Reform must come through mayor — not top cop

Whoever gets the superintendent job next, whether white, black or neither, will just be another puppet, someone whose strings can be cut by the mayor the next time there’s a scandal.

The Summerdale Scandal of 1960 — eight Chicago policemen from that North Side district caught working with a burglar to steal and fence hot merchandise — so shocked the city that Mayor Richard J. Daley fired the police commissioner, Timothy O’Connor, and promised reforms.

Daley recognized the scandal had aroused a normally easy-to-pacify body politic to a degree he had not seen before, a degree that could have an adverse effect on his political future. Reelected once, he was not yet the autocratic power he was to become. However, was savvy enough to know that after all his ardent promises to make the police free of political influence, the smartest course, politically, might be to do exactly that. And he did. He actually followed his much claimed axiom that “Good Government is Good Politics.”

After consulting with an independent search panel, he picked as boss the person who headed the panel, a professor of criminology at the University of California-Berkeley and a former police chief in California and Kansas, O.W. Wilson. He was called superintendent instead of commissioner.

Wilson stayed in Chicago from early 1960 to late 1967 and Daley, indeed, kept out of the way while Wilson made extensive reforms. During this period Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. moved to Chicago and led marches into hostile white neighborhoods, and the police protected him and his people. Dick Gregory led nightly marches for more than two months into the heart of bigoted Bridgeport, right past Daley’s house. Wilson’s men protected them, too.

O.W. Wilson

Former Chicago Police Superintendent O.W. Wilson.

And then Wilson retired, much to the relief of an agitated Daley. Daley appointed an old friend and operative, James Conlisk, superintendent. Control of the police went back to Daley.

Not long after Wilson left, in April of 1968, police roughed up marchers in an anti-Viet Nam War parade into the Loop (Daley was for the war). They beat news photographers, and chased demonstrators across the fountain at the Picasso statue before arresting them.

Then in August came the 1968 Democratic Convention, bad news for outside agitators that Daley detested.

No mayor since Wilson left has given a police superintendent independence, in spite of the fact that far worse crimes than some coppers stealing TVs have been committed by the police. Mayors have to feel their own political careers threatened by police actions in order to guarantee a police chief a free hand in running the department.

Mayor Emanuel has shown absolutely no inclination to relinquish any control whatsoever over any city department or the schools—just the opposite, in fact–and certainly not a police force headed by his puppet, Garry McCarthy. He has fired McCarthy, but it means nothing because McCarthy was not the real boss, Emanuel was.

Whoever gets the job next, whether white, black or neither, will just be another puppet, someone whose strings can be cut by the mayor the next time there’s a scandal.

Reform will come only if Emanuel, ala Daley-Wilson, feels his political future is threatened if he does not grant true independence to a new chief.

And only a sustained demand from the public and various news outlets and watchdog groups can successfully impart that threat to an arrogant Emanuel.

Don’t bet on it.

Jim Tuohy is a Chicago freelance writer and former associate editor of Chicago Lawyer.