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 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.

Book review

A nice review of my book by Mara Dodge in the September 2017 Journal of American History (unfortunately the rest is behind a paywall):

In Robert Nixon and Police Torture in Chicago Elizabeth Dale provides a thought-provoking, well-written, and meticulously researched history of police violence. Using newspaper accounts and the records of eighty-six court trials, she identifies four hundred cases involving defendants who claimed that police used force or coercion, usually in an effort to extract confessions. The coercive techniques included physical abuse, deprivation, psychological pressure, and holding suspects incommunicado. Dale, a former Chicago civil rights attorney and a professor of history and law, is ideally qualified to explore these issues.