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Hidden Honor or Illuminated Infamy

Another Day of Professional Excellence Recorded by Local Metro Police
by Joe Scribe, Metropolitan Times-Howler

Last Saturday, August 7, 2010, proved to be yet another stellar day of many in a long string of excellence recorded by local Metropolitan police forces, according to initial reports by local officials, community activists, victims, and suspects.

Upwards of 9000 law enforcement officers representing city, suburban, county and state agencies, as well as an undisclosed number of federal agents, fish and wildlife enforcement, and parole and probation officers, fanned out over the five-county Metro area to take part in a wide array of law enforcement operations over a 24-hour period. During that time, 397 criminal suspects were apprehended on charges ranging from misdemeanor traffic offenses to first degree murder, another 1143 traffic citations were written for motor vehicle violations, and 4601 separate reports were written, initiating criminal investigations of all manner.

Random calls to several dozen of the criminal suspects and alleged traffic violators since last Saturday have all been met with a consistent theme: The officers with whom the suspects had encounters were all polite, professional, and thorough. Even three who had been tasered after violently resisting arrest acknowledged they probably should have just listened the first time, and were grateful for the prompt medical attention to remove the barbs. Additional calls to an equal number of persons filing criminal reports likewise indicated people were uniformly confident their cases would be investigated with professional rigor and attention to detail.

And the City Police Department was surprised midday Saturday when two young men, who had earlier filed federal civil rights lawsuits accusing arresting officers of using racial profiling and excessive force, called a press conference to recant their accusations. Said one, "Well, the truth is, see, we kinda started the fight in the first place. We thought maybe we could, you know, get some money from the city even if we lost and had to go to jail, you know. And we're real sorry about that now. We should have never lied like that." The young men credited a pastor and local community activist, Reverend -----------------, with setting them straight for even considering such a politically and racially divisive ploy.

In other news involving the Rev -----------------, he announced today he will be organizing and leading a sit-in vigil on City Hall steps to demand a 10% pension payment increase for officers retiring with 25 or more years of service.

Just imagine seeing that article on the front page of your morning paper. Of course, we'll never see a column like that in print - far too dull to sell papers, there are more than enough newsworthy stories to print in our information-saturated world, and cops everywhere would choke on their morning coffee to see such a thing - but reading that would still be a pleasant change-of-pace. The fact is, we will never see it because it is not news. It is a merely a mixture of reality and wishful fantasy; the reality being that it merely reports what the vast majority of cops do every single workday of their career, with the fantasy sequence being the comments of suspects and those we often commonly identify as our biggest detractors.

The truth is, the role of the media is to serve as society's watchdog. In part, that role requires they monitor the actions of public officials - and all of us who wear the badge are a part of that club - report on them, and by doing so hopefully ensure accountability in our behavior. Nonetheless, it can be frustrating to know so much good is being done by so many and in so many ways, and to know the good things are so rarely covered, while stories about law enforcements failings, both real and perceived, are so readily available. Sure, there are the occasional public interest stories about a local PD's or police union's philanthropic activities, or when a high profile case is solved, that paints law enforcement in a favorable light, but those stories have a short shelf-life. For in-depth, long-term media coverage controversy seems a necessary ingredient.

Understanding the media role, having a realistic understanding of the limitations of both the media and many of its consumers, and realizing the long-term impact of even fleeting moments of professional weakness is vital to our discussion of legacy. It does little good to lament negative news stories, anti-law enforcement bias, or media and public misinterpretation of actually sound police practices, especially surrounding use-of-force issues. We can educate, cooperate with, and demand more accountability from the media, but at the end of the day If it bleeds, it leads and there is little we can do about that.

The Big Picture legacy of Jon Burge

In our first article on legacy, I focused on the story of Commander Jon Burge, formerly of the Chicago Police Department, and how he, as one of the CPD's top investigators, came to be revealed as what can be described as a serial torturer of criminal suspects. A lawsuit brought by a convicted cop-killer provided the impetus that ultimately revealed years of long-hidden abuse of prisoners at the hands of Burge and some investigators under his command, and led to Burge's firing and eventual conviction on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Jon Burge's personal legacy, at an age when he should be looking back at a proud police career, is one of past disgrace and future imprisonment.

