Mimesis Law
6 March 2021

The Empty Promise of Chicago Police Reform

Dec. 7, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Last Tuesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired Superintendent Gary McCarthy after four years as head of Chicago’s police force.  During the same press conference where McCarthy’s ouster was announced, Emanuel called for a task force to look into the lack of police accountability that has momentarily brought that department and city hall to its knees.  This will give the Chicago mayor a chance to bring his own choice for Superintendent into the position, bringing much-needed reform to the city’s embattled police department.

Or, this could just be history repeating itself.  This is not the first time that Emanuel has promised magical “reform” to the citizens of Chicago.  And it should come as no surprise that his last choice for Great Reformer is the same person he just relieved of his duties.

While he hired McCarthy on his promise to reform and refocus the police force, Emanuel left in place leaders who had climbed the ladder as the department earned a national reputation for corruption, abuse and resistance to oversight. The mayor sought to erase the 2012 verdict of a federal jury that found a police “code of silence” protected bad cops. He declined to take a public stand even as McCarthy defended an off-duty detective who killed an unarmed woman when he fired into a crowd, another case that drew protests and national attention.

The unarmed woman was Rekia Boyd.  She was shot in the back of the head and killed when off-duty Detective Dante Servin fired into a crowd because he thought one of the people in the crowd had a gun.  They did not.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who will certainly face a staunch battle for job in the Democratic primary to be held in March, “investigated” Boyd’s killing before deciding to bring charges.  Even then, the charge against Servin was only involuntary manslaughter, a crime so ill-suited to the facts as presented at trial, that the judge acquitted Servin at the close of the People’s case, prior to any presentation of evidence from the defense.  The judge, certainly recognizing the immense attention that would be focused on his ruling, shifted the blame by stating that the State’s Attorney had mischarged the case.

After Servin’s acquittal, reactions were predictably intense.  Many observers were outraged that an act that sure seemed like murder (and certainly would have been charged that way had the gunman not been a cop) ended with a police officer getting yet another pass.  Mind you, Servin was the first Chicago cop in 20 years to be criminally charged for a fatal shooting.

Servin called the ordeal a “nightmare.”  For him, mind you, not for the heartbroken family of Rekia Boyd.  His then-boss, Superintendent McCarthy, had a more general take.

McCarthy told reporters the charges against [Servin] were a “safety hazard” for other officers who might hesitate to fire their guns at offenders if their lives are in danger.

Here was Rahm Emanuel’s choice to bring accountability and reform to the Chicago Police Department claiming that even the incorrectly light charge against the off-duty Servin was an attack on the “safety” of his officers.  If the mayor wanted a reformer, he chose poorly.

Or perhaps Emanuel was genuinely fooled into believing that McCarthy would not just use his position of power to unfailingly drive the “cops are never wrong” mantra.  Maybe McCarthy even believed that he might be able to accomplish meaningful change within one of America’s most corrupt departments.  But whatever the hopes and dreams that preceded McCarthy, he has shown, by his actions, that while Chicago bleeds red, his blood is the bluest of blues.

As we look back over McCarthy’s ignominious career, the door has apparently opened to give Emanuel a second chance to get it right.  But this raises the ultimate question, and one where New York may be able to lend a bit of guidance.  Does it truly matter who heads the Chicago Police Department?  Will one person be able to change a culture that treats accountability, transparency and change like a disease?

Back in 2012, New York City held its first Bloomberg-less mayoral election in a dozen years.  At the heart of the political jockeying was the NYPD and its embattled Commissioner, Raymond Kelly.  Kelly had presided over a department that was committing untold instances of abuse and misconduct, all while ignoring civilian complaints and shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars in civil compensation to its victims.  Against the backdrop of institutionalized corruption, Kelly made it abundantly clear that he proudly supported a policy of stop and frisk that was clearly illegal even before federal District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled the practice unconstitutional.

The current Mayor, Bill DeBlasio, made a campaign promise to fire Kelly and bring reform (there’s that word again) to the NYPD.  DeBlasio won in a landslide and Kelly was immediately shown the door.  In his place, William Bratton, former head of the NYPD, then the LAPD, took over the reigns.  Although many saw DeBlasio’s choice, a career police chief, as an odd one for reform, Bratton promised a different direction for the NYPD.

During his short second tenure, though, Bratton has carried on  the same approach as his predecessor.  Namely, he sends his cops into poor black and brown communities to load up on arrests, regardless of rights or actual evidence.  Despite promises, stop and frisk is very much alive and well in the Big Apple.  Bratton is just dirty smart enough to tell his officers to stop reporting the stops and frisks they are still conducting.  He is also politically intelligent enough to rebrand the practice.  It’s not stop and frisk.  It’s community policing.

Again, regardless of intentions and motives, DeBlasio failed to deliver on his promise to reform the NYPD.  Maybe he was a snake oil salesman all along.  Or maybe, just maybe, the New York Police Department is simply too powerful to change.  We all now know that our banks are “too big to fail.”  Perhaps in a similar vein, we have allowed a standing army to grow into a similarly large monster that eats change and accountability for breakfast.

