CHICAGO — A South Side police commander and his officers tortured black suspects into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit. Another rogue unit shook down drug dealers on the West Side for drugs and money. A different group of officers accepted payments from drug dealers to warn them of police raids.
And for years, whenever Chicago officers did something wrong, their colleagues covered for them.
The city’s longstanding reputation for police misconduct and brutality shattered relations with the black community long before the federal government announced this week that it was launching a wide-ranging civil-rights investigation of the Chicago Police Department. The probe was prompted by a video showing a white officer shooting a black teen 16 times and revelations that other officers filed false reports about what happened.
“There is a deep mistrust, and it really becomes a cancer here in Chicago because it eats away at respect for authority and respect for the law … that becomes toxic,” said the Rev. Marshall Hatch of New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church. He said some communities feel like they’re being occupied by police rather than protected by them.
Craig Futterman is an attorney who helped win the release of video showing the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. He said the footage underscored two things: A pervasive code of silence at all levels of the department has allowed misconduct and brutality to fester, and previous reform efforts have done little to solve the problem.
“Political leaders never had the political courage to address underlying issues that allow a minority of police officers to abuse the most vulnerable among us, disproportionately black folk, with impunity,” said Futterman, a professor at the University of Chicago, which last month released an analysis that found of 56,000 complaints against Chicago police, only a fraction led to disciplinary action.
The department first earned a widespread reputation for brutality during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when officers were seen on television beating demonstrators. In the years that followed, that belief was cemented by one scandal after another.
From the 1970s to early 1990s, a police unit led by former Commander Jon Burge used electric shocks, suffocation and beatings to get black men to falsely confess to crimes, some of which landed them on death row. So far, 18 have been exonerated and received tens of millions of dollars in reparations from the city. Burge was convicted of lying about the torture and served 4½ years in prison.
“Having a 20-year reign of terror in the African-American community affected not only the men, but their families and the entire community,” said attorney Flint Taylor, who helped exonerate many of the victims.
But Burge and his men were hardly the only problems. A group of officers in a southwest side district was arrested in the 1980s and convicted after a federal probe found they were paid off by drug dealers to warn them of police raids and even beat up competing dealers.
In the mid-1990s, a group of elite drug-and-gang officers on the West Side shook down drug dealers for money and cocaine, committing robberies and home invasions. Their subsequent arrests forced prosecutors to drop more than 120 narcotics cases.
Several members of another elite unit were charged in 2006 and later convicted of invading the homes of drug dealers to steal money and drugs. Ringleader Jerome Finnigan was sentenced to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty in 2011 to a federal tax charge and ordering a hit on another officer to keep him from talking to federal investigators.
On Tuesday, a Chicago police commander accused of shoving his gun down a suspect’s throat and threatening to kill him went on trial on charges of aggravated battery and official misconduct.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel — who at first opposed the civil-rights investigation, then said he welcomed it — forced police Superintendent Garry McCarthy to resign, named a new leader of the city’s Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates police shootings, and created a task force to improve police accountability.
Last year, his administration said it would be more transparent by releasing completed police misconduct investigations.
In the McDonald case, officials said they could not release the video of the October 2014 shooting because the investigation was ongoing. That prevented the public from seeing it before Emanuel’s spring re-election. A judge disagreed and ordered the video released last month.
The McDonald shooting highlights problems that are deeply ingrained in the department and could be difficult to eradicate — especially a code of silence among otherwise good officers that keeps bad ones on the street, said Futterman and Taylor.
After officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shot McDonald last October, he and other officers on the scene filed reports saying that the teen lunged at the officer with a knife. When the video was released more than a year later, it showed McDonald veering away from police before he was shot by Van Dyke, who then emptied his gun into McDonald’s body. Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder just hours before the footage was released.
Futterman said the fact that higher-ranking officials did not correct the lies told to the public about McDonald’s death and fought to suppress the video means the code of silence is “not just at rank-and-file level … but is approved by supervisors and commanders.”
Ernest Brown, who joined the department as a patrolman in 1982 and left as a deputy chief in 2011, said Chicago police have failed to learn a lesson familiar to military units deployed in foreign countries — that their success depends on the support from the community.
“They can’t just explain what they are doing to the people. The people are not going to accept the explanation without a relationship,” said Brown, who is now executive director of the Cook County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Hatch said the only way to purge the past and repair relations with the black community is to address all of the problems in the police force, starting with eliminating secrecy and denial.
“Something systemic has been happening here,” he said. “And it’s not a figment of our imagination.”