But Burge’s legacy extends even farther:

  • Monetary damages in the millions have been paid out to victims and alleged victims of his torture, and it is likely future lawsuits targeting Burge, the City of Chicago and its police department, police officers and current and former Assistant State's Attorneys, and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (who was the Cook County State's Attorney during the time of much of the alleged and verified torture took place) will cost millions more.
  • Convictions have been overturned and others sit on appeal; in some cases wrongfully convicted men have lost years of their lives in prison, while in others guilty men have likely walked free thanks to the cloud of suspicion cast by investigators questionable tactics.
  • Illinois' Death Row was emptied in 2003 when then Governor George Ryan (who himself left quite a notorious legacy in his wake) commuted the sentences of the majority of Death Row inmates and pardoned a number of others whom had been found to have been wrongfully convicted, some directly as a result of Burge & Co.
  • In Illinois, all homicide interrogations must now be videotaped following passage of a 2005 law - another product of the Burge legacy. This may not be a bad thing in itself, but has spawned somewhat of a CSI effect with defense attorneys and jurors who wonder why not every theft and simple assault interrogation is on video. There have been some who have called for the extension of videotaping interrogations to all felonies and some misdemeanors.
  • Consider the impact of the Burge press on the mindset of those who cannot intellectually separate the actions of an individual from the group he represents. How often have one of us been vilified because we are equated with the bad actions (that we may well condemn ourselves!) of some other cop we have never met, will never meet, and may agree should never have worn the badge?

There are some who might say Jon Burge was a victim of the media who gladly and hungrily covered his story, or of the litigious legal system that would take up case of a convicted murderer over that of a decorated cop, or of the culture of the time, but none of those are true. Burge was his own victim.

Now understand, I get the part of Burge that must have felt he was doing the right thing - what NEEDED to be done - to see justice served. I understand the rationalization of the dark impulse to lash out, in spite of all the legal restraints, against vile and violent offenders. I get it, but those restraints are in place because we do get it. Impulses indulged lead to excess, and that is what happened to Burge.

The CPD I Have Known

It would be easy to think, based on what I've written up to this point, that I hold the Chicago Police Department in something less than high esteem but that would be wrong. I know better than to condemn any police organization as a whole based upon the perceptions that might arise out of the actions of an individual or group within the agency. I know how frustrating it is to be judged on the insolence or unprofessionalism of a colleague just because we wear the same uniform. I appreciate the often extreme challenges faced by the CPD as they fight crime in a city with some of the most violent neighborhoods in the US. I can appreciate it but never expect to experience it.

I have had many opportunities to speak and correspond with officers and detectives from Chicago, in the course of my job as a cop and through articles they have responded to with questions or comments, and found them unfailingly professional, respectful, and polite. On two occasions, while on traffic stops in my own beat, I have had unmarked CPD squads with plainclothes officers within pull up to back me. They did not need to - they were in my town working their own case some 30+ miles away from downtown Chicago - but did anyway because their instinct was to make sure another cop was safe while approaching dicey-looking cars.

I have had coworkers, from my department and the social service agency where Althea and I used to work, who have moved on to join the CPD ranks. Their selections reflect well on the department for choosing high-caliber individuals.

I have been in training classes with, and taught by, Chicago coppers that were information-rich learning experiences precisely because of their presence. What they brought to the table as instructors or fellow students added layers to the class that otherwise would have been missed.

Lately, and far too frequently, I have felt my stomach knot at the report of yet another Chicago police officer killed. It is then we get just a glimpse at the legacy of a life lived well as solid, stand up, community-service-oriented lives are revealed and honored in premature death.

The dedication to service and justice that has been recently, and repeatedly, lain bare in tragedy may never have been noticed by the larger world were it not for the legacy holder’s loss. The service to the community would have likely just continued quietly, with few knowing but for those directly touched by it or witness to it, with little or no celebration. And that has to be okay, because it reveals a truth: All across cities, towns, and wide open country spaces everywhere are police officers, deputies, and troopers, state and federal agents, park rangers and game wardens who are quietly building their own legacies of honor.

Next month we will conclude this series on Legacy with a closer look at a few built on dedication to honor and service, to celebrate those of us who have done and are doing it right, and with a challenge to all of us to examine the legacy we are building.