Criminal Justice

Chicago's Thick Blue Wall

The Windy City's notoriously aggressive police department fights for less accountability.

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Christopher Drew had every intention of getting arrested. The 59-year-old artist and executive director of the Uptown Multi-Cultural Art Center in Chicago set about his city earlier this month in a red poncho and a sign that read "Art for Sale: $1." It was a protest against Chicago's law on unlicensed peddling, which Drew believes puts up unconstitutional barriers preventing artists from selling their work.

The artist was confronted by Chicago police and arrested on December 3. Because he recorded the entire incident, on the understandable assumption that the reasons the officers gave for arresting him may prove useful to his follow-up lawsuit, Drew was also charged with "felony eavesdropping."

Generally speaking, it's not a crime to record an on-duty police officer in a public space. In fact, with just a few exceptions (mostly limited to military installations and nuclear energy facilities), you can photograph and/or record anything and anyone in a public space. But there are still too many stories of people being arrested, intimidated, or detained for turning their lenses on cops. (See Carlos Miller's excellent blog Photography Is Not a Crime for a litany of examples.) It happened last week in West Virginia, where award-winning photojournalist Scott Rensenberger was arrested after attempting to photograph a police officer in a Charleston mall.

You can certainly understand why someone would want to get a planned interaction with Chicago police on tape. In the last few years, the department has been hit with scandals of egregious police misconduct that, had they not been captured on tape, likely would either never have been investigated, or the investigation wouldn't have been based on what actually happened.

The most famous incident was footage of an off-duty cop viciously beating a female bartender who refused to continue serving him in 2007. He wasn't even charged until three months later, after the surveillance video surfaced on the Internet, generating worldwide outrage. There are other examples: six cops beating two men in a bar brawl; a video of a fatal police shooting in a subway station where officer accounts of the incident don't match the video footage. The department also recently disciplined two officers after a video showed up on the Internet showing a Chicago PD unit posing for a trophy photo with a protester they had apprehended earlier this year at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh.

This is a police department still under federal investigation for an officer-run torture ring in the 1980s and, more recently, for a major scandal in which officers in the department's Special Operations Unit—alleged to be made up of the city's most elite and trusted cops—have been convicted of a variety of crimes, including home robberies, theft, physical abuse and intimidation, and even planning a murder. The "best of the best" unit was disbanded last year.

A 2008 study by University of Chicago law professor Craig B. Futterman found 10,000 complaints filed against Chicago police officers between 2002 and 2004. That's more than any city in the country, and proportionally it's 40 percent above the national average. Of those 10,000 complaints, just 19 resulted in significant disciplinary action. In 85 percent of the cases, the complaint was dismissed without even interviewing the accused officer. The study also found that about 5 percent of the department's 13,500 officers accounted for more than half the complaints.

Yet the Chicago PD recently went to federal court—and won—to prevent the release of the names of 662 officers who had more than 10 citizen complaints filed against them between 2001 and 2006. Even members of the city's Board of Aldermen aren't allowed to see the officers' names.

Now, the police department is working to become even less accountable. Last October, a study from the Chicago Justice Project found that on those rare occasions when Chicago police brass want to fire an officer, the Chicago Police Board—the agency that oversees the department—nearly always overrules them. On the very same day that study was released, the department announced a new policy whereby it would reserve the option to file criminal charges against citizens who file police misconduct reports deemed to be without merit. I'm sure false misconduct reports are common, and likely a bureaucratic hassle. But you can't start charging citizens who claim to have been mistreated by police with crimes because a department that has shown it isn't capable of investigating and policing itself has decided, unsurprisingly, that once again its officers did nothing wrong. The policy will likely deter false complaints; but it will also deter legitimate ones.

I'm sure the bulk of the officers in the Chicago Police Department are professional, courteous public servants. But that doesn't let the department or the city off in its failure to discipline those who aren't. At the very least, those officials should pass a clear and unambiguous policy codifying the right of citizens like Christopher Drew to take and preserve an audio or video recording of their interactions with city police, and instructing cops that they can't interfere with that right. Chicago's political officials have shown themselves incapable of protecting the city's residents from the bad actors in its police department. The least they can do is ensure that the city's residents have the legal right to protect themselves.

Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

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110 responses to “Chicago's Thick Blue Wall

  1. Civilians are not qualified to pass judgement on their overlords.

    1. If there’s one universal constant it’s this:

      cops are assholes.

