The role of race in Chicago police’s abuse of power

A Chicago Police Department (CPD) detainment facility located at Homan Square has recently raised questions about the way the department handles detainees. A key issue is that many suspects are taken to the facility and detained there for excessive periods of time without being able to contact lawyers, family or friends. Essentially, suspects brought to Homan Square disappear for up to 48 hours before being charged and detained longer, or released.

Homan Square gained notoriety when three individuals protesting the 2012 NATO summit were arrested and detained at the facility. The CPD denied the arrests for hours after the suspects had been detained, delaying the detainees’ access to legal counsel for a full 24 hours.

The CPD has been accused and, in several cases, found guilty of torturing suspects in the past. In 2010, CPD detective and commander Jon Burge was found guilty of running a suspect torture ring in various parts of the city. For nearly 30 years, Jon Burge used electric shock, blunt objects and mock executions to torture African American suspects.

In 1989, Andrew Wilson accused Burge of torturing him. Despite bodily injuries that clearly demonstrated that Wilson had been tortured in Burge’s custody, Burge was not indicted. A second torture case was brought against Burge in 2006; once again, he was not indicted.

It took community activists, lawyers and religious leaders in Chicago more than 30 years of working through legal hurdles presented by pro-cop judges, institutional barriers to justice and the fraternal order of the police to hold a high-ranking Chicago cop accountable for his actions.

Though police abuse of minorities exists in many large cities, this sort of unequal treatment of black detainees gives Chicago’s African American community— and the entire city, for that matter—all the more reason to distrust the CPD. A relationship as broken as the one between the citizens of Chicago and its police department not only damages the people it unfairly hurts; it damages the city as a whole.

There’s no denying that urban decay is a serious problem in Chicago. The city’s historically discriminatory housing strategies have placed poor black residents in an impossibly difficult situation. Black residents in Chicago have little economic mobility, and the abusive practices of the police make this even worse.

The CPD has a responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of all of its residents. Torture rings and the fraternal order of the police exemplify a system of policing that instead seeks to eliminate symptoms of urban decay rather than tackling it at its roots. By establishing torture rings and detaining suspects at unconstitutional, zero-communication sites, the CPD is exacerbating two serious problems.

First, because previous police abuse cases have involved primarily minorities, we have every reason to believe that these practices disproportionately affect minorities, as does policing in general across the country. By detaining suspects in environments that deny access to legal counsel, friends or family, the department already stacks the odds overwhelmingly against suspects’ favor. This reinforces the institutional hurdles that Chicago’s black community has to overcome to achieve economic mobility and relief from the struggles associated with urban decay. This is true both for those who are charged with crimes and those who are not.

Second, the police establishes a regular practice of unconstitutional policing strategies. In major cities, there are many incidents in which rogue police units commit abuses without their department’s consent and are only disciplined internally. Cops may argue that this sort of work is necessary for the police to do their jobs. However, by allowing these abuses to go on, there’s no incentive for the police to search for alternative law enforcement strategies to replace the everyday “bag ‘n’ tag” that goes on in Chicago’s poor, black neighborhoods.

Rather than continue to find the most destructively efficient way to process Chicago’s minorities to prevent the spread of crime, the CPD should instead focus its efforts on alleviating poverty at one of its sources—young black Chicagoans in rough neighborhoods that are drawn into a cycle of poverty and crime.

The CPD needs to end practices that unfairly target minorities. The unequal treatment of minorities in the legal system directly contributes to the economic disadvantages within those communities that contribute to urban decay in the first place. Unfortunately, the abuse conducted by the CPD is more of a visible and ugly symbol of the city’s character than its architecture, culture or citizens ever could be.