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Will Mayor Emanuel Commit to Reforming the Chicago Police?

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Poor Jody Weis. Rates of murder and violent crime have fallen like a stone in the three years since Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed him Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department. He's been innovative, unorthodox, and he seems to have gotten results as a crime fighter. Yet he has barely a friend in town--not in the Police Department, not in the City Council, not in the civil rights community or in many of the neighborhoods around the City. And, abruptly, last week he was out, the Mayor apparently unwilling to back him in a contract extension that he wanted to stay on the job. It really seems a little unfair.

Phil Cline, Weis's predecessor, departed under a cloud of scandal. Off-duty Chicago Police Officer Anthony Abbate had been caught on video savagely beating a diminutive female bartender. Another video captured Chicago cop Alvin Weems appearing to murder a young black man in cold blood at a CTA station. Abbate got fired, but Cline initially came to his defense. Then Cline overruled a recommendation that Weems be fired and gave him a 30 day suspension instead. The Department was out of control and Weis, a longtime FBI agent with a clean image, was brought in to right the ship.

The Fraternal Order of Police, the powerful Chicago Police union, hated Weis before he got in the door. The last thing the FOP has ever wanted is any outsider--it doesn't matter who--meddling in police business. The FOP is on a mission to frustrate the Department's ability to discipline police officers who violate the civil rights of citizens. Emblematic of the FOP's stance is its ongoing, ardent support of Jon Burge, even as the rest of the world has woken up to the horror and magnitude of his wrongdoing. The FOP campaigned for years to get Weis to step down.

The Chicago Police ain't ready for reform. And, though Weis did little to make the Police a more law-abiding agency, he never had a realistic chance to be an agent of meaningful change.

Now Mayor Daley has given us former Police Superintendent Terry Hillard--a throwback to the bad old days--to serve as interim Superintendent until Mayor-elect Emanuel can name a permanent successor. Hillard is a company man, and the FOP hasn't raised a whisper of complaint about his appointment. Hillard, after all, is famous in civil rights circles for proposing to "close the book on the Burge era and move on" when he was appointed Superintendent in 1998 and for continuing to look the other way as new information about Burge continued to emerge while Hillard was Superintendent.

Who's next? There hasn't been any indication that the protection of civil rights--particularly the rights of poor minority members accused of crime--is high on the list of Mayor-elect Emanuel's priorities. He appears poised to bow to the FOP and appoint another insider to carry on business as usual.

But if the Mayor-elect were inclined to move the Chicago Police Department in a new direction, he'd need to do more than just appoint a rock-solid, reform-minded administrator as the new Superintendent. He'd also need to devote some political capital to taking on the entrenched opponents of change. FOP collective bargaining rights hamstring the use of past allegations of misconduct in disciplinary cases involving police officers and they erect barriers to citizen complaints of excessive force and other abuses. These provisions need to go when the City renegotiates the FOP contract in June 2012.

Superintendent Weis was fond of saying that the Mayor of Chicago and the Superintendent of Police have to have a relationship of trust and be on the same page. For a reformer Superintendent to succeed, he would need--for starters--the Mayor's unwavering commitment to ending the FOP's strangle hold over the police disciplinary process.

The Chicago Police Department does not need to be the brunt of jokes about torture. There isn't any reason our City can't have a progressive and enlightened police force. But, for that to happen, Rahm Emanuel will have to start by giving us something better than Terry Hillard and the current FOP contract when he takes the helm next month.