In Chicago, there may be a sense that the rolling of this McCarthy-sized head is a step in the right direction.  Maybe McCarthy and Bratton were just the wrong choices, but, then again, would the CPD or the NYPD ever accept the right choice?  Does the person make the office, or the does the office make the person?

Emanuel, ever the optimist, had this to say about the future of the Chicago Police Department and the city itself in an op-ed:

If any good comes from this tragedy, it should be a historic set of reforms that prevents abuses, promotes transparency and rebuilds the confidence of all Chicagoans that they will be treated fairly.  That is the marker I am setting for myself, the next police superintendent and the reform commission I’ve appointed.

It is a good read with some very good points.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to take the call for reform seriously when the only motivating factor behind any of Emanuel’s talk is “because we got caught.”  If his call would have come in the days and weeks following the death of Laquan McDonald, it would carry much more credibility.  Saying these things in the days after the public found out about his death at the hand of a Chicago police officer, and only after a judge forced its disclosure, rings only of desperate placation.

Neither Emanuel nor State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez have clean hands in the Laquan McDonald scandal.  Alvarez conducted the same kind of meticulous “investigation” as she did for Servin and the Rekia Boyd case.  She delayed until the last moment, and then right before the video was to be publicly released, Alvarez rode in on her white horse to announce murder charges against Officer Van Dyke.  Only time will tell if her office throws the case against Van Dyke like they did against Servin.  But if Chicago’s voters rightly decide that they do not trust Alvarez to hold the police accountable, then it will no longer be her office by the time Van Dyke’s case goes to trial.

Emanuel, for his part, is trying desperately to save his own skin by throwing Superintendent McCarthy under the bus.  But what exactly is different now than a year ago?  Emanuel had access to the video.  We can assume he watched it.  And then for an entire year, he sat back and allowed McCarthy to keep that video hidden and keep a killer on the street with a gun.  He also watched the months go by as Alvarez remained silent about the fact that an on-duty officer needlessly gunned a young man down, and it was caught on video.

If Emanuel truly wanted reform, then America would have learned Laquan McDonald’s name one year ago.  He is, like so many of our elected leaders, part of the problem, not the key to the solution.

If this is the part of the story where you were expecting a proposed path to happily-ever-after, sorry.

This is not a problem that can be solved by cutting the head off of the snake and replacing it with a different head, be it the mayor or the superintendent.  We are dealing with a headless snake.  No master stroke will win the day.

Police culture allowed Officer Van Dyke to fill Laquan McDonald with bullets and then go uncharged until those in power had no other choice.  Police culture stood there wearing badges as this happened and then lied to cover for a killer.  That culture will not change by replacing the nameplate on the big corner office.

If the police culture that has bubbled to the surface since Ferguson is going to change, it will be by a thousand tiny cuts.  It will take time and it will take immense effort from the outside in, not the inside out.  But when right is right, there is no other way.  To those who want to see true reform, the only way forward is to keep cutting.

Main image via Flickr/Daniel X. O’Neil

12 Comments on this post.

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  • Richard Kopf
    7 December 2015 at 9:20 am - Reply


    Do me a favor, please. Write a detailed post outlining specifically what should be done by Mayor Emanuel (what an ironic name). Thanks.

    All the best.


    • shg
      7 December 2015 at 9:31 am - Reply

      Heck, Judge. I can do that in one word. Resign.

      • Richard G. Kopf
        7 December 2015 at 10:03 pm - Reply


        You’re no fun. I baited the hook, and you, like many a big old bass, ate the worm and left hook tangling. Damn.

        All the best.


    • Ken Womble
      7 December 2015 at 9:34 am - Reply

      I agree with Scott. But I would add that prior to his resignation, he should call for charges against all the other officers who submitted false reports to cover for Van Dyke.

      • Scott Jacobs
        7 December 2015 at 8:16 pm - Reply

        Why do you want the police to be murdered in their sleep, Ken?

  • John S.
    7 December 2015 at 10:51 am - Reply

    The charges levied for the death of McDonald are also bewilderingly wrong too, are they not? 1st degree homicide has utterly no relation to the death of Laquan McDonald.

    • shg
      7 December 2015 at 11:04 am - Reply

      Illinois law provides three theories of first degree murder:

      (a) A person who kills an individual without lawful justification commits first degree murder if, in performing the acts which cause the death:

      (1) he either intends to kill or do great bodily harm to that individual or another, or knows that such acts will cause death to that individual or another; or
      (2) he knows that such acts create a strong probability of death or great bodily harm to that individual or another; or
      (3) he is attempting or committing a forcible felony

      If Van Dyke shot without lawful justification, then it could constitute first degree murder under subsection 2.

    • Ken Womble
      7 December 2015 at 11:56 am - Reply

      It seems troubling, but it is not. Under Illinois law, Van Dyke can be convicted of the lesser included offense of murder 2 at trial, regardless of the fact that he only stands charged with murder 1. People v. Kennebrew, 2013 IL 113998

    • John S.
      7 December 2015 at 5:57 pm - Reply

      thank you both Scott & Ken for explaining two extremely salient points.

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