Immediately upon the November 2015 release of the Laquan McDonald video that was kept hidden from the public for over a year, in what some are still alleging a cover-up, cries for reforming the Chicago Police Department (CPD) reached a deafening crescendo.
CPD, up to the very moment that the video was released, maintained that the shooting was justified based on McDonald’s behavior toward the shooting officer. In what appears to be the catch-all phrase for justifiable homicide, Officer Jason Van Dyke said he “feared for his life.”
However, dashcam video, once released, told an entirely different story. Official police reports that were filed by several other officers on the scene all mirrored one another, stating that McDonald had lunged at Officer Van Dyke with a knife.
Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The heartbreaking footage shows Officer Van Dyke and his partner pulling up on the scene, and within seconds Van Dyke can be seen discharging his service weapon sixteen times into 17-year-old McDonald as he was walking away from the officers.
The graphic footage shocked the moral and spiritual consciousness of Chicago, galvanizing forces — both in and outside of the Black community — decrying significant changes to community policing, reform and holding accountable officers who choose to use excessive force and then turn around and lie about it.
The tragic encounter added fuel to the national debate about white officer-involved shootings of Black people, many of them unarmed, and set the stage for the “Summer Reformation” of community meetings, accountability reports and even a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation.
The Black and White of Community Policing
Responding to protests and daily calls for his resignation, Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a tearful press conference decided that the answer, in part, was to hire more Black police officers, appearing to acknowledge what some in the Black community have known for years — that police should reflect the communities they serve.
It is here that our story begins. “I think what we need is more police that look like us,” says Marcus Robinson, independent photographer for several Black news organizations. “They understand us, they understand our needs and they know our behavior better than those [white policemen] that don’t live in our neighborhoods that are not like us.”
Robinson says that when he worked for the Chicago Park District, he would see Black policemen get out of their cars and talk to the young men and talk them out of fighting, without arresting anyone — in stark contrast to how some white officers respond to Black people.
“Some white cops,” he asserts “I don’t care what college you send them to, you can’t put a degree on someone’s heart and mind. So if they’re being taught that Black people are animals at home, they’re going to take that on the job, they’re riding through our communities and they’re really afraid of us. So they’re quick to grab their gun or taser rather than get out and talk to the people.”
Comparing 2013 CPD data, there are 6,279 white officers, 2,970 Blacks, 2,263 Hispanics, 324 Hawaiians and 166 officers identifying as biracial, 39 Asians and 1 race unknown, for a total of 12,042 officers.
Further parsing of CPD’s data illustrate that between 2008 and 2015, there were 404 officer-involved shootings; 299 of them, or 74 percent of the victims shot and/or killed were Black, according to the Police Accountability Task Force report published this past April.
The report also exposed a haunting similarity to CPD officer-involved shootings in the 1970s, whereby it stated, “The panel found that CPD used fatal force more frequently than in other big cities and that 75 percent of those killed were Black.”
The task force report concluded that little has changed over the decades, particularly in the attitudes of policing toward communities of color, especially Black men and women.
CPD’s Ire to Hire
To address the issue of what some critics of the department are calling an inherent “bias” in Chicago’s policing strategy, Mayor Rahm Emanuel promised in his Chicago police reform speech last week to hire about 1,000 new officers, with an emphasis on hiring more Blacks and Hispanics.
However, in a December 2014 article penned in the Chicago Sun-Times, it was noted that “Emanuel campaigned on a promise to hire 1,000 additional police officers then revised the pledge after taking office by adding 1,000 more ‘cops on the beat,’ more than half of them by disbanding special units. The other half were primarily officers working desk jobs reassigned to street duty.”
With shootings happening on a daily basis, the city extended an invitation back in February to potential hires to take the police exam. Out of 14,228 invites, only 10,087 showed up, upon which 7,117 were male 2,896 females and 74 undisclosed, according to CPD stats.
By race, there were 4,099 Hispanic applicants, 2,458 whites and 2,653 Blacks, 319 undisclosed, 296 Asian, 228 biracial, 17 Native Hawaiian and 17 American Indian/Alaskan Native.
Native Chicagoan and Purdue University graduate Taylor Smith passed the test and was later invited to an interview and drug screening at CPD headquarters in May. Majoring in pre-law, Smith said, “I have aspired to become a lawyer since I was six years old and throughout my young adult life, I’ve systematically made decisions that would aid in fulfilling that dream.”
