Chicago’s Thick Blue Wall

Monday, December 14th, 2009

My crime column for Reason this week look at the Chicago Police Department, which despite accumulating misconduct scandals continues to push for policies that make its officers less accountable to the public.

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22 Responses to “Chicago’s Thick Blue Wall”

  1. #1 |  SJE | 

    Didn’t we invade some countries to save people from the rule of unaccountable despots, spreading accountability and the rule of law?

  2. #2 |  bobzbob | 

    “I’m sure the bulk of the officers in the Chicago Police Department are professional”

    Why do keep making nutty statements like that when anyone who has ever been to Chicago will tell you its not true.

  3. #3 |  pegr | 

    Another good article, Radley, but I have to take issue with the idea that there is such a thing as a good cop.

    “Good cops” tolerate bad cops. That makes them bad cops.

  4. #4 |  Dave Krueger | 

    So, on the list of the world’s most dangerous jobs, which would be considered more hazardous? A cop or someone who criticizes cop corruption and misbehavior?

    Just thinking outloud.

  5. #5 |  Dave Krueger | 

    #2 | bobzbob

    “I’m sure the bulk of the officers in the Chicago Police Department are professional”

    Why do keep making nutty statements like that when anyone who has ever been to Chicago will tell you its not true.

    That was the same line that jumped out at me, too. In the absence of substantiation, I will consider cops to be “professional” in the same sense that mafia hit men are professional.

    No, I take that back. I don’t think it’s wise to be making statements that insult mafia hit men.

  6. #6 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    I’m sure the bulk of the officers in the Chicago Police Department are professional, courteous public servants.

    I’m assuming this is under the domain of “people trying to honestly and fairly protect and serve the public”.

    I love this:

    “Good cops” tolerate bad cops. That makes them bad cops.

    As it hits on the fundamental issue. Until police and their union feel real pain in their industry, there will not be incentive to force out bad cops.

    But, it must be combined with a sea-change in law philosophy from where we are today of every citizen is a criminal and every act must first be licensed and approved by the state.

  7. #7 |  daten | 

    i’ve had a few interactions with Chicago police in my ten years of living downtown there.

    most of them were positive. they sure don’t suffer fools gladly however they will help you if you need it. a couple of interactions were not so good, however i can say they could have been avoided.

    my take away from the whole thing is more often than not, if you’re not being an asshole they’re not going to bother you; just stay out of their way.

    i’ve seen with my own eyes their way of taking care of business and i don’t ever wanna be on the receiving end of it.

  8. #8 |  SJE | 

    The rationale behind the “surge” in Afghanistan is to provide enough security that the average Afghani feels confident standing up to the violent Taliban minority. Part of the problem there is that the officials do not clamp down because of lack of power, or because they profit from corruption. Thus, the surge is accompanied by political reform.

    If the “bulk” of Chicago PD are honest and professional, then we have the same issue: the majority are tolerating the minority because speaking out gets you in trouble with the violent thugs, or with the officials.

    So, if we can correctly diagnose the problem, and are willing to spend the $$$$ and blood to treat it, then why not do something for an American city, whose economy is bigger than all of Afghanistan?

  9. #9 |  Mike T | 

    No, I take that back. I don’t think it’s wise to be making statements that insult mafia hit men.

    In defense of the mafia, if Al Capone had heard that one of his enforcers nearly killed a tiny female bartender for refusing him more alcohol after he was plastered, there wouldn’t have been a rock in the entire city under which he could safely hide from Capone.

  10. #10 |  SJE | 

    daten: I understand where you are coming from, but your perspective is, essentially, the CPD will treat you OK unless you are doing something wrong.

    The problem is that who determines whether you are doing something wrong? If you have read this blog, you will know that “wrong” means refusing to serve a beligerent drunk cop a drink, and he beats you senseless, and it getting covered up. Can the cops beat you senseless for taking their photo? What about double parking: it’s an actual offense, so why not some violence added in?

