Humane, just, and equal policing in all communities has to be a national imperative.
State's Attorneys and Policing Marginalized Communities in Chicago
Rhonda Sherrod, J.D., Ph.D.
The Cook County state's attorney is presently serving the first year of a four year term, and there should be a mid-year check-in because of the extreme significance and importance of her job. Kim Foxx, 44, the first elected African American and second female, to command America’s second largest prosecutor’s office, in a county long beleaguered by its well-deserved corrupt reputation, has an enormous job. She took office on December 1 and the spotlight is hers. While much of the bad news emanating out of Chicago concentrates on the city’s mind-boggling street violence, no one here has forgotten what propelled Ms. Foxx to her new position in the first place. Many are looking to her to address, in a strong, courageous, and unequivocal way, the police and prosecutorial misconduct that caused her then long-shot candidacy to catch fire.
The stunning videotape of Officer Jason Van Dyke, driving up in a police SUV, rounding the back of it—gun blazing—and pumping 16 bullets into Black teenager, Laquan McDonald, catapulted the Chicago police and the Cook County state’s attorney into national focus, yet again. For the country, the scene may have been astounding, but, for locals, although devastating, the scene was anything but improbable. Chicago, long a haven for police corruption and brutality in Black and Brown communities, was ablaze after viewing the videographic evidence that simply confirmed, finally, what Blacks have long complained about. Some members of the Chicago police force are not fit to serve in a role that requires rational thought, good judgement, and the ability to de-escalate in all communities. Then, too, some of them are just out of control, period. So, the stark question of who will police the police was raised, and not for the first time. It was the question that helped fuel the rise of Fred Hampton and the Illinois Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, before Hampton, himself, was the victim of a horrific, lawless federal, county, and city law enforcement scheme that resulted in his assassination.
In fact, implicitly, the question had been raised many times before, including during the days of the Great Migration when African Americans, fleeing the wicked racial ethos of the Jim Crow South, flooded into Chicago seeking what then powerful Black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, touted as “The Promised Land.” Pertinacious in search of opportunity and a better life, many Blacks also encountered pervasive police abuse that was whispered about, but rarely spoken too loudly—out of shame and fear. Yet, I have been privy to my own elders’ conversations about how, after arriving in Chicago in the late 1950s and early 60s, it was routine for White cops to unlawfully detain them and extort their hard-earned money. In addition to rendering African Americans humiliated and powerless, such police graft represented a real economic hardship for people working hard to survive and support their families. In talking to elders in the community, I learned that extortion was just one of many crimes, including various forms of assault, that law abiding Black citizens were often exposed to at the hands of the police.
The expanse of law enforcement disdain and disregard for Black lives and Black communities is long and wide throughout the county. The so-called Chicago “race riot” of 1919 began after police officers failed to arrest the White men who stoned a Black teen, Eugene Williams, and caused him to drown after he, unwittingly, swam into the “White section” of Lake Michigan. Interestingly, the first Mayor (Richard J.) Daley, was a young gangbanger whose gang was implicated in the rioting. And, a notorious event in 1951, fraught with galling prosecutorial “discretion," erupted when a hard-working African American World War II veteran and college graduate who had trained Tuskegee Airmen, Harvey Clark, Jr. moved his family from Chicago to suburban Cicero in Cook County. As police officers watched, a White mob, numbering in the thousands, ramshackled the apartment, tearing out the fixtures and setting the family’s possessions, which had been thrown out of the window, on fire before firebombing the building. None of the mob members were charged, but prosecutors indicted an NAACP lawyer, the White landlord, and the rental agent for inciting a riot.
So, many activists in Chicago have vowed to keep an eye on the Office of the State’s Attorney. Anita Alvarez, who did not bother to indict Van Dyke (who continued working for the police department) until 13 months after the McDonald killing—and just as the videotape was being released to the public—is not, at all, the only controversial state’s attorney we have seen in Cook County. Some months ago, U.S. District Court Judge, Amy St. Eve, ruled on a case that reaches back to former mayor Richard M. Daley’s days as the county state’s attorney. Alonzo Smith’s lawsuit alleges that he was beaten and tortured by Chicago police. For decades, more than 100 Black men have complained about disgraced former police commander, Jon Burge. They allege that he and officers under, or who had, at one time, been under, his command, beat them, burned them, put plastic bags over their heads to suffocate them, and pounded and used electric shock on their testicles, often while uttering racial slurs, to force false murder confessions. By the time a special prosecutor’s four year investigation alleged that Burge and some of his officers committed torture for decades, they were safe from prosecution because of the statute of limitations.