      1. If there is one constant in your location cole, its probably that your an asshole.

  2. “I’m sure the bulk of the officers in the Chicago Police Department are professional, courteous public servants.”

    Have you ever been to Chicago?!

  3. Complaining about police brutality, that’s a crime.

    Being beaten by police, another crime,

    contept of cop, a crime for sure.

    *note to self, stay out of Chicago.

  4. Filming being beaten by cops will be a crime too, if they get their way.

    I think they still wonder why so many people hate them. It would be funny if it wasn’t so fucked up.

  5. “No Motive Found in Slaying of Police Officers.”

    1. “Suspect in Police Shootings was wanted for raping a child a week before the brutal murder of honorable officers”

  6. Pigs Shouldn’t Rule.

    1. Does anyone know when people started calling police “pigs”? I am particularly interested if it came before or after Orwell wrote Animal Farm.

      1. I believe it goes back at least to the 19th century. I don’t recall the derivation.

      2. They had been called “dogs” for the longest time. “Pigs” came in response to riots in the 60s where their gasmasks gave them a pig like appearance. That is what I have been told.

        1. “If you thought the term pig arose in the 1960s, you’re in for a surprise. The OED cites an 1811 reference to a “pig” as a Bow Street Runner–the early police force, named after the location of their headquarters, before Sir Robert Peel and the Metropolitan Police Force. Before that, the term “pig” had been used as early as the mid-1500s to refer to a person who is heartily disliked.

          The usage was probably confined to the criminal classes until the 1960s, when it was taken up by protestors. False explanations for the term involve the gas masks worn by the riot police in that era, or the pigs in charge of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
          http://www.straightdope.com/co…..r-the-fuzz

        2. I thought it was a way of insulting cops without officially insulting them and giving them an excuse to arrest you.

  7. we gots two eyes on Balko, it’ll be a real shame when he falls on da’ subway tracks

  8. Well sourced piece. Except this line: “I’m sure the bulk of the officers in the Chicago Police Department are professional, courteous public servants.”

    Cite please.

    1. I was gonna say…wouldn’t the fact that they let their bad colleagues off the hook make them unprofessional and discourteous public servants?

      1. Yeah, I was thinking this was a piece of humor thrown into an otherwise serious post.

        1. I’m sure the bulk of the officers in the Nazi Party were professional, courteous public servants, too.

      2. That’s what Larken Rose suggests:

        http://www.larkenrose.com/tmds…..art-1.html

    2. Yes hotsauce, Radley was far too kind. I’m sure it was only the “bad cops” who posed for that picture with their detainee at the G20 protest. It was only the “bad cops” who rallied behind the drunken bully who beat a defenseless woman in the bar. When a good cop covers for a bad cop that makes the good cop a bad cop. Which pretty much makes all cops “bad cops.”

      1. The vast majority of good cops know the stresses of their job, and how many false complaints and grey areas there are. They also may not have firsthand knowledge of what other officers are doing that is bad. Most of the time the extent of the bad guy’s misconduct isn’t known to the whole force – they just might know that so and so is an asshole.

        Just saying, there are plenty of good cops who just haven’t decided that it’s worth sacrificing their own career to try to track down the ones who are bad. It’s a bad decision, bad management, all of that. But attitudes like “there are no good cops” just encourages them to keep doing it. Sometimes you do what you can by yourself instead of trying to change an entire culture – that has to come from the top, and you don’t get to the top by keeping your hands clean.

        1. 100% Pure Apologist Malarky.

          They’re sacrificing their careers by NOT going after the bad ones. Once the cops are less respected than your average Child Rapist, their careers will be about as ruined as they can get.

          Cultural revolution happens top down huh? No wonder every bit of social engineering from the past century has been so amazingly successful.

          and you don’t get to the top by keeping your hands clean

          Can’t make an omelet without cracking a few skulls?

        2. Cultural changes have to come from within, not from some silly notion of a “top down” approach.

        3. Cultural changes have to come from within, not from some silly notion of a “top down” approach.

  9. Talking out of turn… That’s a paddlin’. Looking out the window… That’s a paddlin’. Staring at my sandals… That’s a paddling. Paddling the school canoe…ooh, you better believe that’s a paddlin’.

    1. Won’t somebody think of the Children Canoes!

  10. the department announced a new policy whereby it would reserve the option to file criminal charges against citizens who file police misconduct reports deemed to be without merit.

    That kind of dovetails with the $500-$2500 fines for challenging a speeding ticket that they’re going to do somewhere else.

    It’s almost like they want a fight.