    Cops have the right to use lethal force, and they do need some deference in its application. However, that great a power cannot be left unchecked, and free from review or punishment.

  11. #11 |  chris | 

    Forget it Jake,it’s Chi-Town.

  12. #12 |  ClubMedSux | 

    i’ve had a few interactions with Chicago police in my ten years of living downtown there.

    most of them were positive. they sure don’t suffer fools gladly however they will help you if you need it. a couple of interactions were not so good, however i can say they could have been avoided.

    Living downtown, eh? That’s where they put old cops out to pasture. The CPD also has a vested interest in placing non-dicks downtown so they don’t scare away tourists.

    As somebody who was raised on the South Side (until his parents exiled him to the suburbs before high school) and has subsequently returned to the South Side since 2003, I can tell you that the cops aren’t so understanding once you move out beyond the Loop or River North. I assure you that, having grown up in the city, I know not to agitate a police officer but that hasn’t stopped me from having more than one profanity-laced interaction with Chicago’s finest (and I assure you none of the profanity came from my mouth). I have family and friends who are Chicago cops and want badly to believe the “few bad apples” myth but my experience tells me “few good apples” may be more like it.

  13. #13 |  SamK | 

    Dave (#4), ya gave me an excuse to post this one…

    It’s always interesting to note that being a bartender and pizza delivery guy (driver sales, though it includes others) rank higher as dangerous work than being a police…no word on where “poking the ugly blue ape with a stick” (filing complaints) lands on the list though.

  14. #14 |  PW | 

    #2 – I have to agree. Vague generalizations about how “most officers are good people” are rather silly, especially when the department is shown to have a systemic corruption problem – and Chicago does.

    In a department with systemic and institutionalized corruption, the “bad cop” moniker does not simply apply to those officers who commit the worst offenses (or in Chicago’s case, the 5% who account for half of the department’s complaints). It also extends to those who enable and cover for that 5% in the name of “professional courtesy,” and that more or less includes the other 95% of the department.

  15. #15 |  PW | 

    A sound argument could also be made that the policing profession BY ITS VERY NATURE tends to attract a greater percentage of “bad” people than most other professions. The reasons are many, and should be easily recognized by any libertarian:

    1. Policing is synonymous with the exercise of power, much of it unchecked, and that tends to corrupt those who exercise it, as per Lord Acton.

    2. Police work is characterized by a strong, assertive collective organizational goal built around vaguely defined ideological concepts (i.e. a “war” on crime, a “war” on drugs), and that tends to elevate the worst elements of society to the top of the organization as they pursue that goal at the expense of the individual, as per Hayek.

    3. Police departments economically incentivize and reward bad behavior through automatic “paid administrative leave” and the virtual guarantee of exoneration for all but the most flagrant offenses by officers. Police Departments also reward officers based on their ability to generate revenue, conduct certain types of arrests, and participate in other similar activities with a high risk of moral hazard. Therefore corruption on the job is a low risk/high reward proposition.

    4. The education and intelligence requirements for becoming a cop are absurdly low compared to the salaries and benefits they offer. Police careers seldom require more than a GED for entry-level jobs and a few hours at community college for higher ranking positions. They also pay $40-80K a year depending on the city, and almost all police departments offer full salaried lifetime pensions and an absurdly low retirement age in your late 40’s or early 50’s. In other words, they offer the salary and pension benefits of a mid-level corporate professional with a B.A., but they have the low work demands of the DMV counter and the qualification requirements of a manager at McDonalds. That combination is virtually GUARANTEED to attract the dregs of society.

    5. Most police departments have weak administrative procedures for punishing bad officers and a culture that strongly encourages officers to extend “professional courtesy” to other cops who bend or break the rules. This creates a very strong discouraging effect upon cops who have personal moral objections to corruption in their department, as they find themselves powerless to do anything about it and ostracized by other officers for “tattling” on one of their “brothers.” People who are morally inclined to be “good cops” are therefore driven from the profession and into other careers.

