Dec. 4, 1969, began with bloodshed and death. Police raided the apartment where Fred Hampton, a local leader of the Black Panther Party, was staying. When the dust settled, Hampton and another Panther were dead, and about 100 shots had been fired—all but one by the police.
The bullet-riddled apartment wasn’t the kind of place you’d normally find a white, middle-aged woman from the suburbs, but the Black Panthers invited local activists to see the carnage, and Mary D. Powers answered the call.
“It was so shocking—the bloody seats and the bullet holes in the doors,” Powers said. “Within a month there was a meeting called at DePaul University.”
The meeting had long-lasting results. Powers and her fellow activists breathed life into a fledgling police watchdog group called Citizens Alert, which is now celebrating 45 years of pressing for greater transparency and accountability in the Chicago Police Department.
Throughout its years of service, Citizens Alert has worked tirelessly to make police officers more responsible for their actions and Chicago residents safer. Since the very beginning, one of the major hurdles to clear has been reforming the Chicago Police Board.
The board is a nine-member civilian body that decides disciplinary cases involving allegations of police misconduct. Thanks to a recent amendment to the Chicago Municipal Code, fought for by Citizens Alert and other grassroots activists, the board is now required to post online for public perusal all decisions it makes, including the details of how each member voted. Meetings are open to the public, and private citizens have the opportunity to speak before the board and air their questions and grievances. This level of openness, though, wouldn’t have existed without Citizens Alert.
When Powers and her fellow activists first started attending police board meetings in the early ’70s, they were held in a small room at police headquarters. The board members, stunned to see the public actually interested in attending, had no room for the 10 people who showed up. The activists ended up sitting on the floor and crowding the wall at the back of the room.
“They were in shock,” Powers said. “It was like an invading army or something.”
The board meetings are no longer held inside the police headquarters, and all proceedings are transparent in a way that would never have been possible before the grassroots initiative. But Citizens Alert quickly realized that the board was not the only problem in Chicago’s labyrinthine system for dealing with police misconduct.
The police board was there to decide on the disciplinary actions to be taken when officers abused their power, but actual complaints from private citizens were made to the Office of Professional Standards. The office was a civilian organization, but its members were employees of the police department, and the public often feared they were more likely to ignore their complaints than to address them.
“It protected the police. By and large the result was to cover the police,” Powers said. “People didn’t even bother going to them.”
Dissatisfaction with the police’s handling of misconduct came to a head five years ago, due in large part to a few notable cases. The public watched in horror as Anthony Abbate, an off-duty officer, was caught on videotape savagely beating a female bartender. At the same time, accusations of excessive force and false arrest mounted against the Special Operations Section, an elite police unit tasked with curbing violence. The public was fed up. In 2007, Citizens Alert and other similar groups succeeded in ousting the Office of Professional Standards and replacing it with the Independent Police Review Authority, according to Locke Bowman, the legal director of the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center, a nonprofit firm at the Northwestern University School of Law that specializes in criminal justice.
“When [the review authority] was created, it was the result of community activism,” Bowman said. “There were a series of horrific events, and that furnished an opportunity. Folks in the community seized that opportunity.”
The review authority deals with accusations of excessive force, domestic violence, verbal abuse and coercion by the police, as well as all cases in which an officer fires a gun, Taser or stun gun at an individual. It also investigates any cases of death or serious injury of people in police custody. All other cases are carted off to the Internal Affairs Division. It has the authority to conduct its own investigations by questioning witnesses, checking forensic evidence and gathering facts.
Citizens Alert currently meets with the review authority quarterly, but the agency’s results have led some activists to think it’s no better than the office it replaced. One major reason for discontent is the agency’s insistence on a sworn affidavit from the complainant, lack of which resulted in the dismissal of more than 28 percent of the cases closed in 2011.
For the past few years, though, Citizens Alert has been focused on making more systemic changes. Their success in amending the municipal code in 2011 whet their appetite for more of the same, and their next target is police interrogations. As of 2005, Illinois law demands all interrogations in homicide cases be recorded. The state law can be satisfied with audio recording, but Citizens Alert is fighting to require every interrogation to be videotaped.
“You can do all sorts of threatening things while your voice is being recorded electronically,” Powers said. “It’s not perfect.”
Powers would be the first to tell you that, despite Citizens Alert’s efforts, little about the current system is perfect. But that’s where transparency comes in. The more open city procedure is, the more concerned citizens like Powers are able to see the flaws and express outrage at the way tax dollars are being spent.
“We have such a responsibility,” Powers said. “Not only to the victims, but also to the police who need guidance.”