The Fight to Expose Closed Systems of Brutality

AntiNote: The following is an extended excerpt of a radio interview, edited for readability. Listen to it in its entirety:

On 8 November 2014, host Chuck Mertz of This is Hell! Radio—broadcast out of Chicago—talked to Alison Flowers and Sarah Macaraeg about police violence and impunity in that city, and its broader (even global) implications.

We are posting this transcript as a One Year Ago feature, simply to recollect some important observations that have perhaps not overcome the short attention span of today’s highly distractible online media, even while the spotlight on police abuse and impunity has been shining in Chicago again recently with new stories coming out about Homan Square, each more horrifying than the last. Incidentally, This is Hell! has also been covering that particular topic; we especially recommend their interviews (as yet not transcribed) with Flint Taylor.

Among the observations here which we feel are due for reexamination are those on the difficulty of obtaining accurate information about incidents or patterns of police violence. Public access to records, and even the very keeping of records, does not appear to have meaningfully improved in the year since Flowers and Macaraeg wrote their report.

In typical Antidote fashion, we wish to draw an international parallel to help us understand this as a more general phenomenon. And we will do so, but as an epilogue rather than an intro, to avoid the manarchist double infraction of hogging the mic and changing the subject. Here’s Chuck with Alison and Sarah.

“What prompted the Newark investigation was a deep dive, an enormous ACLU report and analysis. In other cities, people have had to struggle, have had to mount a movement, because the police union fights tooth and nail against any federal monitoring.”

Chuck Mertz: Alison Flowers and Sarah Macaraeg are co-authors of the Truthout investigative report Amid Shootings, Chicago Police Department Upholds Culture of Impunity.

What’s the real story with police violence in Chicago? We’re going to find out right now. Sarah Macaraeg is a writer and data analyst in Chicago. Good morning, Sarah.

Sarah Macaraeg: Good morning.

CM: And Alison Flowers is a freelance journalist covering social justice and human rights issues in Chicago. Good morning, Alison.

Alison Flowers: Good morning.

CM: It’s great to have you both on the show. Sarah is the editor of the Digital Companion to Police Violence Against Chicago’s Youth of Color, a report prepared by the group We Charge Genocide. Alison is the author of Exoneree Diaries, a multimedia series on Chicago’s NPR affiliate, WBEZ.

Sarah, let’s start with you. You start the Truthout piece with the story of a 35-year-old father of two named Ortiz Glaze, who was grilling in his south Chicago neighborhood back in April 2013 and was shot by police. As you report, “a group of Chicago police officers pulled up to the party, some wearing plainclothes and arriving in unmarked cars. What happened next is where the stories differ.”

Before I continue with that story, did the police ever give a reason for rolling up on this barbecue?

SM: There has been no clear answer. Ortiz Glaze had no record. Police, under the course of the civil suit, weren’t able to state a reason for why they were at the barbecue, or why they were following Ortiz Glaze in particular.

CM: Alison, as this story continues, “Police officers say Glaze was holding a cup appearing to contain alcohol, was ignoring orders, and was gesturing to his waistband, where officer Louis Garcia and his partner, officer Jeffrey Jones, say they believe he’d stowed a gun. The other version of the story is one corroborated by witnesses, that Jones fired into the crowd upon approach, causing everyone, including Glaze, to run away. From there, the following facts are not in dispute: Glaze, who had no criminal record, was unarmed. No gun was recovered. And while he was running away with his back to police, Jones and Garcia fired multiple shots at him, hitting him twice. Glaze lived to tell his story.”

So these are two conflicting stories, Alison. This always seems to be the biggest problem with any level of police misconduct, from the smallest violations to the worst, including those that end in the death of civilians: supporting police, like supporting the troops, seems to be the default position, especially of the media.

What can be done to overcome this problem in determining the guilt or innocence of police officers when it comes to violent encounters with civilians? Is it as easy an answer as putting GoPro cameras on all cops and cop cars?

AF: If it were only that easy. Even when you have irrefutable video evidence, often even that is not enough, as we’ve seen in other cases. In the case of Ortiz Glaze, they wanted to charge him with felonies for that exchange. He was hospitalized and restrained to his bed, and they treated him like a criminal, even though he was the victim and was shot by them.