    While it may sound reasonable and courteous for us to assume that most cops are “good” people or to talk about the bad ones all around us as if they are “exceptions,” that entire argument is without any basis in empirical reality. It stems from a silly emotional perception instilled by our media and our government culture that says police (like soldiers, firefighters, nurses, teachers etc.) are an inherently “noble” and “virtuous” profession.

    Meanwhile the overwhelming preponderance of evidence, as exhibited by both our observation of police in action and the most basic and fundamental concepts of libertarian philosophy, says that we should generally expect cops to be LESS virtuous than society in general for all of the reasons I just mentioned.

  16. #16 |  Dave Krueger | 

    People with power, in this case cops, are almost always those who pursue it to gratify their own self-consuming egos. It’s also that very trait that makes them the least capable of managing it. Those who understand the responsibility and burden that comes with power almost never want the job. This is partly why I have very low expectations for anyone who wins the Presidency. Who in his right mind would actually take that job for any other reason?

    Which reminds me of a scene from the movie, Gladiator, when Marcus Aurelius offers Maximus the throne:

    Marcus Aurelius: Won’t you accept this great honor that I have offered you?
    Maximus: With all my heart, no.
    Marcus Aurelius: Maximus, that is why it must be you.

  17. #17 |  SJE | 


    At least we get to vote in and vote out the politicians, and the other branches of government have the power and incentive to investigate.

    With the CPD, they blocked even the list of bad cops (10+ complaints) going to the alderman. That is, the elected officials can’t even see which cops are causing problems. So, who is keeping the CPD accountable?

  18. #18 |  Reggie Hubbard | 

    I find it funny that Chicago was so proud of being Gotham City in the new Batman movies considering a big theme in both was the massive amount of police corruption.

  19. #19 |  Aresen | 

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

  20. #20 |  daten | 

    whoa! my first comment got (as of now) -16? holy crap!

    allow me to clarify… i’m not excusing any bad behavior, i’m only relating my own experience.

    that in now way reduces the revulsion i feel when i read any of the stories about the real abuses that this department has been and may now be guilty of.

    i was just commenting on what i had seen and my own experiences.

  21. #21 |  William | 

    The problem, Daten, is that your own experience essentially boiled down to you living in an area with the most gentile police presence possible and still having had several bad experiences. More than that, your attitude is to “just stay out of their way” and avoid “being on the receiving end” of them “taking care of business.” Your general argument is essentially: the police are dangerous and aggressive but they aren’t so bad if you avoid them when you can and treat them well when you can’t. By “relating [your] own experience” it really did sound to quite a few people as if you were engaging in victim blaming. When a cop beats the hell out of someone for being less than deferent that isn’t in any way a poor reflection on anyone but the cop. They have been given power, body armor, a gun, and near limitless authority. I don’t care if someone calls a cop’s mother a cunt to her face in front of him, that level of power demands a higher standard of maturity and personal restraint. When a cop loses control it is always their fault because the bar is simply higher for them. Thats the trade off they ought to be expected to make in exchange for the authority they’re granted. Instead we pamper them like favored, but violent, children.

  22. #22 |  Toastrider | 

    Precisely, William.

    In exchange for the authority and powers they are given, I expect a policeman to adhere to the highest level of integrity and conduct. Period. I understand there will be hard times, and men are fallible; that is why there’s counseling, support structures, and even Internal Affairs.

    Daten, you wonder why people worry so over this? What happens when a cop becomes just another idiot with a badge? What happens when people — not just inner city people, but most folks — feel disinclined to assist police because they’re tired of being harassed and assaulted?

    Too many police departments and personnel have sought to isolate themselves from the very communities they’re supposed to be protecting. This is a catastrophe waiting to happen, as if you’re not a name and a face, but just a uniform, it’s easier to be uncooperative… and easier to turn your head when karma comes around and hits said uniform like a sledgehammer.