One of my early assignments at the Better Government Association was to cover the first Blagojevich trial in 2010 for the BGA website, and to provide analysis on TV, radio and in print.
I followed the daily developments — the outrageously entertaining histrionics of the defendant and his entourage, and the damning X-rated audio tapes — but I also framed the trial as a “teaching moment” that gave watchdogs like the BGA an opportunity to assess the former governor’s misconduct in the context of Illinois’ sad history of corruption, and desperate need of reform.
What laws could be strengthened or enacted to limit conflicts of interest, contract abuse, official misconduct and pay-to-play transactions; and to increase transparency and accountability?
In other words: A blueprint for an ethical post-Blago Illinois.
Well, here we are, a few years and a long prison sentence later and, yes, state lawmakers have taken a few reform steps, but there’s a long way to go.
The concept of a “teaching moment” comes to mind again, writ large, in the wake of angry demonstrations and intense national soul-searching following the deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of white police officers in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; Cleveland, Ohio; and Phoenix, Arizona, without any of the cops facing criminal charges.
Protests are continuing, along with an examination of police protocols in threatening situations: When should cops use batons, stun guns and other non-lethal weapons to control suspects and protect themselves, and when is a potential kill shot appropriate?
Should there be video recorders in all police cars, and body cameras on every officer, to document confrontations?
And the justice system: Do current laws fairly and adequately protect both parties — police and victims?
Should the same prosecutors who work side-by-side with police on criminal cases be managing grand jury proceedings that involve deaths at the hands of officers?
And, of course, the overarching issue: What role does race and racism continue to play in these volatile situations?
Americans dedicate a large percentage of their tax dollars to public safety and criminal justice, so they have a right to expect those services — like the rest of government — to be carried out fairly, honestly, transparently, accountably and efficiently.
But unlike bureaucratic functions, cops and courts involve life-and-death decisions, so they have to be watched even more closely.
And two of our most important BGA investigations raised deeply troubling questions about those vital services right here in our own backyard.
We disclosed in the Sun-Times earlier this year that settlements of excessive force lawsuits in Chicago — police brutality beefs, in layman’s terms — have cost city taxpayers nearly $500 million in the last decade.
That staggering figure suggests inadequate training, supervision and accountability in the police department, along with an “us-versus-them” culture, and a “Blue Curtain” code of silence that’s hard to penetrate.
The BGA uncovered similar shortcomings and equally shocking statistics in an earlier investigation of wrongful convictions in Illinois since 1980, the start of the DNA era:
Eighty-five individuals — mostly men of color — spent more than 900 years in jail for violent crimes they didn’t commit; resultant lawsuits have cost state taxpayers nearly $300 million; and only a handful of the cops, prosecutors, forensic experts and judges who contributed to this shameful miscarriage of justice have been held accountable.
Lawmakers in Springfield have enacted a few reforms since our investigation, but like the post-Blago ethics measures, they’re incremental steps, not comprehensive remedies.
That’s why Ferguson, Staten Island and the other hot spots should come as no more of a surprise to those of us who watch government for a living as the transgressions of Rod Blagojevich and other corrupt public officials.
The environments that enable questionable conduct and tragic outcomes are deeply entrenched, and the painful results sadly predictable.
So the challenge is to understand what happened, and how we might repair those systems, wherever they occur.
The conversation has begun — we’re talking the talk non-stop across multiple media platforms — but that’s not enough: We have to walk the walk by changing a few laws and a lot of attitudes.
As many have said over the years, “never let a good crisis go to waste.”
But rarely has that line been more poignant.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097.