The federal government, however, convicted Burge of perjury, stemming from the allegations, and sent him to prison for four and one-half years. (He served about three and one-half of those years.) Incredibly, he still receives a taxpayer supported pension from the city. Meanwhile, Chicago, has paid out more than 85 million taxpayer dollars to torture victims, and it has also set up a torture reparations fund. The widespread belief and allegation here is that then State’s Attorney Daley knew about the torture and did absolutely nothing while his prosecutors used coerced confessions to win bad convictions. Although it appears that Daley has immunity as a former prosecutor, the Smith suit alleges that as Chicago’s mayor, Daley participated in a coverup (sound familiar?) to conceal police torture. St. Eve’s ruling means that Daley might be forced to testify under oath about what he knew and when.
Chicago’s history of law enforcement is fraught with scandal after scandal. From drug frame-ups (like the so-called “dropsy cases” wherein cops claim they witnessed Black males drop drug contraband to the ground before arresting them), to the infamous “N—-r’s by the the pound” contests wherein the first prosecutor to convict 4,000 pounds worth of Black bodies won, the corruption runs deep. Over the years, according to an old Chicago Tribune analysis, prosecutors in Cook County saw convictions set aside where there was prosecutorial misconduct ranging from concealing exculpatory evidence (in violation of the US Supreme Court Brady ruling), making improper or misleading statements and arguments, hiding evidence, and improperly excluding Black people from juries, costing defendants money, psychological pain, and years of their lives as they scrambled for post-conviction rulings. The toll police and prosecutorial misbehavior takes on Black families is incalculable. Generations of Black men and boys, and now, increasingly, women and girls, have been railroaded through the "justice" system, and we have no idea how many Black people are languishing in American jails and prisons today after the police, aided by an artful assistant state’s attorney, perjured away their liberty.
But this is what we do know. A police accountability task force, appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel after the atrocious Laquan McDonald killing and the false police reporting that followed, assessed the state of policing in Chicago. Their report stated, “C.P.D.’s own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.”
So, a community of people are looking to State’s Attorney, Kim Foxx, to rectify some of the deeply troubling problems in both the police and the state’s attorney’s offices. The slow, troubling manner in which the Van Dyke case entered into the judicial system proved to be the final straw for Foxx’s predecessor, Alvarez, who was already considered by many to be a party hack more concerned about politics than cleaning up police and prosecutorial corruption. But what does a State’s Attorney who works in the interest of the people of the State of Illinois even look like today? People in Chicago are hoping it looks like Kim Foxx, but no one is expecting miracles. We are clear that it will take time, hard work, and very strong commitment to shift the culture in an entrenched, inert system that features unmitigated injustice routinely enacted in Black and Brown communities.
State’s Attorney Foxx needs to educate, not train, all of the assistant state’s attorneys, seasoned veterans, and rookies alike. At least a yearlong course of mandatory education about the obscene history of policing and prosecuting Black and Brown people needs to be instituted right away. She also needs to encourage the Chicago Police Department to get serious about doing likewise. People think they are knowledgeable about the mistreatment of Black people in the criminal justice arena, and they think they know the reasons why. Poor public education systems and deliberate outrageous lies propagated in the culture assist people in arriving at grievous, erroneous assumptions regarding the policing of Black people. False cultural narratives usually start with the idea that Black people somehow deserve the vicious treatment they receive, including the slaughtering of unarmed men and women. The narrative continues with the notion that the police—all of them—are infallible, dedicated public servants who never make mistakes, let alone consciously commit crimes. That is simply not true, especially in Chicago where police officers and even judges have been prosecuted for corruption.
Until police officers and state’s attorneys understand the ignominious history of American policing—from convict lease systems to the misuse of police and prosecutorial power to enforce Jim Crow laws and uphold northern city racism, to the use of law enforcement as occupying forces to contain, rather than serve and protect, poor communities, things will never change. If they are sincere in their desire to offer intelligent commentary, members of the public would do well to understand how racism has been institutionalized in policing and prosecuting, too,
So, congratulations, again, State’s Attorney Foxx! It is my hope, for everyone’s sake, that you succeed. Many eyes are on you.
"Simply removing formal impediments to equality is not enough; the pecking order thrives on hidden power and invisible rules." Harlon L. Dalton, Professor Emeritus, Yale Law School
Armstrong, Ken and Possley, Maurice. "Part 1: The verdict: Dishonor." Chicago Tribune. January 11, 1999
Armstrong, Ken and Possley, Maurice. "Part II: The flip side of a fair trial." January 11, 1999
Taylor, Flint. "Jon Burge, torturer of over 100 Black men, is out of Prison after less than four years." In These Times. October 2, 2014.
Wilkerson, I. (2010). The warmth of other suns: The epic story of America's Great Migration. New York, NY: Random House
Rhonda Sherrod is the Founder and President of The Need To Know Group with offices in the suburbs of Chicago and Birmingham, AL. She is a lawyer, licensed psychologist, and a multicultural educator.
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