“We know that this board does not care about black women,” a woman with dreadlocks tinted copper yelled from atop a chair. “They don’t care about black people.” She paused every couple of phrases, allowing 50 others to repeat her words for amplification. The board cared, she said, about protecting the police. “And making Rahm look good.” When she had exhausted herself — “We will be here until this [expletive] burns down!” — another woman took over. And when she, too, was spent, a young man with a reedy build followed, ignoring the pleas from the board chair and the interim police superintendent to respect the rights of other speakers. “If you want to speak, you can speak,” the protester cried, his words echoed by the chorus of the human microphone, “but not to them!” He pointed an accusing finger at the members of the mayor-appointed Police Board. “They are invalid. They are illegitimate.We are holding a forum.”
The activists weren’t the only ones declaring a crisis of confidence in Chicago. In November, the city released a video that showed Laquan McDonald, a black teenager, being shot 16 times by Jason Van Dyke, a white cop. The footage was gruesome. But the routine way in which the October 2014 killing was covered up for more than a year exposed a deeper culture of secrecy and impunity in Chicago that implicated the entire police force and much of the city’s government.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel reacted by firing his police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, last December. In quick succession, other officials stepped down, and Emanuel promised an overhaul of his Police Department. But much of the outrage in Chicago has remained concentrated on him. People marching in the streets hoist “Fire Rahm” signs. In polls, nearly two-thirds of African-American voters in the city said they didn’t trust him, and half of all likely voters thought the mayor should resign.
Most of the young people disrupting the meeting wore yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the name Rekia Boyd. In 2012, an off-duty Chicago cop named Dante Servin shot Boyd, 22, in the back of the head from the seat of his car, after arguing with her and her friends for making too much noise. Her family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit, eventually accepting a $4.5 million settlement. But the activists were still waiting for the Police Board, which rules on disciplinary decisions, to take any punitive action against Servin. “If you are not Martinez Sutton,” a demonstrator shouted, as Sutton, Boyd’s brother, joined them, his head bowed and his face wet with tears, “then shut the [expletive] up!” When the interim police superintendent told everyone to clear the room, the throng of activists closed ranks in an instant, like fingers curling into a fist. Protesters and police officers in Chicago had clashed on several recent occasions, and the department had been using plainclothes officers to monitor the groups’ events. But tonight officers stalked the borders of this knot of bodies, then gave up.
“We are abolitionist in our politics,” Page May, a 27-year-old founder of the activist group Assata’s Daughters, told me. “We are fighting for a world in which the police are obsolete.” Violent crime is again soaring in Chicago, with 151 homicides and 774 shootings over the first three months of 2016 alone, nearly twice as many as in the same period last year. Yet the very communities most in need of public safety have come to see the criminal-justice system as another deadly threat. A scathing report issued on April 13 by a task force the mayor appointed confirmed that their distrust of the police was warranted — “C.P.D.’s own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color,” the task force found.
“Chicago had it coming,” May said, describing the blowup set off by the Laquan McDonald case. “It’s more a question of why it took so long.”
With Chicago in this state of upheaval and reckoning, it feels as if much has already changed, but also very little. That same week in March, Veronica Morris-Moore, 23, spoke at a small news conference outside the Cook County Criminal Courthouse, on the city’s West Side. She seemed to be grieving the city’s larger problems, even as she celebrated the organizing that helped oust from office Anita Alvarez, the Cook County state’s attorney. Alvarez didn’t charge Van Dyke until a judge, nearly 400 days after the shooting, forced the city to make the McDonald video public. Alvarez had led in polls three weeks earlier, but demonstrators shut down her public talks, rallied at her fund-raisers and started a social-media campaign — #ByeAnita — that laid out how she had failed in her duties as a prosecutor. Alvarez lost by 30 percentage points to a political novice. But Morris-Moore had little faith in whoever was state’s attorney — or in any public official. “The system as it exists is never going to give justice to young people like Laquan McDonald,” she said. “Ultimately, we are out to destroy that system.” She and the five other activists standing beside her began to recite a litany of those killed in Chicago by the police, pausing after each name to say that the cop had gone unpunished.
