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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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The Chicago Police Department is demoralized, understaffed, and controlled by a political apparatus that sees the department as a petty political battleground and not a public service. For our City Council and mayor, the specifics are less important than the impact: high crime means an upset electorate; never mind the fact of the crime itself. It is time that the mayor and his allies in the Council, like Alderman Isaac Carothers (Austin), reach out to the rank-and-file cops and figure out why the crime rate has exploded with no end in sight. Browbeating a neophyte like seven-month Superintendent Jody Weis is not going to help matters. Weis' cosmetic purging of district commanders as a way to symbolize a new era in the department is not enough, and may have been a mistake. We the public need to hear from rank-and-file cops, and those rank-and-file cops need to be listened to by elected officials who control their work life. If rank-and-file cops from each district told me what they needed to do their job, I'd be a lot more comfortable giving it than if Mayor Daley or Ike Carothers — or any number of aldermen or bureaucrats — told me.

For a couple years there, the rumors on the street about some units of the Special Operations Section were that they were the CPD street gang, the jump-out boys who held up gang parties in masks and demanded tribute from gang leaders for release of "kidnapped" associates. These rumors bubbled up and led to a federal investigation of the "rogue unit" of SOS. Poor oversight by supervisors had allowed a highly-trained elite unit go rogue. The problems with the SOS compounded a spate of abuse scandals that hit the media and a number of lawsuits against the department for excessive force.

What does that say about the CPD's 9,000+ sworn officers? Little to nothing. No matter how much some politicians, media and some activists want to pretend otherwise, there is no excuse for the level of disrespect shown to our rank-and-file cops. It is unreasonable to believe that the great majority of those 9,000 officers want anything other than to survive their beat and keep those same beats safe. But cops suffer the same prejudice in political culture faced by so many of civil servants, including teachers and social service providers: they are portrayed either as lazy opportunists, lounging in their union-protected position benefitting from the public trust, or sociopaths who got into the business only to do harm to their fellow citizens.

If you don't accept those views, what is left is to accept the fact that cops — working class men and women who have chosen to go into a uniquely dangerous public service — want to be good cops. They want to be effective. They want the criminals in jails and the law-abiding safe walking down the street. Cops, like teachers, are not social workers. They cannot be expected to address the deep-rooted social troubles that lead to young men getting involved in criminal networks; they are not responsible for the flight of well-paying, low-skill jobs from the city. But they can be expected to have quite a bit of knowledge about what the nature of street crime in Chicago is, and the best way to address that crime.

Forget "culture" and race and all the other excuses we hear — the reality is that crime is tied directly to the availability of entry-level jobs for young men. It's not a mystery. The correlation has been demonstrated again and again. You'll always have a strata of society that preys on their fellow man, but crime only becomes a serious problem when there are no well-paying jobs for young men to move into if they cannot or will not pursue education. (For one study relating particularly to homicide, read "Industrial Restructuring and Violence: The Link between Entry-Level Jobs, Economic Deprivation, and Black and White Homicide" by Edward S. Shihadeh and Graham C. Ousey in the journal Social Forces, Vol. 77, No. 1 [Sep., 1998], pp. 185-206.) The destruction of working class jobs and the redistribution of wealth to a very small minority has done more to accelerate criminality since the 1960s than anything else. Our cops can't do anything about that. We're on the hook, you and I, for the causes of crime; cops are only on the hook for its effects.

But they have to be out there every day, anyway. And when they are treated like a necessary evil by our elected officials, when they are discussed in the same way as dogs that can either be obedient servants to their masters or rabid beasts that need to be socially euthanized, we should not expect them to sacrifice much for their work. Would you?

Just two of Chicago's organized gangs — the Gangster Disciples and the Latin Kings — have been estimated to have as many as 90,000 members and associates (the official city estimate is much lower, at 40,000 for all gangs), men and boys who have been trained over years of interaction with other gangs and police on how exactly to best perpetrate crimes without being caught — who are armed and unafraid of prison. This doesn't even touch the petty crime that having such a vast gang network generates — the junkies smashing into cars and homes, prostitution, extortion and so on. It is a precarious situation, and our cops need to feel that the people of the city have their back. At this point, some of these gangs can boast three generations in a family. That is a hold that no cop on the beat can break. All we can expect of our rank-and-file cops is to protect the law-abiding.

Does that mean we shouldn't prosecute police brutality? Of course not. Cops aren't always right. There are bad cops just like there are bad anythings. The answer to our surging crime problem is not to set the rank-and-file cops out there with a mission to club people into submission. Nor should we pretend that there isn't a real problem of cops ignoring people's civil rights out of a sense of righteousness (or maliciousness). But we'd be making an indefensibly broad statement if we said that "the cops" were the problem, and not their leadership.

Mayor Daley needs to make a public statement, himself, in support of the rank-and-file police. Cases like Luis Colon's need to be addressed loudly by a city that is in need of a reinvigorated and empowered rank-and-file police force.