Since the felonies wouldn’t stick, they tried to put misdemeanors on him, such as obstruction and resisting arrest, since he was running away. And they dragged it out. It actually went to a trial, and Mr. Glaze testified for himself, which is pretty rare. He had five Chicago police officers testifying against him, because there were others there who were involved and witnessed it, not just the two officers who shot. And the judge acquitted him of those frivolous misdemeanor charges. He took the word of one man over five Chicago police officers.

That speaks to a rare instance where you can speak truth to power, and that is what Mr. Glaze did. The incident still haunts him, but he does feel validated by the fact that the charges were thrown out.

CM: Sarah, you and Alison quote Glaze saying about that trial: “The judge saw right through the police. It lets you know that they were lying.”

Were charges of perjury ever pursued? And how difficult is that? Are there ever any charges of perjury against police office who give false testimony in a prosecution? Or is that just way too hard to prove?

SM: That’s not something we were able to measure within the scope of this report, but I’m really glad you mentioned it. This is part of a long and difficult struggle, and actually the organization We Charge Genocide is en route to Geneva today to try to impress on the United Nations Committee Against Torture the need for a Justice Department investigation into the patterns and practices of the Chicago Police Department. But I’d like to walk you through what happened first with the Newark Police Department, because Chicago police superintendant Garry McCarthy came to Chicago—appointed by Rahm Emanuel in 2011—from the Newark Police Department.

At that same time, the Department of Justice civil rights division launched an investigation into the Newark Police Department around the pattern and practice of discrimination in terms of excessive force, false arrests, and stop-and-frisk. Three years later, that department was brought under consent decree—that is, federal monitoring.

You’re asking about what it means when a judge comes down on the side of facts, and against police officers’ statements—sometimes the truth comes out in criminal court. But it also comes out by way of civil suits. It comes out by way of charges being dropped. So how to tackle that discrepancy? It’s sort of hard to wrap your head around it, but when I started looking at consent decrees and federal monitoring, I saw they played a big role, for example, in the enormous drop in stop-and-frisk incidents in New York. The New York Police Department is under federal monitoring right now. There are a few other cities: Seattle, New Orleans.

But it really takes a lot. What prompted the Newark investigation was a deep dive, an enormous ACLU report and analysis. In other cities, people have had to struggle, have had to mount a movement, because the police union fights tooth and nail against any federal monitoring.

The instance of Ortiz Glaze is one of many where the court sides with a person who has clearly been subjected to excessive force, if we take account of all the facts. And yet there’s a perpetual cycle of this impunity. But it can be interrupted, and people are working on interrupting it: it is about pressuring the Department of Justice to launch an investigation.

CM: Sarah, let me just follow up on one thing that you said, because people are going to react to the name We Charge Genocide. But there’s a reason the organization picked that name. So tell people what that historical context is.

SM: Yeah. In 1951, there was an organization of black activists who compiled testimonies on scores of incidents of violence across the United States, and they brought a petition, called We Charge Genocide, to the United Nations. It’s beautifully written. And the reason the organization today stands under that name, unfortunately, is because so little has changed since the time of that report.

The 1951 report opens with the words: “Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman’s bullet.” And yes, it’s something that people react against. It’s something that people need to sit with. But if you look at Ferguson, if you look at Mike Brown—and let’s not forget, it’s not as if there was that one questionable shooting and that was it. In St. Louis just after that incident, two other young black men were shot and killed under highly questionable circumstances.

And that’s happened in Chicago as well. So, you know, if it’s something that people need to react against and something people need to sit with for a minute, that’s fine. I would assert that it’s good to sit with it. Because it’s a reflection of our times.

“It takes a DNA test showing that someone shoved a weapon down someone’s throat in order to get any kind of media attention. We named officers that were virtually unknown until now. We thought it was really important to hold all of these people accountable, and to eliminate this pattern of misconduct.”

CM: Alison, I had this horrible epiphany while reading your report, about how politicians’ poll numbers go up when they commit the US to violence. One case in point is President Obama’s recent bump in the polls since he authorized bombing ISIS. But it always happens.

Here in Chicago, there’s the story of highly-decorated police commander Glenn Evans, who Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy used to parade out as an example of a great cop, until DNA evidence came to light that Evans had shoved a gun in the mouth of Rickey J. Williams.

So do violent acts by police also lead to political popularity, somehow?

AF: What you’re hinting at here, I think, is the militarization of police—that’s one way they are rewarded for using force. Not for showing restraint, not for being passive. They are rewarded for being aggressive and for taking action.