Chicago had more fatal shootings by the police than any other American city from 2010 to 2014, according to an analysis by the Better Government Association. Yet members of the Chicago Police Department have faced hardly any punishment. Of the 409 shootings by police officers investigated since 2007 by the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), which is charged with looking into serious claims of misconduct, only two of the shootings were found to be unjustified. “The people in power-holding capacities are being put on notice,” Timothy Bradford, wearing a T-shirt with Rekia Boyd’s face printed on it, announced from the courthouse steps. “When you don’t make sure our communities are safe by ending mass incarceration and dealing with these killer cops — when you don’t do this, we are watching you, and we will hold you accountable.”
That McDonald’s death shocked the city into action was a result in part of the video itself. You can count in the footage, recorded from a patrol car’s dashboard camera, exactly how long it takes Van Dyke to jump out of another cruiser, gun already fully extended, and open fire: six seconds. The first shots send the 17-year-old spinning, his arms airplaning out, nearly a complete 360, as he topples. Then Van Dyke continues shooting into McDonald’s inert body. Thousands of pages of police reports and emails about the case slowly came to light, document after damning document, detailing the extent and everyday nature of the cover-up. “It was like a biopsy of an entire institution revealing a consistent ugly thing,” said Jamie Kalven, who runs the Invisible Institute, a local independent news organization.
Last year, The Guardian broke the story of a police facility on Chicago’s West Side being operated like “a C.I.A. black site.” Officers at the Homan Square station were detaining and interrogating thousands of suspects, sometimes for days without filing charges or providing access to lawyers. Although the Police Department has denied the allegations, internal department records and testimony from those detained suggest that the city may soon be forced to confront yet more cases of abuse. Even as cops have been absolved of blame in almost all instances, the city has made a practice of settling claims before trial, and Chicago has paid more than $662 million to deal with police misconduct over the past 12 years. In its report, the mayor’s police-accountability task force stated that “every stage of investigations and discipline is plagued by serious structural and procedural flaws that make real accountability nearly impossible.” Weeks before the report’s release, Amy Campanelli, the Cook County public defender, described to me the effects of this loss of trust in the criminal-justice system. “If the police kill, lie about it and take the law into their own hands, no one can be confident in calling for help during a crisis, nor can we rely on them to testify credibly in court,” she said. “This is a systemic problem and is not merely a problem of individual bad actors.”
Whatever apparatus is supposed to exist in the city to police the police has also operated in a way that insulates them from accountability. Jamie Kalven and Craig Futterman, the director of a civil rights and police misconduct legal-aid clinic at the University of Chicago, were instrumental in the release of the McDonald video; they recently starteda searchable online database of every citizen complaint against the police investigated by IPRA and the police’s internal-affairs division between 2011 and 2015. Of the 28,588 cases documented there, covering 7,758 officers, only 755 complaints had been sustained.
Last year, a former IPRA supervisor named Lorenzo Davis said his boss ordered him to reverse several findings he made against officers in police shootings. A Chicago cop himself for 23 years, reaching the rank of commander, Davis was accused of “a clear bias against the police” and fired. One incident that Davis determined to be unjustified occurred in 2013, when an officer shot a fleeing 17-year-old, claiming the black teenager had turned on him holding “a small black object which I believed to be a handgun.” It was an iPhone case. “He trained his gun on him, looked for an open shot and when he got it began to shoot,” Davis said, describing video of the shooting. “That’s different than deadly force as a last resort. That was a first resort. The training has changed: The police now use the phrase ‘eliminate the threat.’ The officer who shot the 17-year-old just ‘eliminated the threat.’ ”
When Mayor Emanuel won re-election last year, after being forced into a runoff against a relative unknown, he said in his inaugural address that he would dedicate his second term to “preventing another lost generation of our city’s youth.” Veronica Morris-Moore quoted for me nearly verbatim the mayor’s words. That speech, she said, came just four weeks after the City Council voted unanimously to pay a $5 million settlement to the family of Laquan McDonald. The video of the shooting was kept from the public for another seven months. Morris-Moore laughed a sad, bitter laugh, then said, “All the while, him and his people were trying to stop the release of this tape of a young teenage boy who was shot 16 times by a police officer.”
