By Tim Cushing
Civic leaders are finally at least talking tough about reforming the police departments they’ve barely overseen for years. Protests — some of them violent — have erupted all over the nation, ensuring very few law enforcement agencies can consider themselves above the fray… or above reproach.
We’ll see how much of this talk remains tough (or turns into action) once the heat dies down a bit, but for now, it’s good to see political leaders stepping up to call out their law enforcement agencies as part of the problem.
Chicago has one of the nation’s worst police forces — one that has taken full advantage of the historically-corrupt political system in that city. Add to that another problematic entity that’s found almost everywhere — police unions — and you have a bunch of officers who fear no reprisal, no matter what behavior they engage in.
The internal investigation process for cops accused of criminal acts and misconduct is a black hole where complaints go in but almost nothing comes out, even years after the investigations have closed. This lack of accountability is enforced by the city’s contract with police unions, who have fought every minimal reform effort with gusto.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot knows this. She headed the Chicago Police Board, another oversight effort made mostly toothless by union interference and the police department’s lack of interest in allowing anyone to police it.
So, her comment to NPR doesn’t exactly tell anyone what they’re not already aware of. But it does show Mayor Lightfoot is willing to directly address the root cause of multiple accountability issues.
“Unfortunately, in history in our city, and I think the history of other cities, unions are extraordinarily reluctant to embrace reform and that’s a current state of affairs here,” Lightfoot said in an interview Saturday with NPR’s Weekend Edition. “We have had to take them to arbitration to win very modest reforms, and that’s a shame of the history of collective bargaining where there hasn’t been an emphasis on reform and accountability.”
She also pointed out there needs to be a change in culture if any reforms are going to take hold. That’s a key element that sometimes gets overlooked. Chicago cops have long disliked being watched by anyone, even their own recording devices. The killing of Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer could have been observed by any number of dashcams, but it was only captured by one of the four responding vehicles and that recording had no sound. Public records requests uncovered the fact that 80% of the PD’s dashcams did not record sound due to “operator error or intentional destruction.”
The Mayor’s next public statement addressed this history directly. And it adds a level of accountability the Chicago PD has never placed on its own officers.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot called out police officers who turn off their body cameras Friday, stating they will be stripped of their “police powers.”
There’s more. Officers who make other efforts to exempt themselves from recognition or responsibility will be similarly professionally disgraced.
“Officers who choose to do those things, or to tape over their badges, or to turn off their body-worn cameras – all things that violate very clear directives of the Chicago Police Department – if you are one of those officers, we will find you, we will identify you, and we will strip you of your police powers. Period,” Lightfoot said.
The police union has yet to respond directly to Lightfoot’s commandeering of officer discipline procedures. When it does finally respond, it won’t offer any contrition on behalf of the officers it represents or agree that officers need more discipline. After all, it’s headed by a thug cop who was elected to his position by officers presumably supportive of his career.[John] Catanzara is one of the most frequently-disciplined officers in the history of the Chicago Police Department. He is believed to be the first police union president ever elected while stripped of his police powers.
Any incremental increase in accountability is almost always greeted by officer resistance, usually led by their union reps. This will be no different. But if Lightfoot can get it to stick, there are going to be a lot of cops with no cop powers. This will keep them from abusing the power they no longer have, but this corrective action apparently won’t harm their budding police union careers.
The head of the union represents the body. This is who Chicago PD officers wanted representing them. That says a whole lot about why the Chicago PD is in the shape it is today. A few small changes won’t reverse its course. But it may provide a foothold for bigger changes in the future.