After watching and reporting on local, state and national government and politics for nearly half a century, it takes a lot to shock or surprise me.
But a recent series by the Better Government Association and WBEZ—“Taking Cover: How Cops Escape Discipline for Shootings in Suburban Chicago”—did both.
The yearlong investigation reviewed 113 police shootings of civilians in suburban Cook County since 2005—more than 40 percent were fatal— and the key findings defy belief:
- Not a single police officer has been charged with a crime, fired or disciplined for a shooting, and many have been promoted, even though 25 percent of the victims were unarmed, 15 percent mentally ill or developmentally disabled, and 42 of the cases raise legitimate questions about why cops shot at moving vehicles, through the windows of stopped cars and suburban homes, and at suspects who had children with them.
- Nearly two-thirds of the shooting victims were black, and settlements of 25 lawsuits that followed shootings cost local taxpayers more than $12 million.
- Suburban police departments rarely conducted comprehensive internal investigations of the shootings after the Illinois State Police completed their legally mandated review of a single question—whether a cop who shoots a civilian committed a crime— and no officers were ordered to undergo retraining.
“If they’re only looking at whether there is a basis for a criminal indictment they’re not doing a complete investigation,” said former University of Nebraska professor Samuel Walker, an expert on police accountability.
WBEZ reporter Patrick Smith’s compelling audio stories on the station’s website made me gasp. If you haven’t heard them, please listen. And if you haven’t read the compelling, data-rich print stories by BGA reporters Casey Toner and Jared Rutecki, please check them out on our website.
Frank Murphy, a former cop and frequent witness in police shooting cases, had a similar reaction to mine after examining our findings: “I’m shocked.”
So how, I wondered, could such reprehensible policing continue unabated and undisclosed for so long? One factor: Reporters and watchdogs who closely monitor nearby Chicago don’t shine a bright enough light on suburban police departments or hold the cops and supervisors there accountable.
In addition, the one-dimensional state police investigations leave it up to local departments to determine whether cop shootings involve misconduct or policy violations, and those departments don’t have civilian oversight agencies or internal watchdogs demanding accountability. Many also lack sufficient resources for disciplining, training and replacing their wayward officers, so the infamous “code of silence” prevails.
It’s clear the Illinois General Assembly hasn’t enacted sufficient oversight laws, state police aren’t holding trigger-happy suburban cops accountable, and other agencies that could consider intervening—the Cook County Sheriff and State’s Attorney, and the Illinois Attorney General—haven’t stepped up or stepped in up to now.
It’s been a massive failure of government at multiple levels and a shameful human tragedy.
But this is an election year, with hundreds of incumbents and challengers vying for important county and statewide offices, and suburban police reform in Cook and other counties should be on their agendas.
The BGA and WBEZ have provided candidates with disturbing facts and figures, and told them gripping stories. Now it’s time for those incumbents and challengers to propose reforms that can eliminate the kind of brazen, Wild West behavior that shocked and surprised even the most hardened observers, and should have been relegated to the trash heap of history decades ago.