Reclaiming a Lost History

Between 1871, the year of the Chicago Fire, and 1971, hundreds of people claimed they were tortured as part of a criminal investigation in Chicago. The recent history of torture in Chicago is well known, but the history of those older claims has been lost. That loss limits our understanding of more recent claims and our ability to adequately respond to them.

This blog is designed to help reclaim that lost history. It builds on my recent book, Robert Nixon and Police Torture in Chicago, 1871-1971 (NIU Press, 2016), expanding on that study to record the individual stories of the claims of torture and the people who made them.

It is also intended to connect the present to those lost moments in the past. So this site will also try to capture current accounts of torture and misconduct that bear witness to those older patterns.

Never Ready for Reform Part 8/X

In 1932, the Chicago Crime Commission praised Chicago’s police department for beginning to make

“smaller, routine adjustments and changes which cumulatively are of major importance, although singly of minor significance.” (quoted in Chicago Tribune, 11.27.1932 p. 9).

For nearly two decades after that, although there were complaints about police abuse and torture, the Crime Commission did not seriously investigate Chicago’s police department. That ended in May 1950, when a Crime Commission report on the East Chicago avenue police station charged that officers working out of that station took bribes in 1948 to allow honky tonks to operate off hours in the district.

The Crime Commission report led to a grand jury investigation into charges of police corruption. But when the grand jury tried to call the commission’s investigators, the agents refused to testify.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Walter Devereux, the commission’s chief investigator admitted that his agents had no physical evidence to support their claims and probably could not identify the people they claimed were involved in the bribes (Chicago Tribune, 5/19/1950, p. 1). The mayor of Chicago, Martin Kennelly, and the chief of police, John Pendergast, defended the department and so, while the grand jury recommended that a special grand jury be called to investigate the problem of police corruption, the matter was dropped. To counteract the bad publicity from the report, the police department assigned a squad of undercover officers to monitor the honky tonks.

Never Ready for Reform Part 7/X

The Illinois Crime Commission Report was published in 1929. That same year, President Herbert Hoover created the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, commonly known as the Wickersham Commission. Prompted by problems of crime and criminal justice that many attributed to Prohibition, the Commission was directed to look at criminal justice around the country and prepare a report on necessary reforms.

Congress defunded the Commission in 1931, but not before it managed to produce fourteen volumes of reports on criminal justice in the United States. The Commission addressed policing in several volumes, two in particular, volume 11: Lawlessness in Law Enforcement and volume 14: Police Conditions in the United States, looked at police departments around the country.

Although it did not use the term, the Wickersham Commission noted, and condemned, the national tendency toward the type of aggressive, militarized policing that Chicago’s city council had deplored in 1915.

The report on police conditions, written in part by August Vollmer, repeated many of the complaints Vollmer previously had made about the Chicago police department: police departments (and police chiefs) around the country were too political, their record keeping was often poor, the training they offered to the officers they hired was inadequate,  and local departments needed to be put under state-wide control. It also added a new, sharper criticism of the quality of the people hired to be police officers, and recommended that more intelligent recruits, in better physical condition be hired and paid a living wage.

More to the point, in volume 11, the Commission focused on the extent the police in Chicago and other police departments around the country used torture (often known as the third degree) to force confessions from suspects.  Though it expressed some hope that police torture was dying out in the city, the “third degree,” the Commission wrote, “is throughly at home in Chicago.” (volume 11, page 125). Echoing earlier reports, the Commission blamed political pressure and corruption, noting:

The Chicago public at the present time is much more concerned with the reduction of crime than with official lawlessness. Much crime in Chicago is committed by brutal ruffians; the public are less inclined to blame the police for beating up such men than for letting them get away scot-free. The reduction of the evils of graft, leading to nonenforcement of the law, is felt to be the first step in reform. It is said that only after these things are accomplished can attention be given to brutality and lawlessness on the part of the police and other officials. (volume 11, page 130)

In Chicago, police department leadership immediately condemned the third and promised to punish any officer who tortured a suspect. Use of torture in Chicago did not, however, stop with the publication of the Wickersham Commission report.



Never Ready for Reform Part 6/X

Another report criticizing Chicago’s police department was published only a few years later. The Illinois Crime Report, which looked at the criminal justice system around the state, devoted an entire chapter (Chapter VIII) to policing in Chicago. Written by August Vollmer, a leading criminologist and police reformer of the period, the chapter assessed the department from top to bottom and made comprehensive recommendations.

The methods for selecting, training, and assigning officers should be changed, he claimed. So should the very organizational structure of the the department. Communication among officers and record keeping within the department had to be improved. Chicago police should cooperate with other departments in the state., under the control of a state bureau of police.

And, like so many reformers before him, Vollmer recommended that politicians and criminals had to be kept from influencing police decisions.