Smith shared with the Defender that she was excited and looking forward to starting work with CPD, but on June 7, she received a letter in the mail stating that she would no longer being considered as a candidate for the position. The reason, according to the letter: “She had failed the drug test and tested positive for cocaine.”
Shocked by the allegation, Smith, who was adamant in the interview that she never used drugs, immediately sent a letter to CPD’s Human Resources Department. In the letter she specifically addresses the director of Human Services, Donald J. O’Neill, asserting “I have never in my life done any sort of drug[s]. I am and have been a non-drug user for every part of my young life.”
Smith and her mother went to CPD headquarters to ferret out what went wrong and was told, in person, not only was cocaine found, but in a large amount. Determined to clear her name, Smith pleaded with the director of personnel, Virginia Garcia, seeking information to appeal the decision, all to no avail.
Smith told the Defender, “I knew then that this was no error, but that this positive test result was intentional.”
Retired Officer X, when asked if Smith’s experience sounded familiar, said: “They (CPD) use several tactics to disqualify Black people. That’s one of them.” Officer X continues describing a sordid system designed to do one thing and one thing only – keep Black people out, protecting the jobs that have been in the family for generations in the mostly white ethnic communities on the Northwest and Southwest sides of Chicago.
X says he’s monitored the situation for the past 30 years and even seen CPD change the mailing address on potential recruit test results so they don’t receive notification that they passed. “I lived in the same address since I was 6 years old and nothing had changed. I scored very high and never heard anything from [CPD]. I ran into someone I knew that had a similar score and wondered why I didn’t get a call. I called the police personnel department and they said, ‘You didn’t respond to the letter.’ They changed the address and mailed it to a different address, so I never got the letter. You don’t know, so you get disqualified for the job.”
“Unfortunately, when this happens,” he says, “people don’t know what to do and they just go on about their business.” X says he eventually applied and was hired at a suburban police district.
According to the Mayor’s Office of News Affairs, a February press release touted the headline “Chicago Police Department’s Recruitment Campaign Results in 71% in Minority Applicants.”
Extolling the virtues of the recruiting process, the press release stated: “For the past three months, the Department used a variety of tactics to recruit potential police officers, including visits to churches, schools, and community events across the City . . . promot[ing] recruitment resources on radio stations, and through social media — including digital ads.”
To help understand the apparent counterintuitive measures of working hard on the front end to eventually disqualify the people you need the most – Black applicants – to restore trust in the community, the Defender reached out to a now retired 30-year veteran of the force who worked in narcotics.
“Until I worked in narcotics,” he begins “I really didn’t understand the ‘good old boy network’ and how things are done at CPD. The area that controls [hiring] bringing on candidates of color, that’s an all lily white area. If it’s not 100 percent white it’s 99.99 percent. These people hire their family, friends and neighbors,” he says.
When the Defender asked if he thought switching to a ward-based approach in hiring could make a difference, he said: “That makes a lot of sense. It would immediately help restore trust and put an end to the decades of patronage and corruption in the hiring process,” agreeing with the idea.
For example, in the latest proposal to hire 1,000 new recruits, based on Chicago’s 50 ward grid system, 20 officers should come from each ward; therefore, you would end up with a force that resembles the true character of the city and the people who live within each community.
John Doe, an applicant who passed the exam in February, is weighing whether to complete the application process in light of the new changes being implemented in policing that are being commented on at www.officer.com. In his opinion, a lot of the new-generation officers coming out of the academy have never been in a street fight in their lives. “They can pass the written test and the psychological test, but how are you under pressure?” he asks.
The academy doesn’t prepare you for the streets, and they’re trained to only reach for their guns if they lose control of the situation, he laments. “They feel as though they can’t control the situations, so they immediately go straight for their guns.”
FOIA requests to determine the number of potential hires who passed the written and drug tests and the race, gender and zip codes of such were not returned in a timely manner. Instead, CPD gave the Defender the run around regarding the above request for information. See the email exchange below.
The February press statement ended by stating: “Joining the Chicago Police Department is joining a police force that places community policing as a top priority,” said then-Interim Police Supt. John Escalante. “That means our officers don’t just patrol a neighborhood – they are part of a neighborhood. They don’t just protect a community – they are partners with communities.”
“I warned that this would continue to happen under Eddie Johnson,” said the retiree “they’re perpetrating to the community, but not much is going to happen.”
Phone calls to CPD Media Relations and Donald O’Neill’s office were not returned at press time.
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