This is no secret. The Chicago Police Department regularly puts out press releases, and we were able to use archival press releases to inform our data set here, to track the officers who have high numbers of misconduct complaints, to see how they have been rewarded for shooting citizens.

Of course, it’s always part of the police narrative to say, “Well, he turned on me with a gun.” Or at least, “He looked as though he was turning on me with a gun.” That’s what happened in the Ortiz Glaze case. He was absolutely unarmed. They did an inventory of what was on his person. He had some cash, and a black cellphone, and later they found a silver cellphone which they said resembled a chrome weapon that they thought he was pulling on them. That silver cellphone did not appear in the inventory report. Also, he never got his belongings back.

But police are rewarded for taking action, not for making choices that show restraint. The law enforcement line, of course, is, “Look, we’re in this situation where we’re running on high adrenaline, we have to make life or death decisions on a daily basis, and we’ve seen our colleagues, our fellow officers, show restraint and it didn’t turn out well for them.” Of course there are two sides to this story. But when we look at this data set, it tells another story that is based on fact, and it’s based on the reality of what’s happening in Chicago right now.

You mentioned Glenn Evans. In the data set that we were able to work with—this tiny sliver of data that some human rights activists, writers and journalists fought for, for years—it shows that there are three dozen police officers still on the force right now with double the number of misconduct complaints that former commander Glenn Evans had. And we’re not hearing about them. It takes a DNA test showing that someone shoved a weapon down someone’s throat in order to get that kind of media attention. We named officers that were virtually unknown until now. We thought it was really important to hold all of these people accountable, and to eliminate this pattern of misconduct that leads to shootings that, as Sarah mentioned, are highly questionable.

There are 21 officers still on the Chicago police force after shooting citizens under highly questionable circumstances. We’re talking about circumstances where people are unarmed, not resisting, that sort of thing. And while these incidents haven’t resulted in criminal charges for the officers, it has cost the taxpaying citizens of Chicago tens of millions of dollars. The facts are laid bare in civil suits, and we’re able to read the officers’ testimonies. Although in many cases we’re not able to read the victim’s testimony, because he’s not still with us.

CM: Sarah, as you point out in the report, the vast majority of Chicago police officers have zero to two civilian complaints against them. On the other hand, in the period you study, there were 662 that had more than ten civilian complaints against them. So what we’re talking about here is a small minority of police officers (granted, 5% isn’t all that small).

So what is the impact of this 5% of police officers who have this many complaints? What is the impact of this kind of police violence and abuse on the other 95% of officers who don’t want to commit violence and don’t want to do things that undermine the civil rights of civilians?

SM: It’s another difficult question to answer, only because we are barred from access to so much information. And to be clear, that data set is from 2001 to 2006. It’s just five years of data. Alison alluded to a crew of journalists and activists and human rights lawyers who pried out that data set. It is virtually the only data set of its kind. It was produced around a specific case, and that is why it has the specific year span that it does. It was created by way of FOIA. Nothing else like it exists.

People had to fight for a long time for that to become public. There’s another push underway right now, except the Fraternal Order of Police have filed an injunction to prevent the information requested from coming out. So there will not be any more data for at least a number of months. And even then it could still be an ongoing fight.

I wanted to give that lay of the land of what we know and don’t know, in regards to your question about this portion of officers versus the rest of the force, in order to make clear that we don’t really have a picture of the whole force yet. This is an enormous problem. And it’s why we dove so deep and pulled together as many resources as possible: to be able to reference the 2001-2006 data set not merely as a historical document but as a map to understand what the department looks like today, because it is very difficult otherwise.

But even for officers with one to two misconduct complaints, our priority should be to look at the content of them. Because we looked at the content of the misconduct complaints against Ortiz Glaze’s shooter, Louis Garcia. He didn’t rank on the more-than-ten-in-a-year list. But I did take a look at what civil suits he was named in, and these are very, very serious instances of excessive force. There are three in play right now, including Ortiz Glaze’s. The people who filed them report things like bone fractures. They report things like Garcia emerging from his car and walking towards the house with his gun drawn.

CM: Alison, you mentioned the militarization of police. In your investigation, you quote Art Lurigio, a criminologist and clinical psychologist who teaches at Loyola University here in Chicago, saying, “Police departments are quasi-military organizations. The police are organized to use force in ways that no other citizen is authorized to act.”