    1. Yet you can’t file a criminal charge against a prosecutor for meritless prosecution.

  11. There are no “professionals” among the police. They are all tax-feeding parasites. If they were “professional” they would arrest the fucking gangsters among them. Just because MOST don’t engage in overtly criminal behaviour doesn’t make them good. It just makes them accomplices. Like the friends and family of Mr. Clemmons in the Northwest. Anarchy Now. It can’t be any worse than the shit-stains that are “keeping order” now.

    1. You too are an ignorant asshole.

  12. From the new policy link:

    “Our thinking was to take a balanced approach ? treating the public similarly to the way we would handle a police officer,” Rosenzweig said…

    See, they just want to be as tough on us civilians as they are on themselves.

  13. Because he recorded the entire incident, on the understandable assumption that the reasons the officers gave for arresting him may prove useful to his follow-up lawsuit, Drew was also charged with “felony eavesdropping.”

    “Eavesdropping” on yourself in a public place? Only the government could be stupid enough to call that a crime.

    1. You think? But in Massachusetts they already have a ruling that doing this violates a WIRETAPPING law! Imagine that!

      And here I thought that thousands of intrusive police searches had already securely established that “you have no expectation of privacy in a public place.” That ought to go for police, too.

  14. “I’m sure the bulk of the officers in the Chicago Police Department are professional, courteous public servants.”

    Why on Earth would you make such a bold assumption?

    1. I maintain that Animals is the best Pink Floyd album.

      1. You have a point…for me it’s a tie between Animals and Wish You Were Here.

        1. My vote is for Wish You Were Here.

          I’m not a huge Floyd fan, but that was a good album.

      2. Pink Floyd sucks. Yeah, I said it. Overrated overproduced pretentious crap. However, I did like Syd Barrett’s solo efforts.

        1. On a distant shore, far from land
          Lies the ebony totem, ebony sand
          A dream in a mist of grey

        2. Let me guess. Beatles fan? No band has ever been more overrated.

          1. HOW DARE YOU

          2. Overrated is a relative term. Shakespeare is overrated, too, but that doesn’t make him not great. Not that everything the Beatles did was awesome, but they made an awful lot of good music.

            1. Paul is dead!

            2. To be adored as much as they are must be based on people’s feelings at the time, because their music is not that good. Elvis, the Stones, Zeppelin. The Beatles are low on the totem poll of great music and are all more entertaining from where I sit.

              Few can hang with Shakespeare, Pro Lib. Very few.

          3. The Beatles aren’t as overrated as Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan.

        3. Agreed. “Art rock” IMO is synomymous with “suck rock”.

          1. Episiarch and The Pharmacologist, you’re entitled to your opinions. Thank goodness, because no one else wants them. :p Pink Floyd rocks and art rock rules.

          2. Fuck you. Have some prog metal, you used-up catamite.

        4. Your an asshole too…

        5. C’mon, Epi… Live at Pompeii was the shit!

          Yeah, they started sucking when Roger Waters developed Roger Waters Syndrome, but that happens to a lot of bands.

  15. Well sourced piece. Except this line: “I’m sure the bulk of the officers in the Chicago Police Department are professional, courteous public servants.”

    Cite please.

    The 5% responsible for half the complaints thing is actually encouraging here. It suggests that the other 95% are responsible for fewer complaints than the national average.

    Which may not be great, but it is something.

    Now if only they’d do something about that 5% we could really feel good about them…

    1. But that 5% are the ones all the really good cop shows are written about.

    2. The fact that 5% of the cops generated half of the complaints tells us relatively little given the culture of Chicago. I’m surprised the number of total complains is as high as it is, given that CPD actively discourages filing reports and intimidates people who make the attempt. I’d be willing to wager that a pretty good percentage of those complaints are made by people on the North Side who have the means and social standing not to be completely terrified by the CPD.

      When talking about Chicago you also have to be aware of how the city is organized. The city is highly stratified and older police get “promoted” to nicer areas while younger, more aggressive cops are sent to tougher areas and encouraged to build their stats so they can get that cushy posting in Sauganash. What that means is that you have a large number of police in areas with relatively little crime, having relatively little contact with citizens, and having far less incentive to be aggressive while a smaller number of police are essentially told to go out build their numbers so they can get anywhere else.

      Theres also the fact that Chicago police learn pretty quickly the game. I live in what you could call a transitional neighborhood, I’m white, I’m young, I drive a car thats in decent shape. I’m the kind of person who might know someone with juice, who might file a report, who might get a lawyer and cause a headache. A black teenager living in a section 8 building, on the other hand, is a pretty safe target for your local uniformed sociopath.

