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.

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Writer. Formerly civil rights attorney. Currently professor. Working on new book about mental disability and criminal law in the 20th century.

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