Colon, only 18, was killed by police on the Northwest Side last month. His family has since filed a wrongful death suit against the Department. We're all innocent until proven guilty; and the facts need to be demonstrated. But Colon was on probation for a weapons conviction, and according to the cops brandished a loaded weapon at them. How can the mayor stay silent on cases like this? He needs to be showing his face with the cops accused in cases like this and insisting that the City will fight for its cops' rights to defend themselves. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that in most cases like this, there is no clear cut answer of right and wrong. We'd do well to act like adults and realize that there is no 100 percent good guy and 100 percent bad guy; that sometimes bad things happen in the cold gray shadow between black and white. (And the cops themselves would do well to realize that the culture warriors who love to defend cops against civil rights groups are not interested in helping them, but only in demonizing a "common enemy." It's the economic policies of the Right, not some "cultural" problem, that lead to crime epidemics).

Because our rank-and-file police officers are not superheroes. They are normal guys and gals, who go home to family at night. They get scared and nervous; they get tired and confused. And the fact of the matter is that most complaints against cops filed with the Independent Police Review Authority are not sustained or found with any merit. The mayor knows this. The aldermen know it. The rank-and-file know it, but the media loves the abuse stories and everybody gets a boost by piling on some crooked or abusive cops — nothing tugs at the public heart strings like the little guy who stands up to the big bad cops.

We do not need to hear Superintendent Weis', Alderman Carothers', or even Mayor Daley's ideas about what will best address the lawlessness and slaughter infecting and terrifying the city. We need to hear from the rank-and-file cops, and we need to give them the real power to demand reform, judge their peers' performance, and have meaningful input into who their commanders are.

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Pedro / July 23, 2008 9:32 AM

It's the economic policies of the Right, not some "cultural" problem, that lead to crime epidemics).

I think that you'll find that the lack of entry level jobs are more to do with the taxes that have been levied by the Democratic-led city and county governments. The businesses that can provide entry level jobs for people with relatively little education have been pushed out of the city to areas where it is cheaper to operate.

We don't need to take a look at the giant companies, its the small to mid-size firms that get squeezed the most, and it is these companies that provide the growth-oriented jobs that provide opportunity for advancement.

If you support employment, you should support employers.

I would also argue that there is a cultural component to the problem that is perpetuated by fostering an identity of victimization and dependence on government to solve problems.

C-Note / July 23, 2008 12:59 PM

Pedro - you're mostly correct. But the last point? Um, where (or if) the problem is a government entity (namely, the police department), one could just as well argue that it's impractical to suggest that the public should solve the problem. If you haven't noticed, the police have a legal monopoly on the use of force, especially where guns are illegal. But I love that same old coded argument every time I hear it. Not saying it's entirely inaccurate, just that it's not entirely relevant here.

Pedro / July 23, 2008 4:50 PM

Yeah, I thought about not writing the last point, because I figured someone would think that is coded for something else, when it is really about accountability and self sufficiency.

The police may have a monopoly on force, but its not force that is going eradicate the roots of crime (based on the the article's thesis).

Its funny because Obama, in his speech in Israel, summarized the Palestinan/Israeli conflict in similar terms: Palestinians don't have jobs and turn to violence. Palestinians have created a culture of victimization that has suited their political aims and only governmental action can resolve their situation. He does not mention the cultural aspect that underpins the violence so that their children grow up wanting to be suicide bombers. The identity of being victims has stood in the way of taking stock in their own actions and being held accountable for them as a culture.

cletus warhol / July 23, 2008 7:05 PM

Excellent column, Ramsin, and please forgive this long digressive rant.

The sad and ultimately hopeful fact is that there is a way for you (and every other citizen of Chicago) to know what the rank and file cops need in each district in order to do their jobs properly. It's the local beat meeting of the CAPS program. When properly attended and administrated, community policing program meetings can result in concerned citizens and neighborhood police meeting and working together to find real solutions to neighborhood problems from drug sales, shootings and prostitution to abandoned cars, overgrown lots, and abandoned buildings.

Or at least that's what it is supposed to do (and actually did for a several year period in the 1990's); until it's chief architect and promoter (Charles Ramsay) left town town for greener pastures and the main community group responsible for CAPS' implementation and maintenance (The Chicago Alliance For Neighborhood Safety) was cut out of the CAPS program (pretty much for perpetually chapping the mayor's ass). With no funding and direction, community policing has languished in recent years (although there are stalwart groups of folks still doing great work in various locales).

A proper revival of the program could do a lot to allay some of the rank and file cops' feelings of being left out to dry by all parties involved.

For example, cops are more enthused about going after local gang members if they know that a group of residents will be down at the arraignment standing behind that officer. Or that community groups will effectively agitate for other city departments to do the things that will really help them do their jobs; like boarding up abandoned buildings, towing abandoned cars, clearing overgrown lots, replacing broken streetlights etc. etc. etc. It's a lot of little things that can give the rank and file the feeling that at least the citizens have their back. I've seen cop's attitudes totally change when local citizens provide these conditions for them.

Of course a huge problem is that these sort of things take hours and hours of time by scores of people, which is often more than many areas can muster from their citizens.

The tide will only be turned when people understand that it takes more than marches and rallies (notoriously ineffective techniques), but a serious committment of time and effort by themselves and their neighbors combined with the political will of all authorities involved (police, mayor, aldermen, and legislature) to free their communities from violence and chaos.

