The DOJ and Police Culture Change: Can it Happen in Chicago – Now?

Eight months into his second term, amidst a scandal threatening to swallow up his administration, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared that the Chicago Police Department needed a change of culture.

His call was met with little confidence, however, that he was the man to effect that change – and that his proposed Task Force on Accountability would get the job done either.

Instead, a widespread desire among various stakeholders that the U.S. Department of Justice come in and perform a “pattern and practices” investigation – a sort of deep-dive audit into the police department’s practices – has come to pass. This is probably the best method to produce results, given that the mayor’s task force includes folks entwined in the very system that needs reform. While we await the DOJ, whose work could take a year or more, there are things we can do to immediately help change the cultural dynamic.

Here are some ideas for citizens, journalists and cops.

* Citizens can recognize that being critical of the police’s actions in specific instances – or institutionally – isn’t the same as being critical of every police officer protecting and serving in America. Virtually everyone recognizes that police officers have a difficult and often dangerous job; we get it. That doesn’t buy law enforcement officials immunity, nor speak to historical and widespread problems of policing as an institution. Nor should we have to constantly issue the disclaimer attesting to how hard police officers have it, setting up a sort of patriotic test that blunts free and open discussion. Let’s just stipulate to that, as we should with members of the military, and move on, instead of allowing that to shut down debate. The idea that the police never do wrong is counterproductive. It’s important to understand the very real reasons why some portions of society have a legitimately horrible view of the police – that is far more of a mystery to too many people than the police officer’s point of view. I have a nephew who is a police officer, and I and my family want him home safe after every shift. That doesn’t keep me from being absolutely appalled at the corrupt practices the Chicago Police Department has engaged in, well, forever. Those aren’t mutually exclusive ideas. You don’t have to be pro-police or anti-police; how about pro-police, pro-citizen, pro-integrity, anti-racist, and anti-crime?

* A certain percentage of police officers think the media is their enemy (and the people they protect ungrateful), engaged in a War on Police. I’ve covered the police as a reporter to one extent or another in four states, and I’ve seen it in each. The truth, though, is that most media coverage of the police is a sloppy wet kiss. The simplest acts of the police are often conveyed as superheroic; the benefit of the doubt almost always lands on their side from the beginning of every potentially controversial story. The lack of good news about the police is a canard often perpetuated by cynical pols. Nobody, except the military, gets more great coverage than the police – even if we are in a decades-long process of discovering they all aren’t angels. What I wish for police officers is a healthier approach to criticism and an appreciation of how much their communities appreciate them, even if they work in the toughest neighborhoods where they also experience less of that – often for good reason. Be nicer to people in everyday interactions. Embrace real community policing, which isn’t the same as the farce perpetrated on Chicagoans all these years. Most of all, reject the no-snitch code. I know it’s an occupational hazard, but that’s where the culture of policing is most perverted (as it is in many professions, including my own). The public will only be as honest with and about the police as they are with and about us. We should all be able to live with greater public accountability and transparency. (That means, also, that a penchant for police to be secretive has to stop; especially when it comes to breaking the law – the Freedom of Information Act – themselves.)

* The media can and hopefully will change. First, it should have been clear by now but perhaps is clearer than ever that you shouldn’t believe what a cop tells you just because it has come out of a cop’s mouth. You definitely should not believe a spokesperson for the police union, without corroboration, or the “news affairs” office. Even police reports are suspect. Anyone who thinks the Laquan McDonald case is the rare time when cops lied on reports is blissfully ignorant. The same goes for court testimony. So report harder and deeper. I know it takes time and resources to do that, but if news organizations really want to get it right, it can be done. Don’t be in such a hurry; that rarely serves anyone. Rushing tidbits into the public sphere isn’t my idea of a scoop. My idea of a scoop is a scoop – something (important) no one else has or will get. Also: Learn how to analyze statistics. The number of professional journalists who still don’t get the notion of per capita is astonishing, just to cite one example. Do your homework when it comes to interpreting crime trends. A lot of people went bonkers around here – perverting the public discourse and leading to films like Chi-Raq – because the media, with an almost pathological fervor, spread the idea that Chicago was the nation’s murder capital when the data showed it simply wasn’t true (or even close). Also: Don’t use crime news as entertainment. Don’t use trivial details to further literary ambitions. Spend more time respecting the news, your industry and the process, and maybe cops and everyone else will too. A commitment to quality lifts all boats.

* I have the least hope, admittedly, that politicians will do their part. In his campaigns, Emanuel has been fond of mentioning his Uncle Les, a Chicago police officer. In his first mayoral campaign, Emanuel featured a full page of Uncle Les in his first piece of direct mail. To the unsuspecting voter and gullible journalist, Uncle Les gave Emanuel street cred as a law-and-order neighborhood Chicagoan. To the rest of us, it was a cynical joke. And in the last campaign, progressive challenger Chuy Garcia essentially ran to the right of Emanuel on crime, advocating for a thousand more police officers on the street without being able to articulate why he thought that was a good idea despite all the research available that says otherwise. If the pols could likewise show some discipline and be honest about crime and policing instead of demagoguing their way through the campaign trail, we might actually get somewhere.

We may have to wait for the Department of Justice to start changing the culture of the police, but we can all at least start to change the culture around policing.

About Steve Rhodes

Steve Rhodes is the editor and publisher of The Beachwood Reporter, a Chicago-centric news and culture review. He has previously worked for newspapers and magazines including the Chicago Tribune, Newsweek and Chicago magazine.

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