I think the belief is that police have to be as militant as they are in order to protect us from “bad guys.” Do you believe the police department, and police in general, must act like a quasi-military organization to best fight crime, and to best serve and protect the public?

“Police think they are above the law because they are above the law. And that is what people in We Charge Genocide, people in Ferguson, and other brave activists are pushing on across the country: that there has to be a reckoning around this. There is too much violence.”

AF: I think a criminologist like Art Lurigio might say that these police officers are living in a culture of fear, and are simultaneously enabled with these weapons. How else do we think they would be acting, when they live in a constant fear of a weapon being pulled on them, feeling they’re in a high-stakes environment all the time?

I don’t know if it is fair to put that fear on so many communities, to make those judgments about the people they encounter on a daily basis. In Ortiz Glaze’s case, he was in south Chicago, and he was at a memorial service—a barbecue celebration a few weeks after a friend of his was shot—when police rolled up. There were children around. There were dozens of people around. It was getting a little bit later in the day; they had been at the barbecue for a while.

And yet, they come up on this crowd, fire a warning shot; it disperses the crowd, and it obviously causes Ortiz Glaze to run as well. And then suddenly he’s resisting arrest? He’s obstructing justice? He didn’t gesture to his waistband, witnesses say—but the police say he did. “Pulling out a cellphone” is what the police account said. Does that action call for force? Is shooting the appropriate response? A judge in Chicago said no. He took Ortiz Glaze’s word over these police officers’.

I think there is a lot of prejudice, against entire communities. Even though the stakes can be high for police officers, when they enter those situations already with a certain level of suspicion about people of color—we see the consequences of that embodied in this report.

CM: Sarah, how much do you feel police violence is driven by the perception of police officers that being violent is what gets you ahead in the department?

SM: I think that in a general culture of impunity, which is absolutely what is at hand here—and by the way, it’s not mine and Alison’s word, and it’s not just our research, either. The City of Chicago Independent Police Review Authority, a body meant to be independent of police, was created in 2007. It was previously known as something called OPS, which was part of the Chicago Police Department.

There was much outcry around how, time and time again, shootings were found justified. Complaints were never “sustained,” using their language. The statistical likelihood of an officer receiving a meaningful penalty, more than a slap on the wrist, was one in a thousand. That outcry in 2007 created the IPRA we have today.

But it just so happens some of their staffers are people who were in OPS. At least one of their staffers was in the CPD, and at any rate they are both City of Chicago departments. And it’s the same thing, time and time again: The vast, vast majority of shootings are found to be justified. Penalties are rarely delivered. Complaints are found to be unfounded.  So I think there’s just a blanket green light, first and foremost.

I will also say, in reading all these media accounts, I notice that in the mainstream media, every headline tends to include a justification. “Man with record shot by police.” And then the details come out, and it’s a very different story, and then there is a settlement. But on the department side, on the police side, regardless of what is essentially proven in court to have happened, they stay siloed off in this completely different world. It’s justified right away; sometimes officers are awarded for that exact shooting—of course described very differently in the press releases in which these awards are announced.

I think police think they are above the law because they are above the law. And that is what people in We Charge Genocide, people in Ferguson, and other brave activists are pushing on across the country: that there has to be a reckoning around this. There is too much violence. And that is what getting a consent decree is about, to bring them under the scope of the law.

CM: Alison, what kind of reaction have you had to this? From the police, the media, the government, or just people in general?

AF: The story has been pretty explosive on social media, so it’s gained a lot of traction and led to quite a lot of attention. As far as direct backlash from Chicago police, I haven’t seen that. I know that one of our many FOIA requests was responded to with dispatch after our article came out. But we’re still waiting on the final disposition of our standing requests. They’ve been flat-out ignored, and our multiple requests for comment to the police officers named in our report have been flat-out ignored.

I don’t know what this is worth, but I have a Chicago Police Department commander trolling my LinkedIn page, so there’s that.

CM: Sarah, how about you? What kind of reaction have you had?

SM: This isn’t the flashiest thing to say on the radio, but the footnotes of our Truthout report detail our FOIA strategy. In our story, I walked through all the methodology of everything we did, because I wanted people to be able to read it and replicate what worked in this city and might work in other cities.