Until then, expect more of the same; fingers being pointed, asses being covered, signs being waved, and people getting killed.

Ramsin / July 23, 2008 10:31 PM

Pedro: "I think that you'll find that the lack of entry level jobs are more to do with the taxes that have been levied by the Democratic-led city and county governments. The businesses that can provide entry level jobs for people with relatively little education have been pushed out of the city to areas where it is cheaper to operate."

Gosh, you're right. I guess the $500,000,000 in TIF tax breaks every year given to businesses, on top of the fixed contracts and privatized services isn't enough. The solution MUST be more tax breaks!

How much would be enough? If we taxed them zero percent? Would that stop manufactures from sending jobs to Bangladesh, where they can pay somebody the equivalent pennies a day? Just how many tax cuts should Chicago and Cook County give to a manufacturer to keep the job from going to Honduras? Forget tax cuts; maybe we should pay THEM for creating a job! Those poor employers; having to only make enormous profits here because of stupid taxes. If only we taxed them less, they could make extravagantly huge profits!

Are you serious?

When will this tired piece of economic snakehandling die? No tax cuts are ever enough, are they? We keep cutting and cutting and cutting taxes on business and the wealthy, and what do we have to show for it since Reagan?

Well? What evidence could you ever provide in court, besides the laughable "Laffer Curve" that conveniently has only two figures on it (0 and 100), that tax cuts would keep jobs here when labor competition in other countries so hugely undercuts the American worker?

Also, when are we going to realize that this:

The identity of being victims has stood in the way of taking stock in their own actions and being held accountable for them as a culture.

...Is fancy, postmodern moral relativist language for white supremacy?

"The identity of being victims"? You're right; people who live in crime-infested, poverty-riven neighborhoods are so in love with their "identity" of victims, and so bereft of any reason or critical thinking, that they would rather continue their lifestyle than go out and work for a living, right?

Because of course, these mud people aren't rational actors, like the successful people. If they were...they'd be successful!

And all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, right Dr. Pangloss?

Please. This country has been on a non-stop tax cutting extravaganza for fifty years, since Kennedy. Reagan accelerated it, and what did we get for it? An explosion in the inequality of wealth and crime! But certainly, more tax cuts are in order. Why? Because The Market Is All Powerful.

Free market fundamentalism.

As for a "culture of victimhood", I don't doubt that there's an element of personal responsibility at play here; that values play a role. But values are much easier to ignore when walking from the train to your house is a moment-by-moment terror.

When the relationship between effort and reward deteriorates to such a degree, no amount of Stephen Covey motivation will get you through the crushing reality of day-to-day subsistence living.

Pedro / July 24, 2008 9:24 AM


If you keep in the mindset of "employers" being these large, faceless corporations, then it makes it easier to demonize them.

But you have to face the fact that the majority of jobs are not in huge corporations - they are in small and medium size companies, and they aren't making enormous profits. So any additional tax pressure you place upon these companies is going to dwindle their margins and decrease their competitiveness in the market.

As for market fundamentals, it does work quite well when people aren't trying to add compenents that distort comparitive advantage.

Look at the tax revenues over the last 50 years, they seem to have increased quite a bit. Maybe you should think about lower taxes = more revenue because their is more incentive to produce.

As for TIFs, it isn't some resposible Chicago administration that is handing these things out, its Daley and the rest of your boys enriching their friends.

I think the fact that it takes huge tax breaks to make Chicago an attractive business location for companies to move here should tell you enough. And all of these high profile companies that move here (Boeing, MillerCoors) are cosmetic at best. Boeing brought 150 jobs, Miller Coors is planning around 400. Wow. All that so that Daley can claim to the brainwashed populace that he is good on the business front. So with the tax incentives, those jobs are being subsidized by the government by the amount of money that they save in taxes.

Is Chicago going to become the next Deleware? Where corporations choose to headquarter because of tax incentives but fail to actually have significant operations?

On your next article topic, I would love to hear how you would set up the business world to operate, because it is quite clear that you have never been in a situation where people's livelihood depended on your ability to produce revenue. You have staked your claim in this world to telling people how to redistribute the revenue that other people produce.

I'll repeat myself in more definite terms... There is nothing racist about telling a group of people that they need to be accountable for their actions.

Ramsin / July 25, 2008 8:33 AM

Pedro, I'm not going to get into another ridiculous argument about clear and umistakable stupidity of supply-side economics and free-market fundamentalism. Please stay on-topic. I'll be more than happy to debate that issue with you via email.

Suffice it to say, following your logic, we should just make employees super-productive (and therefore able to generate huge profits for their employers) by taxing personal incomes 0%. Why don't we do that? Let's tax personal incomes 0% and create a nation of unstoppable super-producers.

Pedro / July 25, 2008 9:41 AM

Weak Sauce Rebuttal

Ramsin / July 26, 2008 1:23 PM

I am eminently unconcerned with your teenage, Ayn Rand fantasy anti-regulation argument, believe me. But its off topic. We can discuss this elsewhere if you like.


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon studies and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at

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