      1. Your second paragraph tells us nothing interesting about Chicago as I’m sure all major cities are organized that way.

  16. Da Mayor, his excellency DaleyII was Cook County State’s Attorney from 1980-1989. His office prosecuted many of the suspects tortured by J Burge and his crew. The culture of ‘thugs with badges’ will not change while King Richard is in office.
    Not in the slightest.
    http://www.chicagoreader.com/c…..oid=925394

    1. And since King Richard will be in office until the day he dies, that means that nobody should hold their breath.

  17. You know Illinois is set to get a whole bunch of terrorists from Gitmo in one of its maximum security prisons, don’t you?

    And you’re aware that this is by order of one of Chicago’s most famous former community organizers, right?

    Does it ever occur to anybody that maybe our current occupant of the White House thinks he’s playing a “live” version of Sim City 3000? That game allows you to place a Maximum Security prison in your simulated city to increase jobs and tax revenue, and if you drag the funding lever for police funding to its maximum setting in the budget panel, the police in your simulated city immediately get tyrannical with their enforcement.

    Maybe somebody’s doing something like that with Chicago. Maybe this is life imitating art, you know?

    1. Here’s my idea for a new type of gov’t.

      We elect these morons, then put them in front of a computer. They’ll THINK it’s real life, but they’re actually just playing SimCity or a real time strategy game. The type of game would be tailored for the type of control freak they are.

      The MSM can read game logs to come up with stories and then deliver the fictitious newspapers to Our Dear Leaders, as a form of feedback so they can feel gratified by their activities.

    2. I know it’s all the rage, among some, to try to make everything a conspiracy revolving around Obama, but your entire “theory” seems to be based on the misguided motion that the police of the city of Chicago have something to do with the STATE prison system – which they don’t – and/or the FEDERAL prison in question – which they also don’t. Then there’s the fact that the prison isn’t IN Chicago. Finally, there’s the horse-cart problem, here: we’ve already got tyrannical law enforcement, but we don’t have the prison.

      But don’t let reality stop ya.

      1. “misguided motion”

        NOTION! (sorry)

      2. I think you’re confusing an over the top sim city 3000 fan with an over the top Obama hater.

  18. I don’t support the death penalty, but any cop who attempts to abridge someone’s right to film them should be shot in the face thrice.

    1. STFU dennis

  19. This is another reason why I believe we need a federal law specifically protecting citizens who tape the activities of law enforcement, and charging any officer who interferes with the taping of the activities of law enforcement with federal obstruction of justice.

    That would neatly pre-empt any bullshit local statute – or any self-serving reading of any bullshit local statute – designed to prevent people from doing what the defendant did here.

    1. Kinda like the shield laws for journalists. Great idea.

  20. Wonderful stuff.

    I sure hope that reading Radley’s post is not considered misdemeanor eavesdropping or accessory to eavesdropping or eavesdropping after the fact or …

    1. We’re probably safe, but Balko should also probably stay the hell outta Chicago.

  21. I would think the plain view doctine would sink their prosecution. Isn’t it prettly much settled law that there is no privacy in a public place?

    1. The plain view doctrine only applies to the overseers, slave.

  22. Also, how much of the bad behavior was caught on a security camera?

  23. I had enough interactions with Chicago cops when I lived there to know that the bulk of the them are NOT “professional, courteous public servants”. Except for the one cute chick who pulled me over and then let me off without even a warning. The rest are rude, fat, racists pricks.

  24. She liked your schnoz, Cyrano.

  25. On the very same day that study was released, the department announced a new policy whereby it would reserve the option to file criminal charges against citizens who file police misconduct reports deemed to be without merit.

    It reads more honestly this way as I’m sure it won’t be limited to those reports that are provably false.

  26. I’m sure the bulk of the officers in the Chicago Police Department are professional, courteous public servants.

    Do you reflexively gag a little when you write things like this. For every dirty cop there’s at least one who looks the other way. Brothers in blue and all that.

    The U.S. LEO culture is dysfunctional and an affront to justice and the rule of law.

    1. “”The U.S. LEO culture is dysfunctional and an affront to justice and the rule of law.””

      Let’s say it is. What does that say about people who vote for strong law and order candidates?

      1. They’re scared about the wrong things.

      2. They’re not dog owners?

      3. They’d rather watch CSI?

      4. They’re the subhumans who secretly long for a strong government that can beat them as erotically and effectively as their dads did when they used to diddle themselves but are too fat to actually make it onto a police force?