On the night of Oct. 20, 2014, two officers responding to reports of a break-in at a parking lot came upon Laquan McDonald — black male, six feet, dark hoodie. “This guy, uh, kind of walking away,” one of them radioed calmly at 9:53 p.m. “He has a knife in his hand.” They were eight miles southwest of downtown, on what was little more than an industrial service road, bordered by the Stevenson Expressway and beyond that the valley of a rail yard. The cops treated the situation like the routine encounter that it was. For a quarter mile, they trailed McDonald, one in a squad car and the other on foot, giving the suspect a wide berth so as not to provoke him. Even after the teenager spiked one of the patrol car’s front tires with his three-inch blade, the officers did not fire their guns. Four additional cruisers arrived, three of them hemming in McDonald on his left and one from behind. That’s when Jason Van Dyke emerged from one of these cars and shot McDonald dead.
The cover-up began almost immediately. “He wasn’t dropping the knife, and he was coming at the officer,” a spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police told the reporters who soon converged on the scene. Describing McDonald as “crazed,” “with a strange gaze about him,” the union representative said that the officer then shot McDonald in the chest: “He leaves them no choice at that point but to defend themselves.” An official department statement was issued hours later: “Officers confronted the armed offender, who refused to comply with orders to drop the knife and continued to approach the officers. As a result of this action, the officer discharged his weapon, striking the offender.”
Craig Futterman, who was a public defender for juveniles on the city’s West Side before starting the University of Chicago civil rights clinic, read the story the following day. “My eyes glazed over,” he said. Like McDonald, a second-generation ward of the state, almost all the people shot by the Chicago police are African-American. A castoff child wandering an urban back of beyond, McDonald seemed destined to be another unremarked addition to the statistics, with little known about the circumstances of his death save what the police reported. Less than three weeks later, however, a whistle-blower from inside law enforcement phoned Futterman. The caller had seen the dashcam video and insisted that it didn’t corroborate the police narrative at all. “That officer shot him like a dog in the street,” Futterman recalls the source telling him. “It was nothing short of an execution.” Futterman says the caller feared that the shooting would be buried like so many others in Chicago. “Please, Craig,” the source implored. “Look into it and let people know.”
Futterman couldn’t go public with news of the video: That would compromise the identity of the caller. But the whistle-blower also told Futterman about a man who had been driving his adult son to the hospital when the police cars swarming around McDonald brought him to a halt. Before he could give a statement to a cop directing traffic, the officer shooed him off with the wave of a flashlight. Jamie Kalven tracked the driver down. He told Kalven that Van Dyke had fired not once or twice to the chest, as the police reports suggested, but until he was out of bullets, at least a dozen times, most of them as the teenager lay helpless on the ground. Van Dyke, the driver told Kalven, had paused to appraise the situation after the first shots whirled McDonald to the ground, and then he continued firing on the prone and lifeless teenager.
of NBC5 in Chicago, found that in the car that captured the video of the shooting, the microphones were in the glove compartment with the batteries installed upside Three weeks after the shooting, McDonald’s mother, Tina Hunter, asked a pair of attorneys, Jeff Neslund and Michael Robbins, to help her look into the circumstances of her son’s death. The lawyers, who would eventually pursue a case, put Kalven in touch with a trucker they found who had been filling out paperwork in a nearby Burger King parking lot when the incident unfolded before him. He told officers that he had just watched what he called “an execution.” According to Kalven and Hunter’s lawyers, the police responded by taking the trucker and two other witnesses distressed by what they’d seen to a station house, interrogating them for hours. Again and again, the increasingly hostile officers responded that video evidence refuted what they claimed to
“Three current witnesses to a fatal shooting, not one is recorded, videotaped or even asked to sign a written statement,” Robbins told me. “It was a patently fraudulent investigation. It was a calculated effort to avoid documenting what people saw and finding out what happened. And that’s not uncommon in Chicago.” The full police report of the shooting completed months later would state that of the five witnesses who heard gunshots, only one saw the shooting. The report also included statements from Van Dyke and the nine other officers on the scene. Van Dyke told a sergeant that McDonald “was swinging the knife in an aggressive, exaggerated manner,” that the teenager “continued to advance” on him. These statements were untrue. In defense of his life, Van Dyke said, he backpedaled and fired his Smith & Wesson. Five of the other cops there claimed they saw the exact same thing. The other four — including the two responding officers, who had dutifully followed their training, doing everything they could not to escalate tensions — said they didn’t have their eyes on McDonald in those vital moments.