So just to say very briefly: it’s very difficult to get any records returned. There are many excuses. Something can be called unduly burdensome, especially if they’re meant to be compiling something that doesn’t already exist. But we asked for a primary source document, something that we know exists in the police department, that’s stated very clearly. It’s a very simple form, officers have to fill it out: the Tactical Response Report. The previous directive said if there’s a firearm discharge it goes to Watch Commander; eventually it ends up in records. So we knew these primary source documents existed, and we knew that they were in records.

We asked for a big set of them. That came back as too broad. We said, fine. We narrowed it. I asked for Tactical Response Reports for six specific officers and three pairs of dates and locations—dates in 2010-2011. Because another reason—and it’s a valid enough reason—for not turning over records has to do with cases that are still pending. But these are 2010-2011 dates and locations of deadly shootings in which the IPRA investigation would have come and gone by now.

To be in compliance with the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, which is law, you have to respond within seven business days. We were told to narrow; we narrowed and resubmitted on October 8th. Our story came out October 22nd, we followed up again, and didn’t hear back about this very small, very specific set of Tactical Response Reports. And on October 30th, more than a week after our story went live, there was a new directive issued by CPD superintendant Garry McCarthy that changed the entire nature of what a Tactical Response Report is, making them much harder to search controlling for a firearm discharge.

When I look at that timeline I have a very difficult time seeing this directive as anything other than the department’s attempt to make sure that people in the future aren’t trying to track shootings the way we did.

CM: Alison and Sarah, I really appreciate you being on the show. This is an amazing piece. Thanks so much for being on the air.

SM and AF: Thank you.

EndiNote

Well, now it feels like we spent the whole interview just waiting to speak rather than listening. But here’s our internationalizing take (and a gratuitous swipe at our Tankie detractors):

The fundamental problem discussed above, that of getting good records, is also a point of contention in interpreting the Syrian revolution. If that seems like a bit of a yank, the whiplash shouldn’t be too severe: we have encountered discussions, deep in the rabbit hole of questions around whom to trust for information out of Syria, about how casualties are counted and classified there. As in Chicago, if this is done at all it is mainly on the initiative of citizens on the ground, under adverse conditions and facing forces that would prefer to prohibit the release of numbers killed and wounded or at least control their classification.

The propaganda war over Ukraine has been examined with some thoroughness in alternative media, but the propaganda war over Syria seems to have achieved its goals on all sides, by creating a contradictory fog in which “nothing is true and everything is possible.” Muffled under this thick blanket are the voices of Syrians themselves, becoming more insistent as many arrive in Europe with stories to tell. But it is not only the voices of refugees that we should respect and trust (all the more so since Assad is telling us not to). Voices of the democratic revolution—of civil organizations dedicated to maintaining some level of social cohesion, infrastructure, and plain survival for millions of Syrians who have not been able to escape—continue to resound, despite the many who seem to wish them dead.

And not all of them are “asking for Western intervention.” Unfortunately, this is the knee-jerk assumption that seems to be made by geopolitically-oriented critics of US imperialism whenever one dares utter the phrase “Syrian Revolution” or, perhaps worse, points out Russia’s own frankly genocidal foreign policy history.

One tool that gets used to discredit civil society groups in Syria or their proponents among the diaspora is bad records. The numbers of civilians killed by Assad, we are told, as well as the classification of combatant deaths as Syrian Army, FSA, or “jihadist,” cannot be reliably assessed through citizen accounts, even if these accounts are organized (the Syrian Network for Human Rights is held to be somehow dubious) and benefit from intimate local knowledge (rather than be tainted by it, as is often suggested). Accusations of bias and propagandizing are leveled at any aid groups or citizen media organizations—up to and including the White Helmets, appallingly—with the slightest exposure to that toxic but clearly irresistible behavior-altering drug: Western or US support.

Ultimately this is not a question of quantities and accounting, we feel, but rather a value judgment that our anti-imperialist friends are making. They are choosing not to listen to the people on the ground, in the streets. How this jives with leftist ideology remains unclear to us, but we are not here to denounce potential comrades as reactionary; there’s enough of that going on already. Still, we must ask: should we also, then, dismiss and deny the people on the ground and in the streets in Chicago who are protesting and researching and reporting on police violence because, well, they might have an agenda?

Or are they not, in fact, our only hope of finding out what has really happened in a deeply repressive, opaque, corrupt and brutal system, and possibly ending it? Who do you trust? If it’s Assad over White Helmets, then is it also Jon Burge over We Charge Genocide?

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