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 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.