple generations, and while many disciplinary complaints undoubtedly are unfounded or exaggerated, patterns surely could be coaxed from the data that would be sufficient to justify reassigning officers, even though the evidence may be insufficient to fire them.
From day one, McCarthy has had the power to establish procedures to identify potential problem officers like Jason Van Dyke, who was the object of nearly a score of disciplinary complaints and a civil suit alleging excessive force in which a jury awarded $350,000 to the complainant. An even more egregious example is former Commander Glenn Evans, who was the object of nine excessive-force complaints and a number of civil suits before his indictment last year for aggravated battery and official misconduct. Even after DNA testing left no doubt Evans had shoved the barrel of his service weapon into a suspect’s mouth and throat, McCarthy expressed support for Evans and left him in place for months.
Ample evidence to justify moving Van Dyke and Evans — neutralizing their danger to the public and to the reputation of Chicago’s Finest — was, or certainly should have been, at McCarthy’s disposal. That’s where he failed the city and the man who hired him, Rahm Emanuel.
McCarthy had his opportunity, and he blew it. Now he appears to be beyond redemption. It is up to the mayor now to make sure that the next superintendent will do everything within his power to address brutality and corruption. Emanuel’s challenge is to identify and support an effective leader committed to using all tools at his or her disposal to bring accountability and transparency to the Chicago Police Department.
Anything less will perpetuate the perception — especially prevalent in minority communities — that the department is a racist, militaristic, and reform-resistant organization, and that the mayor is content with the status quo.