Chicago Police: “Same Old Song and Dance”?


When writing for academic journals and books about police behavior, I usually refer to past studies and findings.

But when I learned of last week's firing of Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and read about the actions that had been taken since, a song automatically came to mind: Aerosmith's classic The Same Old Song and Dance.” The title not only perfectly describes a past as checkered as Chicago's police hats, but provides a sobering prediction: nothing will change.

In firing McCarthy, Chicago authorities seemed to be doing and saying the right things. They named an interim superintendent, John Escalante, who happens to be a minority (he's Hispanic). They talked about reform.

But it represents the kind of political boilerplate we've seen too often.

This week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a civil rights investigation into the Chicago Police Department to determine whether there has been a “pattern or practice” of bias in policing.

The Mayor is expected to address the City Council today (Wednesday) on police issues.

While these developments are encouraging, there's no guarantee they will lead to genuine change.

There aren't many people who can defend the Chicago Police Department's troubled history. Very little has changed since we saw the disturbing images of Chicago police actions in the Grant Park Riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In fact, if I had more space, I would argue not much has changed since Chicago started a police department in the 1830s.

As recently as 1972, U.S. Rep. Ralph Metcalfe appointed a group of citizens called The Concerned Citizens for Police Reform with a mandate to hold hearings and issue a report to reform the Chicago police. Within that report, entitled “The Misuse of Police Authority in Chicago,” the “blue-ribbon panel” recommended 47 changes.

It's worth noting that none of those changes involved establishing a civilian review board. Instead, the report called for an independent investigating agency to address police misconduct. But it was sadly prophetic in at least one regard. “You will be hard pressed to go into any home in the black ghetto,” the report declared, “and not find at least one member of that household who either feels that they have been abused verbally or physically by some member of the police force, or has first-hand information of such an incident.”

More than four decades later, little has changed.

But Chicago is not alone. Other cities also seem to have learned few lessons from past failures. Countless expensive and time consuming “investigations” around the country have yielded substantial proposals for reform . Just to name a few: the Hofstadter Committee, the Knapp Commission, the Mollen Commission, the Christopher Commission. Most were met with apathy on the part of governmental leaders. Very few of the recommendations were wholeheartedly implemented.

Why have such efforts been so futile? One answer might be that, as time passes, and the press moves on to the next story, the political imperative to reform fades. But that might be too simplistic.

Here's a more practical reason: It's more cost-efficient both in dollars and votes to keep the status quo. Whether $1 billion of property is destroyed (as in Los Angeles in the riots following the Rodney King decision) or a plaintiff wins $5 million in a lawsuit, it is much easier to let the taxpayers or insurance pay, rather than fixing the real problems of reorganization and changing a department's culture.

Sadly, it is a numbers game. Absent federal government intervention, it is more expedient for the lawyers and accountants to figure the possible costs of such incidents, versus the actual costs of substantial reorganization over time.

Academically, there are scores of studies and anecdotal evidence suggesting that these review boards and committee reports are ineffectual.

There is relief though—in the form of a Department of Justice (DOJ) consent decree. With such decrees, the DOJ goes to court because of some federally violated law (usually civil rights violations) and enters into an agreement with the department and municipal government to correct certain offending “patterns and practices,” while the court's recommended monitor oversees and substantiates the changes, or the lack of compliance, to the court.

Currently there are approximately 20 police agencies around the United States under some form of federal monitoring, including in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Oakland, New Orleans, Portland, New York, and Detroit.

Such oversight is truly the best tool for reforming errant law enforcement agencies. Granted, it is not a panacea; but when departments are unwilling or unable to change, it is one way to achieve compliance.

The announcement of the DOJ investigation is a start. But what happens thereafter is up to the new command and people of Chicago. At one extreme, the DOJ can assume control of the department as was the case of the New Orleans Police Department or make several recommendations, some of which affect change, as in the case of the post-Rodney King LAPD.

In any case, there will be a certain amount of compliance in the form of DOJ recommendations. Many of these recommendations are in effect, coercive and require the department and its officers to involuntarily comply.

As most police managers know, involuntary compliance is not the best way to “force” changes. Real changes should be organic.

In my experience, officers who are forced to change seldom really change. When orders “come from up high,” officers are not often told why things need to be done in a certain way. This makes officers less likely to voluntarily do something and more likely to sabotage departmental goals. One of the best examples is community-oriented policing (COP).

Not properly training officers and having them realize that COP is a philosophical change in the way the department acts, often dooms organizational success. Officers think the command has “gone soft” and has abandoned the “war on crime.” Police strategies such as “zero tolerance,” “saturation patrol” and “hot spots policing” are used in some areas of the jurisdiction while COP is pushed in others.

These often-conflicting messages cause confusion as to what the department's goals are: Do the police get tough on crime or use community oriented policing?

The tactics and philosophy are not necessarily mutually exclusive and the officers need to know why different modes of policing are used. Without training and gradual change, department are doomed to repeat mistakes.

Changing organizational behavior remains elusive. Things will not change overnight, but outside pressure is the first step towards shaping the model for transforming a police department like Chicago's. Unless that happens, we'll continue to hear “The Same Old Song and Dance” from those who are responsible for allowing the problem to fester in the first place.

If history tells us anything, the DOJ will uncover some civil rights violations to the satisfaction of the citizens—but will not affect real change in the department over time.

It has taken decades to form the organizational culture of the Chicago Police Department and will take decades to (some degree) fix. As mentioned before, the police department must want to actually change and not just appear to change while under consent decree.

Just changing a superintendent (or mayor) will neither erase years of acceptable misbehavior. Nor will it effect real change unless the line officers and unions want the change.

Dr. Ryan Getty is an Assistant Professor at California State University, in Sacramento and a 25+ year veteran police officer. He has policed in Georgia and Texas and has held positions ranging from street officer to chief in small and large departments. He is a police instructor and a Master Police Officer in Texas and recently passed the California POST. His study interests are police training, FTO programs, police behavior, and misconduct. He welcomes comments from readers.

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