  27. That case in West Virginia, am I wrong in thinking that a shopping mall is not a public space, per se, and is rather private property?

    1. I would agree you with on that one.

      But unless the mall had a clearly posted notice prohibiting all photography, having opened their space to public visits they wouldn’t really have a leg to stand on.

      And even if they did have such a notice, their security officer still would not be entitled to attempt to seize the property of a mall visitor. Don’t like what I’m doing on your commercial property? Tell me to leave. Take my property? Not without a fucking civil judgment from a court you don’t.

  28. People have no idea how corrupt the entire Chicago political machine is.

    That is why I laughed so hard when all the Obama zombies jizzed themselves about the ‘reformer’ from Chicago. Mr. HopeyMcFuckbag is such a loser.

    1. Yeah, Police Chief Obama promised to do so much to straighten out the system here in Chicago, and then when we elected him mayor, still no results! All that’s not even to mention what he did when he was in charge of the CPS.

    2. The words “reform” and “Chicago” should never go in the same paragraph unless the qualifying phrase “lack of” is used.

  29. What political machine isn’t corrupt?

    1. Theres corrupt and then theres Chicago. Comparing Chicago Machine politics to corruption in other cities is like comparing bullets to BBs.

  30. Hey, let’s have a little respect, shall we? Chicago now has one of it’s own in the White House fer cryin’ in the beer! Quit with the mouth awreddy!

  31. The police are here to preserve disorder. Mayor Daly

  32. The police are here to preserve disorder. Mayor Daly

  33. Bad apple -> Bunch

  34. This is another reason why I believe we need a federal law specifically protecting citizens who tape the activities of law enforcement, and charging any officer who interferes with the taping of the activities of law enforcement with federal obstruction of justice.

    I tend to agree. It’s a cellphone camera world now and there’s no going back. That said, I spent some time in Chicago. There is an enormous criminal element there that resists civilization. No police department could hope to do any more than keep things down to a dull roar. There is also an incredibly corrupt political establishment that corrupts and corrodes everything around it, especially the judicial system. Some of the posters here have an absurdly simplistic and Manichean view of the police. May I recommend a website giving a voice from the inside:

    Second City Cop

  35. You think we imprison people on a whim? If you think our humanistic system capable of such a thing, that alone would justify your arrest.

  36. It should be a simple enough matter to cross-reference the list of complained-about cops against the list of cops who fail to do their jobs well and eliminate those in the intersection. But perhaps that’s already being done.

  37. It surprises me that the population there hasn’t fallen due to mass exodus of folks that don’t want to live in a police state.
    How can they not know? Or care?

  38. Sorry I can’t recall all the details, maybe someone here can, but there was another abominable case of Chi PD misconduct in the 80s (I think) when they were detaining teenage girls on flimsy grounds and doing forcible strip searches at the station house, observed by groups of officers. They used pencil erasers as display devices during the body cavity searches, as I recall. They finally grabbed one too many well-to-do suburban daughters and had to stop the practice. IIRC

  39. Chi Police are just like their boss, Mayor Daley.

    Well, maybe not that bad.

  40. be careful with the Chicago police dept.
    best thing. avoid them if you can
    they are dangerous, bullies and are known for being arrogant and brash.
    if you encounter them, try to make the interaction as quick as possible

  41. Thank you Radley Balko. The City of Chicago and the political injustice machinery of the Daley Administration are trying to railroad me into prison using the Eavesdropping law so broad and vague that you could drive a fleet of mac trucks through it. They dropped the two misdemeanors for selling art for $1 in the Loop but are proceeding happily toward convicting on a class one felony of Eavesdropping on my own arrest. We have no ability to protect ourselves from police abuse in Chicago because if we make such an attempt it is a first class felony. The obvious fact that this is a political railroad is not considered by the State’s Attorney nor the judges in this system. I believe the rest of the world is not so naive nor are they so cynical. God help us in Chicago and Illinois.

  42. Thank you for publishing this article. I think it showed the reason’s Christopher Drew, my brother, was in downtown Chicago selling his art. The police had, at times, 8 officers there to arrest him. It seemed excessive then and I think audio taping the officers could be seen as self defense.

  43. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight.

  44. Another excellent post, thank you, this is why I continue visiting here!

  45. I am really enjoying reading your well written articles

  46. Thank you for this great article, I totally agree the police department is working to become even less accountable!

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