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A Time for Change or More of the Same at the Chicago Police Department?

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Chicago's Emanuel Era was ushered in last week and among those in attendance on the Great Day was Chicago Police Superintendent-in-waiting Garry McCarthy.

For anyone interested in the reform of the police department, there was a glum feeling in the air. McCarthy's tenure as superintendent is likely to be marked by continuation of the same problems that have plagued the department for decades: too many credible claims of excessive force and false arrest against Chicago police officers; too many lawsuits and complaints against police settled for too much taxpayer money; and too little accountability within the department's internal disciplinary apparatus. McCarthy probably won't be an agent for the "change" that Mayor Emanuel concedes is desperately needed in so many endeavors of city government -- law enforcement high among them.

First, there's the problematic record of the Newark Police Department, which McCarthy headed most recently. The United States Department of Justice announced on May 9 that it is opening a civil rights investigation into whether the Newark police engaged in "systematic violations of the constitution," including excessive force, false arrests, discriminatory policing and violations of the rights of detainees under McCarthy's leadership. A petition by the New Jersey ACLU, which instigated the DOJ investigation, contends that the Newark Police Department "is beset with serious systemic problems which include recurrent, documented instances of violent and sometimes fatal treatment of people who come in contact with the police." The petition claims that, in the aggregate, Newark police officers are "unable to refrain from systematic violations of... constitutional and legal rights[.]"

Second, there's the disingenuous shrugging off of these alarming allegations. The Emanuel Administration assures us that McCarthy isn't to blame for the problems in Newark. The violations happened before his time (McCarthy only became chief there in 2006); while McCarthy was running the Newark police, he was an instrument of reform.

Both claims ring hollow. The New Jersey ACLU studied the prevalence of complaints of misconduct against Newark Police officers in the two and a half years since the beginning of 2008 (well after McCarthy's arrival as chief) and documented over 400 allegations of wrongdoing lodged in that period. That's not a low number. Chicago's current complaints of misconduct are much higher. But Newark's department is a relatively small organization, with roughly one tenth as many sworn officers as Chicago's.

Not only does McCarthy bear responsibility for "recent, not historical" problems in Newark, but his "reforms" of that department are nothing to shout about. For starters, those reforms obviously weren't enough to persuade the United States government that systemic police misconduct in Newark was under control. The New Jersey ACLU termed McCarthy's efforts at reform largely "cosmetic" and "far short of the systemic reforms that are needed to eliminate the pattern of wrongful conduct and practices" in the Newark police. The ACLU wanted Newark to implement independent, civilian oversight of police misconduct cases. McCarthy wouldn't get behind that. He designed "a new motto, mission, and values" for the Newark police.

Third, there are depressing parallels between Newark and the problems we've struggled with in Chicago for so long. In Newark, under McCarthy's tenure, fewer than 1% of the citizen complaints of police abuse led to any form of discipline by the NPD's internal disciplinary apparatus. That's on par with the unacceptably low rate of sustained misconduct charges by the Chicago Police Department's Independent Police Review Authority. There's no reason to hope that McCarthy will be the one to demand that IPRA take a more aggressive approach.

In Newark, under McCarthy's tenure, the police refused to improve a defective early warning system to identify and control police officers with established patterns of misconduct, allowing officers with documented histories of abuse to stay in their jobs. That's been a problem in Chicago for many years. McCarthy isn't likely to address that very serious concern when he officially takes over here.

In Newark, under McCarthy's tenure, lawsuits have cost the city millions of dollars in verdicts and settlements. More of the same can be expected under his tenure in Chicago.

The list goes on.

Garry McCarthy deserves a chance to prove me wrong. But I'm betting he's not going to do much to improve police-community relations in the areas of our city where improvement is most needed. Until folks begin to believe that the Chicago police administration really cares about the constitutional rights of citizens -- that the police are striving to connect with citizens in the poorest, most violent neighborhoods, not to "occupy" those parts of the city -- there's little chance McCarthy will be able to deliver the "safer streets" that Mayor Emanuel is promising.