Chicago's Thick Blue Wall

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


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.