Why Chicago police videos are only half the story

Chicago released audio and video files from 101 open investigations into police abuse Friday. It's positive step, experts say, but real police reform starts in City Hall.

Independent Police Review Authority/AP
In this April 30, 2012, video frame grab provided by the Independent Police Review Authority, Chicago police fire shots at a vehicle. Police alleged three men were robbing an electronics store by putting items into a stolen vehicle parked inside the store. Police said at the time that officers surrounded the building to get the men to surrender, but once the suspects tried to drive off and the vehicle hit an officer, police fired shots. It is one of the more than 300 video clips released Friday by the IPRA that investigates police misconduct cases.

Six months after the city released a video showing a police officer killing a black teenager, Chicago released video and case files from 101 open investigations into police killings and abuse Friday.

The move marks the implementation of a new police video policy in Chicago, announced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in February, in which most videos will be released within 60 days of incidents.

When white police officer Jason VanDyke shot black teen Laquan McDonald 16 times, the city sat on the video for 13 months before releasing it. The new policy, Mayor Emanuel said, is a sea change in the way the city oversees the police department.

“The policy we are implementing today is a major step forward to promote transparency, and it makes us one of the leading cities in America to guarantee timely public access to this breadth of information involving sensitive police incidents,” he said in a statement.

To be sure, Emanuel is under pressure. Some 66 percent of Chicagoans disapprove of the way he is handling oversight of the Chicago Police Department, according to a New York Times and Kaiser Family Foundation survey last month. His overall approval rating, it suggested, is 25 percent.

When the video of the McDonald shooting was finally released last winter, organizers held protests across the city calling for Emanuel to resign.

The demand was more than just typical protest politics. In Chicago, the mayor has long been a virtual king – ruling over a massive political machine that has extended into the police department itself.

Now, Chicago’s faltering attempts to make progress on police reforms – falling behind other cities such as New York and Los Angeles – are reflecting back on the mayor himself. Much needs to change, experts say, but the first steps start in City Hall.

“In Chicago, the police have pretty much always been accountable to the mayor,” says Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “That’s been a Chicago tradition.”

A new level of transparency

For that reason, recent attempts at police reform have met with skepticism here.

“The prevailing opinion among activists in the black community is that [today’s video release] is just a public relations manipulation by the mayor,” says Eric Russell, a community organizer who works on behalf of the families of people killed by police. “It doesn’t remove the blood from the mayor’s hands.”

Indeed, there is a prevailing sense that new video recording technology – not any earnest desire for reform – has forced the mayor’s hand, says John Zeigler, who has worked with the police on community relations as the director of the Egan Office of Urban Education and Community Partnerships at DePaul University in Chicago.

Still, he says, that has brought a new level of transparency to the police department.

Following last winter’s protests, the mayor replaced the head of police and appointed a task force to come up with a list of reforms for the police department. One of the task force’s first suggestions was to change the police department’s video-release policy.

The mayor says he has now come good on that proposal. Implementation was delayed only because the police officers and families of victims whose videos were going to be made public had to be contacted, and a website had to be built.

The result, Mr. Zeigler says, is that “now people are seeing what people of color have always said.”

That is a start. In the past, the Chicago police have often been hand and glove with City Hall corruption.

Chicago's political machine

In the days of Al Capone, the mayor and city alderman received kickbacks from gangsters in exchange for police officers looking the other way. While officers might have received some bribes during this time, “the big money always went downtown,” says Professor Simpson.

This relationship changed dramatically in the 1960s under the leadership of police Supt. O.W. Wilson, who enacted major reforms and established a nonpartisan police board to oversee the force. Simpson says that Wilson’s reforms kept the police department at “a very professional level for 20 years,” until his protégés retired and the city government began exerting its influence once again.

Today, the mayor’s influence on the police department is less obvious, and organized corruption appears to be a thing of the past. Instead, much of the mayor’s control of the department is through personnel decisions.

This power recently received attention when Emmanuel chose Eddie Johnson as the new police superintendent, ignoring the recommendations of a citizen oversight board.

Robert Lombardo, a police officer in Chicago for three decades, says he saw firsthand how the mayor’s office influenced hiring and promotion decisions.

“The superintendent doesn’t always have complete control over the police department,” says Mr. Lombardo, who is now a professor of criminal justice at Loyola University in Chicago. “Word will come down from City Hall, ‘OK, this guy is the new director of this unit or that unit.’ And the superintendent gets so many picks and essentially he gets to pick whatever City Hall doesn’t want.”

Reasons for hope

While Emanuel has gotten much of the blame for the recent police scandals, however, Simpson says it will take more than the mayor to reform the police department.

He says that the city should focus on improving its community policing program and creating a police accountability body “with strong, impartial judgment.”

While there’s much work to be done in Chicago, the fact that police departments in both New York and Los Angeles have improved gives Simpson hope.

John Zeigler is also optimistic. At DePaul University, he has worked closely with the Chicago Police Department to overhaul its community policing program and has seen that there are officers who are pushing hard for change.

Still, Zeigler counsels patience.

“Change in oversight will be granular because there has to be buy-in at different levels and trust at different levels,” he says. “It’s going to move at a glacial pace.”

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