Never Ready for Reform Part 5/X

The next big investigation into the Chicago police department was not, strictly speaking, a report about the police. In the aftermath of the Chicago Race Riots of 1919, Governor Lowden created the Chicago Commission on Race Relations, a committee of leading Black and white citizens, to investigate the causes  of the riot and propose solutions. That committee’s report, over 650 pages long, was published in 1922.

The issue of racism and policing was one of the many subjects the report covered across its hundreds of pages. In one section, in particular, the report offered pointed criticisms of the Chicago police department. Echoing earlier reports, the report complained that the Department’s records were terrible. So poor, the committee had to give up its plan to try to compare Black and white arrest and conviction records in the city.

The report also added support to complaints that the police seemed to be guided mostly by politics, both in terms of who police officers protected, and in terms of who they arrested.

And finally, the report reinforced studies (like those contained in the Merriam Committee report) that suggested that Blacks were more likely than whites to be convicted of crimes (particularly series crimes) in Chicago.

Never Ready for Reform, Part 4/X

During a strike of garment workers in 1915, the city deputized 500 private detectives to help the 500 regular police officers assigned to monitor the strike. Although the law was clear that the strikers had a right to picket the garment businesses, no one told the cops, with the result that they arrested nearly 2000 strikers. The police, temporary and full-time, also accepted gifts and bribes from the employers. Fewer than a handful of the arrests during the strike resulted in convictions, but police interference helped the strike collapse.

Problems of police brutality during that strike led to yet another report, written by the city council committee on Schools, Fire, Police and Civil Service. This report condemned the police for not being impartial during the strike, noting the officers took action after consulting only with employers. Although it also called attention to the abusive behavior of the private detectives and strikebreakers the employers hired to help protect their property, the report found the city police officers had engaged in “slugging,” a contemporary term used to describe beating striking workers, and directed “improper, profane, and obscene” language at the women on strike. The committee also concluded that mounted police rode their horses and motorcycles onto sidewalks at strikers, and condemned the fact the department had armed the police assigned to strike duty.

Rather than investigate the acts of specific police officers, the committee condemned the general culture of the police department for encouraging the police to believe that the strikers were “their natural enemies,” arguing that this attitude influenced the way individual officers behaved.

These two 1915 reports hint at what was a larger disagreement at Chicago’s city council about the proper role of the police. The Merriam Committee report suggested that the police were too cosy in their neighborhoods and too willing to overlook (or enable) crime; its solution was yet another call for a more professional, military-style department. The report by the city council’s Schools committee also called for reform, but its attack on a police culture that treated labor as “an enemy” suggested hostility to the military model the Merriam Committee proposed.



Never Ready for Reform, Part 3/X

In 1914, when Chicago found itself in the midst of what appeared to be a crime wave, the city council created a committee, led by alderman Charles Merriam, to investigate criminality and the related issue of police inefficiency. The Merriam committee produced a lengthy report a year later. (A summary of the report, written by Merriam, is available here.

That report repeated the concerns raised by the reports that preceded it: the department was too small, its officers too badly trained and too deeply corrupt to function as an effective police force. Pointing to New York and London, the committee noted that in comparison Chicago’s department was understaffed. Where London had twenty-six officers for every 10,000 people, and New York had not quite twenty officers for the same number, Chicago had less than nineteen.

As had previous assessments, Merriam committee’s report concluded that the police officers Chicago had were too often subject to political influence.

Merriam’s published report, though extensive, left out as much as it contained. Although Merriam was a noted reformer and his committee hired private investigators to infiltrate criminal hangouts and investigate various police stations, much of the detail in the investigator’s reports, available at the University of Chicago, did not make it into the final publication.

It was a strange omission, since investigators found evidence that tied several well-known politicians to gamblers or revealed that politicians continued insist that officers who seemed to be too effective be transferred to undesirable assignments. Other investigators’ reports revealed that police officers served as fences for stolen goods, worked as muscle for politicians, or shook down pickpockets and other thieves who were arrested and brought to their stations. Some of the investigators’ reports suggested local politicians took bribes to dismiss cases or fixed cases to help gamblers. Echoing the earlier studies, the Merriam report recommended better training for police officers and less political interference with the department.

Once again, little was done.

Never Ready for Reform, Part 2/X

Less than a decade after the Illinois State Senate issued its report calling for the reform of the Chicago police department, the City Club of Chicago, a group of civic and business leaders, hired Alexander Piper to review the department again. Piper, a retired army officer, completed his report in a little over a month.

His report was scathing.

Piper concluded the department’s officers were too old, too physically limited, and too undisciplined to do their jobs. He recommended depoliticizing the office of police commissioner, increasing the budget to permit the hiring of more and better police officers, and improvement in discipline “from top to bottom.”