The dashcam footage from the patrol cars was uploaded and reviewed soon after the shooting. But the report stated that the video showed the shooting in detail and supported the accounts of all the witnesses. The report was signed off on by supervisors all the way up to a lieutenant.
Employees at the Burger King told Hunter’s lawyers that the police also entered the restaurant shortly after the shooting and demanded access to the surveillance-video system. A manager asleep at home had to provide a password. Internal cameras show officers typing away on the system’s keyboard. Eighty-six minutes of video, covering the time of the shooting, went missing.
In January 2015, Kalven obtained McDonald’s autopsy with a Freedom of Information request. The autopsy, performed with a representative from the Independent Police Review Authority present, inventoried McDonald’s tattoos: “Good Son” on his right hand and “YOLO,” for “You only live once,” on his left. The report documented the 16 times he was shot, bullets striking his left scalp and right chest, his left elbow, his right upper leg and his right lower back. Fragments were lodged in his teeth. Ten of the 16 shots struck him from behind or the sides. “It was knowing absolutely, definitively, demonstrably that the city was lying,” Kalven said.
Nearly three months after the shooting and amid Emanuel’s contentious bid for a second term, Kalven published excerpts from the autopsy in an exposé for Slate, writing that it was the mayor’s duty to release the dashcam video and begin to restore trust in the city’s police. Van Dyke hadn’t been charged with a crime, let alone fired or identified publicly (the city’s contract with the Fraternal Order of Police includes prohibitions on disclosing names of officers under investigation to the media). Police officials, prosecutors and IPRA investigators all had copies of the video by then. Superintendent McCarthy later admitted to watching it the day after the shooting. Stephen Patton, the city’s corporation counsel, in charge of a department of 270 attorneys, informed the mayor’s staff in December that they were “on the lookout for” a lawsuit over Laquan McDonald’s death. And yet the city took no steps to correct the blatantly false characterizations from the night of the shooting. “The fate of Laquan McDonald,” Kalven wrote, “has thus become entwined with that of Mayor Emanuel. It presents his administration with a defining moment.”
Over the past 15 years, Futterman and Kalven have worked with hundreds of people who were mistreated by the police in Chicago’s high-rise public housing. They saw firsthand what “law enforcement” can mean in marginalized, high-crime sections of the city. “There was nothing in terms of call-911 public safety,” Kalven told me. “It was detainment and day-to-day patterns of police abuse — police teams taking drugs and guns and money and not making arrests.” Through lawsuits brought against the city, the two of them forced the release of tens of thousands of records of citizen complaints against the Chicago police, which formed the basis of their online database. The city released the most recent trove of documents after fighting them for 10 years, across two mayoral administrations, contending that officer personnel information was not part of the public record, even though cops were for many the primary face — and powerful arm — of government. Documents Futterman acquired in 2006 showed that a relatively small number of officers in Chicago were responsible for most of the misdeeds. Chicago’s police force then had 13,500 members (it now has 12,500), and only 662 cops racked up more than 10 citizen complaints; most officers finished their careers with just a handful. Yet the department rarely disciplined or retrained even its 662 most-maligned cops.
“I have a deep admiration for officers who serve us and do it for the right reasons,” Futterman told me. “As a kid, I wanted to be a cop. But I’ve also seen how much harm abusive and racist policing can do to individuals and families and entire communities.” What he and Kalven have demonstrated through their work is how easy it could be to identify the bad actors before the greater harm is done. “This information about problem officers is so knowable, so predictable, so clear,” Futterman said. Before Jason Van Dyke opened fire on Laquan McDonald, at least 19 complaints had been logged against him, 11 of them for excessive force. In 2007, the city paid $350,000 to a black motorist Van Dyke beat up during a traffic stop. He faced no consequences.
