This is a guest post from Simon Balto, Assistant Professor of History at Ball State University. He is a former resident of Chicago, and holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is currently working on a book about the relationship between the Chicago Police Department and Chicago’s black community.
As the crow flies, the strip of Pulaski Road where Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald sixteen times sits about three miles from the George N. Leighton Criminal Courthouse. Facing murder charges in that shooting, Van Dyke continuously is paraded into the Leighton Courthouse for hearings in the murder case. Having now been formally indicted on six counts of first-degree murder, he heads back again on Friday for still another hearing. Meanwhile, political heads in Chicago are rolling, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel perhaps the next in line to fall.
Interesting, the ways that history resonates here. Since 2012, Chicago’s courthouse has bore the name of Leighton, a trailblazing African American attorney and judge. In June of that year, city officials dedicated the building in his honor, in a public ceremony attended by many city and county officials, including Emanuel and State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. At the ceremony, officials professed hopes that the building would serve as a permanent reminder of “the importance of the pursuit of justice.” Emanuel spoke admiringly of Leighton’s “service to our community, to our laws, and to our country.” Ever since, Chicago’s most prominent official halls of justice have resounded with the name of George Leighton.
A bettor would guess that Emanuel – who is now facing calls to resign or be fired for possible collusion in covering up the details of McDonald’s killing – knew nothing about Leighton’s work that he did prior to his judgeship. But it’s here that irony really abounds.
Prior to his election to the Circuit Court in 1964, George Leighton served as chairman of the Chicago NAACP’s Legal Redress Committee, and his most sustained work in that role involved combating police brutality there. In doing so, he repeatedly framed racism and police violence as endemic: “the number of [police brutality] cases…so numerous,” and the tapestry of brutalities “so complex,” that the NAACP had taken to hiring a designated investigator to document brutality cases. He referenced numerous instances of black women and men beaten or shot while handcuffed, subjected to coerced confessions, illegally searched, wrongly arrested, and blatantly harassed. He warned that “unless something was done about this plague in the community,” the Department of Justice may have to be called in.
A few years earlier, in 1960, then-CPD Superintendent Orlando Wilson had implemented the police department’s first self-investigatory unit, called the Internal Investigations Division (IID). Three years into its operation, Leighton accused it of being neither “cooperative nor effective.” Others called it “an eyewash operation not vitally concerned with changing improper police behavior or serving the public interest.” As one black CPD Sergeant who had served on the IID during its first few years put it, the entire system was molded by “purposeful and deliberate malfeasance.”
The mechanisms by which the police department examines officer misconduct have changed from then to now. But the overall results have not. An overwhelming majority of citizen complaints against officers, particularly those lodged by black citizens against white officers, are today dismissed for bureaucratic reasons. The few not dismissed result in little to no disciplinary action. This overwhelming inability of the current review system to weed out dangerous and racist officers is an extraordinary detriment to the entire community. Chicagoans deserve more accountability from the police department that their taxes fund. Today as then, they don’t receive it.
Chicagoans also deserve more transparency about the ways that departmental decisions are made, what officials know about cases that are of the public concern, and how they’re responding to those cases. The graphic video showing Van Dyke shooting McDonald sixteen times has drawn sharp attention to the choices made and apparent veils drawn by Emanuel, Alvarez, and now-fired Superintendent Garry McCarthy in the shooting’s aftermath. Their obfuscation has already cost McCarthy his job, and calls from the community echo with increasing volume for Alvarez and Emanuel to give up theirs, as well. Rightly so. The actions of all of these elected officials have been deplorable throughout this case.
But sadly, Chicagoans have really never been able to count on anything much better from public officials in these moments. Spin backward to that early-1960s moment once more. After George Leighton’s accusations of rampant brutality – including police torture practices such as simulated drowning and electric shock – reached the office of Superintendent Wilson, Wilson convened his central staff to discuss the accusations. The minutes of this meeting survive. They show Wilson acknowledging that there was, for instance, “no other logical explanation” than excessive force in the 1962 death of a young black man named Ralph Bush, who was taken into police custody alive and came out dead from blunt force trauma. (Bush’s family lodged a successful civil suit against the city. Leighton represented them.) The minutes also detail the central staff discussing tossing officers’ lockers and vehicles to try to find cattle prods and other “torture devices.”
This differed substantially from the department’s public face, where officials presented the department as effectively beyond reproach. To the public, they used the existence of the IID as a shield to ward off any external criticism coming its way. To the rank-and-file, they called most citizen complaints “slander.” Dishonesty and obfuscation were the norm.
Clearly, they still are. Despite the passage of time, despite decades of atrocity and activism to expose and oppose it, city and CPD officials have learned little. And Chicagoans of lesser means, particularly in its black communities, have been asked to bear an unbearable burden as a consequence – in the abrogation of their rights, the violations of their privacy, and the circumscriptions of their senses of safety.
For generations, community activists in Chicago have called for an expanded role of civilians in the review of police misconduct and in the shaping of police policy. Their demands have ranged from the implementation of a citizens’ review board to complete community control of the police, in which citizen oversight is paramount in virtually every stage of policy-crafting and decision-making. Activists today continue to make similar demands. One can, given the history, hardly think such calls wrong.
These voices must be taken seriously, for they speak not just of current agonies, but resound with decades of pain and frustration wrought by the city. Ignoring them, as the city has too often done, risks continuing Chicago along this decades-long spiral, and risks more black and brown lives being lost at the hands of officers who are clouded by racist visions and who are too quick to turn to violence. We should absolutely concern ourselves in a dedicated fashion with what’s happening right now – with Jason Van Dyke and Rahm Emanuel and the terrible price that Laquan McDonald paid for Chicago’s reticence toward self-critique. But lingering in all of our minds’ eyes should also be the generations of policymakers, department heads, police union heads, and city officials who have actively resisted putting the house in order, despite the pleas of black people.
In the meantime, history continues to prove inescapable, lodged not just in those accumulating frustrations and furies, but also in the names given to brick-and-mortar edifices of justice. Friday, there in the courthouse building named for a man who dedicated himself to fighting police violence and an intransigent city, the legal case of Police Officer Van Dyke in the murder of Laquan McDonald will proceed.