Not unexpectedly, Piper proposed the police department be reformed to follow a military model with an emphasis on uniformed police and a clear chain of command within the department. He also called on the department to set up a clear statement of what police officers could and could not do, accompanied by a list of fines and punishments for each offense.

Once again, nothing changed. In 1911, Carter Harrison, newly elected Democratic mayor of Chicago, asked the civil service board to investigate the police force. Their report, published in March 1912, sketched a disturbing picture of pickpockets, gamblers, prostitutes, and drug dealers working throughout the city, ignored by some police officers and assisted by others.

The commission determined that Chicago’s police department still lacked basic discipline, kept no records, and did not even have the basic equipment necessary to make record keeping possible. Police officers spent their shifts in saloons and politicians, who often had close ties to criminals themselves, had too much influence on the department’s organization, with the result that the selection of officers and promotions were dictated by political power, rather than merit or qualification.

The commission also complained that politicians interfered too much in police decisions, from arrests to charging, and saw to it that officers who tried to do their work were punished by being transferred to undesirable assignments. The commissioners recommended that standards for hiring and promotion be raised, training be improved, discipline improved, the budget increased, record keeping methods standardized, the police staff reorganized, the chain of command clarified, and political influence on the department brought to an end.

Their report also denounced the existence of a group known as the United Police of Chicago, an early police union. “Its original purpose,” the commission concluded,

to protect members of the department from suits for damages arising out of the performance of police duty, was in itself harmless, but there should be no necessity for such an organization. The City of Chicago should take care of such suits and hold members of the department harmless, unless it clearly appears that the policeman sued has been guilty of the improper use of his power, or the abuse of his authority.

But, the commission went on, the United Police had gone beyond that. Now it defended its members against any sort of charge, even those involving violations of department rules. In addition, the United Police tried to influence legislation and had “been charged with a conspiracy to secure salary advances by means of bribery.”

When the report was issued, the chief of police, John McWeeny, dismissed the its complaints about the department as a joke, assuring the civil service commissioners that the police kept excellent records.

Never Ready for Reform, Part 1/X

Chicago ain’t ready for reform yet.

Mathias Paddy Bauer (1890-1977)

That quote from former 43rd Ward Alderman Bauer, is a famous indictment of Chicago’s political system. But it applies equally well to the Chicago Police Department, which has been the subject of repeated reform efforts over its history.

Those efforts began well before the start of the twentieth century. In 1898, after an investigation into the Chicago police department, the Illinois state senate issued a report that recommended major reforms. In calling on the senate to do a report, the governor of Illinois, John Riley Tanner, called attention to the problem of political interference in policing in the city. Chicago, he wrote:

presents the only instance of a police for used as an instrument for the sole benefit of the political party which happens to be in power after each election.

The Senate report echoed his concern about the degree to which politics corrupted policing in Chicago. But while the report’s focus was the department’s failure to control gambling in the city, it also called attention to the department’s reckless and violent culture. After quoting at length from the testimony of Chicago police chief Joseph Kipley, the committee observed:

We can hardly conceive in this day of enlightened sentiment, of a man selected as chief of police in the second greatest city in the United States, when speaking of a police officer who, while under the influence of liquor, with his revolver in one hand, and his club in the other, assaults a citizen and takes from him his money on the public street, refers to it as being an act of indiscretion, and apologizes for him in every possible way.

The report concluded with the demand that Chicago’s police department be reformed and recommended that it be separated from political control.

That demand had no impact. Instead, it had to be repeated, over and over again, in the twentieth century.

I hope you will believe in law enforcement (Part 1)

In January 1953, James Grant was acquitted of rape after a post-conviction hearing in a Chicago courtroom. Grant, a 60-year-old Black man, already had served 27 years of his life sentence.

The trial judge, Frank Leonard, denounced the verdict and the jury that entered it. “I hope,” he told the jury “in the future you will believe in law enforcement.”

The story of that case, which I will tell in a series of blog posts over the next several days, is with considering for several reasons. Grant’s original trial and conviction in 1925 offers a glimpse of how racist the criminal courts in Chicago could be in the decade after the 1919 race riots. Reaction to his post-conviction acquittal in the 1950s suggests that that problem had not dissipated in the quarter century that followed.

But the process by which he was acquitted, a post-conviction hearing allowed by the Illinois Post-Conviction Hearing Act, is also worth learning about. That Act, passed in response to criticism by the United States Supreme Court, was supposed to help people whose convictions rested on constitutional violations. Yet Judge Leonard’s hostile reaction to Grant’s acquittal was echoed by other judges faced with other petitions for post-conviction relief. And that reaction tells us something important about the judiciary’s role in delaying and resisting criminal justice reform.


Source: “Acquitted of Rape after 27 Years,” Chicago Defender, January 17, 1953, 9.