Brandon Smith, a 29-year-old freelance writer on Chicago’s North Side, was a student at the city’s Columbia College when he heard Kalven speak about his work and decided that he, too, wanted to be a journalist-activist. “Stories of the man picking on the little guy,” he told me. Last year, Smith learned about the existence of the Laquan McDonald video from a 27-year-old South Sider named William Calloway, who took to activism after he happened to hear Rekia Boyd’s brother speak about his frustrated quest to bring the officer who shot Boyd to justice. “It caught me off guard as a human being,” Calloway said. “I decided I’d do whatever was in my power to help.” Smith filed a Freedom of Information request for the McDonald video in May 2015; the police denied his petition outright that August, claiming that public dissemination of the footage would harm a continuing investigation.
“The police are ready and happy to furnish bits and pieces that support the official narrative,” Futterman told me. “But they suppress anything that contradicts or shows it not to be true.” The public was told about McDonald’s arrest history and gang affiliation, that he had PCP in his system and lunged at an officer with a knife. While the privacy of the police is shielded at all costs, the same is rarely afforded to their victims.
Several local and national media outlets also sent in requests for the dashcam video and received the same answer. But only Smith followed up by suing for its release. He did so by turning to a lawyer he met named Matt Topic. In 2014, Topic joined Loevy & Loevy, one of the city’s leading civil rights firms, and started a practice there dedicated solely to FOIA litigation. In Chicago, he didn’t lack for work. “If you care about democracy, you need to know what government is up to,” Topic said. “It made me mad to see government routinely deny people information.” Topic, with Futterman as his partner, won Brandon Smith’s case on Nov. 19, 2015, persuading the judge to deny the city’s motion to stay the ruling.
When I asked Malcolm London, a 23-year-old spoken-word poet and an organizer with Black Youth Project 100, why Laquan McDonald shook up the city while so many other incidents failed to seize the public imagination, he first wanted to set me straight. “For us, the video didn’t change what was already happening in Chicago,” he said. “We were on the ground long before the cameras came.” London is right, of course. Alongside the city’s culture of police misconduct, there has grown a counteracting network of activists, attorneys, community organizers, journalists and retired black cops.
London was among the leaders of Chicago’s young black activists who were turned on to organizing when their friend Dominique Franklin Jr. died after being Tasered by a police officer on the North Side in the spring of 2014. “After Trayvon, but before Mike Brown,” Page May told me. A month after McDonald’s death, eight of them traveled to the United Nations Committee Against Torture, in Geneva, persuading members of the international body to include in the official record not only the misdeeds of the Chicago Police Department but also the fate of Franklin. “We needed his name to be known,” May, a member of the delegation, explained. “What things mean has as much to do with what happened as how we respond to it.”
In February, Mayor Emanuel and I sat on couches in his wood-paneled office at City Hall for an hourlong conversation. He was only a little combative: “I’m not arguing with you, Ben. It’s not an argument,” he said at one point, as if he were reminding himself. He explained that he was concerned not with his falling approval numbers or calls for his head but with bringing change to the city. “I’m not going anywhere,” he assured me. “I’m going to finish the job I was elected to do.” The mayor ran through a laundry list of the police scandals that rattled previous Chicago administrations. “Every mayor has dealt with challenges from the Police Department not living up to the title of ‘Chicago’s finest,’ ” he told me. “All the measures my predecessors took, it never measured up to the full scope of the problem. What they did was right. Just not right enough. It wasn’t sufficient.”
Last year, Emanuel announced that the city would offer reparations to those harmed by the worst case of police misconduct in Chicago’s history. From 1972 to 1991, officers tortured at least 125 African-American suspects in station-house interrogation rooms. The assaults were carried out or supervised by Jon Burge, who was promoted from detective to commander during the years that his “midnight crew” coerced false confessions from men by beating them with phone books, suffocating them and shocking them with electrical devices on their genitals or in their rectums. In 1989, a cop sent the civil rights attorney Flint Taylor a tip about an imprisoned Burge victim, writing that he would remain anonymous so as not to be “shunned” like Officer Frank Laverty.
