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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In Fall 2019, I taught a course on Law & Violence. We finished the semester with My Kind of Town, John Conroy’s play on the Burge torture era. It was a powerful way to wrap up the semester.
A new blog (Sensory Criminology) publishes this description of being inside a sweatbox (trigger warning).
It reminds us that even more “innocent seeming” tortures that the CPD has used (hooding with a typewriter cover, for example) are relatives of the sweatbox.
Interview with Joey Mogul of the People’s Law Office on the Burge torture cases, reparations, and memorializing pain and activism.
Chicago is one of the top cities in the US for surveillance cameras. But
Kenneth Johnson, police commander of the Englewood district in Chicago, said that residents shouldn’t be concerned about privacy because the cameras are out in the open in public places. “This isn’t a secret. This isn’t an Orwellian ‘Big Brother,’” he told the New York Times last year.