Laverty had revealed a few years earlier that it was common practice for the Chicago police to withhold from defense attorneys what they called a “street file,” a raft of evidence that all too often refuted whatever official account of events had been concocted. Laverty ended his career taking urine samples from recruits. Burge once demonstrated for a group of officers how the department dealt with snitches: As Laverty left the room they were in, Burge unholstered his gun, pointed it toward the back of Laverty’s head and said “bang.” In 2010, Burge was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, and was imprisoned; he was released less than four years later and is now living in Florida with a full police pension. The revelations eroded much of whatever trust black communities still had in the police force and even prompted a Republican governor to effectively end the death penalty in Illinois.
“Burge happened 30 years prior to me being mayor,” Emanuel told me. “I wanted to close the chapter on this and bring the city whole.” But the mayor introduced the reparations agreement in the City Council on April 15, 2015 — the same day aldermen voted to pay $5 million to the family of Laquan McDonald. Emanuel would soon be forced to admit that the same patterns of perjury and abuse had continued under his watch without any real impediments. “We cannot ask citizens in crime-ravaged neighborhoods to break the code of silence if we continue to let a code of silence exist in our own Police Department,” the mayor said in a speech two weeks after the McDonald video went viral. Lawyers suing the city had exhausted countless hours over decades trying to get a finding by a court just to admit that this code existed. And here a sitting Chicago mayor was stating it as fact.
The furor over the McDonald revelations led Emanuel to usher in a change in leadership: the removal of Superintendent McCarthy, and the swift departures of the chief of detectives and the head and his deputy at IPRA. It also heralded a flurry of police reforms. The city would now add to the number of officers carrying Tasers and other alternatives to guns; it would expand the use of wearable body cameras. The police would start to look at patterns in complaints against officers to pick out cops in need of retraining. New mandates on when and how officers should use force read as if they could have been written by reformer activists: “There need to be fundamental changes, because even when force may be legally justified, it doesn’t mean it’s necessary.” Last December, the Justice Department announced that its civil rights division would conduct a wide-ranging pattern-and-practice investigation of the Chicago police. Emanuel at first opposed the probe. Although he now supports it, he hoped the police-accountability task force he created would come up with homegrown solutions ahead of any federal mandates.
Craig Futterman, one of the 50 experts who served on the task force’s working groups, was relieved that the report released on April 13 confronted the hard realities of racism, abuse and lack of oversight in the Chicago Police Department. “It dealt in real truth-telling,” he said. “The first step in fixing a problem is acknowledging it and getting the diagnosis right.” Yet he also said there are reasons to remain skeptical that real change will come to a troubled police force and a city with enduring structures of racism and inequality. He pointed to a report put together in 1972 by Ralph Metcalfe, the Olympic sprinter and former United States congressman from Chicago, that also demanded reforms of a racist and abusive police force. “We had this same conversation over 40 years ago,” Futterman said.
As the city suffers through one of its deadliest starts to a year, black residents continue to feel as if they are under assault from both too much policing and too little. Last December, an officer shot a mentally ill 19-year-old wielding a bat, also killing a downstairs neighbor, a 55-year-old mother of five; the officer soon filed a $10 million lawsuit against the estate of the deceased young man, claiming he deserved whatever wrongful-death settlement the city paid out because he now suffered trauma from shooting them. In March, the Fraternal Order of Police made sure Jason Van Dyke was still taken care of, hiring him as a janitor as he awaited trial.
With Chicago spending nearly 40 percent of its operating budget on policing, activists are demanding that the force be defunded, that resources go instead to rebuilding the neighborhoods depleted by crime and record unemployment and failing and shuttered schools. This month, teachers staged a one-day strike, a week after the first of three unpaid school furlough days meant to dent the school system’s $1.1 billion deficit. Protesters against police brutality joined teachers in demonstrations on the streets. On April 12, the night before the executive summary of the accountability task force report was released, 100 demonstrators also gathered on Chicago’s West Side, alongside the fence where Pierre Loury, 16, was shot less than 24 hours earlier by a police officer. The police said Loury was in a car suspected of being connected to an earlier shooting. They claimed he ran and that an “armed confrontation” ensued. Witnesses said Loury was trying to climb the fence when he was killed. The incident is under investigation.
Seventy-four police cadets, in crisp dress blues, their shoes polished to a glow, stood at their graduation ceremony on April 8 barking replies in unison — “Good morning, sir!” — to the dignitaries addressing them in Navy Pier’s mammoth ballroom. Bagpipes cawed as a heavy spring snow descended outside. Families joyously snapped photos. The newly minted Chicago Police Department officers had started their training in August, their months in the academy spanning the release and aftermath of the Laquan McDonald video. “Change has happened,” the mayor told them from the stage. “It’s a new world out there.”
It was a message that had been repeated to them countless times over the past months, as they readied themselves to join a department now under scrutiny and regarded with suspicion. A recruit named Hayden Villamercado, in his graduation address, stressed that the class’s diversity would allow its members to better serve their communities. He related how in the course of one shift, his partner assisted a citizen in Mandarin and he helped someone in Spanish. Emanuel had named a new police chief, Eddie Johnson, two weeks earlier, and Johnson told the recruits that he would “put on notice” the 1,000 individuals who he said were responsible for a vast majority of Chicago’s serious crime. His warning came as part of a larger pitch for a new style of policing that put community first. The new officers needed to recognize that neighborhoods were not war zones. “People want to be included — they want to be our partners,” Johnson instructed. “And quite frankly, we need them.”
Johnson, a 27-year African-American veteran of the force, hadn’t applied for the superintendent’s job. So he wasn’t interviewed or vetted by the Police Board, which, as mandated by city law, had conducted an extensive search and sent its shortlist of candidates to the mayor for his final selection. But Emanuel rejected the finalists, picking Johnson instead, in effect reiterating the assertion made by protesters that the board was illegitimate. A Police Board member told me that the emperor had made his declaration.
At the ceremony, after the mayor posed for portraits with the graduating class, he and I spoke for a few minutes. When I asked what went into his decision to go around his Police Board, Emanuel stopped me before I could finish the sentence: “Your question is wrong. Your wording is wrong. It has a mind frame, and I’m going to cut you off there.” The mayor said there was precedent and grounds for him to reject candidates who didn’t meet his goals. Most pressing, he said, was the spike in gun violence that was being met with a simultaneous decline in arrests. “There’s a whole different narrative about policing,” the mayor said. “Morale has taken a hit.” Johnson, who came from the patrol division and had no citizen complaints against him on record, could lead by example, Emanuel said. The mayor had made a calculated choice to win back cops on the street. Johnson, he said, “is able to build trust with the rank and file, which is essential to bring morale up.”
In one of his first public statements as chief, Johnson said that in his three decades on the force, “I’ve actually never encountered police misconduct,” because officers would know better than to commit an offense in front of someone who would “hold them accountable.” The statement raised the question of whether a leader steeped in the culture could even see the ingrained institutional problems he was supposed to change.
The mayor told me that the new body cameras were arriving that week. He touted the technology as a way to empower citizens and liberate conscientious police officers — a cop’s word would no longer stand alone as the arbiter of truth. Emanuel said that Johnson had volunteered to wear a body camera himself when in the field, and he was requiring the same of his entire command staff.
Despite the city’s deeps scars from racism and corruption, Emanuel had seemed practically buoyant when detailing his proposed police reforms. “I said I own the Laquan McDonald problem, and I own the fixes,” he told me. “At the end of the day, I will be measured by whether I took the moment and led the city in a comprehensive way to a better place. We’re going to get there. I will own that.”
The graduating recruits looked impossibly young, all of them no doubt filled on this day with pride for the work to come. They would report to their jobs on Monday, joining a force in which it has been customary for veterans to lie, suppress evidence and silence witnesses. Could they also join other young Chicagoans in demanding that the system they were now a part of provide justice for all in the city? “I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of police officer, according to the best of my abilities,” the cadets recited together, echoing the phrases spoken by the department’s first deputy superintendent, as they took their oath of office.
Ben Austen is working on a book about Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public-housing complex. He last wrote for the magazine about the campaign to diversify tennis on the South Side of Chicago.
Ben Austen is working on a book about Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public-housing complex. He last wrote for the magazine about the campaign to diversify tennis on the South Side of Chicago.