The libertarian Cato Institute publishes an unmatched recap of news about police misconduct across the country. More striking than the number of articles in the daily roundup is how long it takes public officials to respond—even when a pattern of abuse is blatant.

In Cleveland, a police officer with a history of abuse is facing a lawsuit two years after he allegedly beat a 26-year-old who asked him for his badge number.

In Oakland, after nine legal settlements against him, a police officer finally lost his badge in April.

Even when the response is swift, the public doubts whether officers will really be held accountable for their actions.

In Philadelphia, a few days ago, a veteran narcotics officer was fired for pinning drug-related charges on convenience store owners his unit shook down. Reporters are already asking if the punishment will stick.

This weekend, Angela Davis and other police accountability activists met at President Obama’s home church in Chicago to spotlight what Davis calls “a period of crisis.”

“We are experiencing an epidemic of police violence and police shootings,” she said during a keynote speech at the National Forum on Police Crimes, organized by the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, with support from the Trinity United Church of Christ Justice Watch Team.

The organization honored Davis with a human rights award named after Charlene Mitchell, a political force who helped create the Chicago alliance and scores of defense committees in the early 1970s that worked to acquit Davis of murder, kidnapping and criminal conspiracy charges. Davis’ remarks came at the end of a two-day forum that drew people from states like Texas and New York to strategize about how to check law enforcement agencies that are rife with abuse—from police departments to prisons to border patrol units.

Davis, one of this country’s most famous former political prisoners, drew a straight line from the assassinations of Chicago Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969 to the city’s present-day police violence as Hampton’s mother and brother listened from the audience.

The history lesson underscored why Chicago was a fitting location for the police crimes forum. The city is notorious for a code of silence that has made police abuse intractable for decades. The most noteworthy attempt at reform came in 2009 when an Independent Police Review Authority was created, under federal pressure, to address police torture that had long been swept under the rug. In the 1980s, former police Commander Jon Burge and his officers electrocuted and beat innocent men to induce a slew of false confessions.  At the time, the police department vetted allegations of abuse internally, which meant they were typically filed away in a drawer and never saw the light of day. 

Chicago’s new quasi-independent police review agency has legal powers that are supposed to help identify and root out misconduct. However, just a small fraction of civilian complaints have been founded, in part, because of an iron-clad police union contract that protects officers from being interviewed. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that such agencies have led to “very little meaningful change.” More than a decade ago, the civil rights agency recommended that Congress make it easier for federal authorities to investigate abuses by law enforcement agencies. 

Meanwhile, in Chicago, like Philadelphia and Oakland, many “repeaters,” or officers who have been sued multiple times within just a few years, are still on the police force–even when the cases involved shooting civilians. Mounting legal settlements for shootings, frame-ups, beatings and malicious prosecution only underscore the point that the abuse lingers.

The volume of police abuse cases has thrown Chicago into the national spotlight. Mike Elliott, the labor secretary of the Chicago alliance, hopes the gathering will bring broader support for a publicly elected oversight council, which he sees as the best chance for holding police departments accountable for their actions. He’s convinced that the public is ready for it.

“Chicago is notorious for the involvement of their police in a wide range of crimes, particularly in communities of color,” Elliott said. “If you go into these communities, you have overwhelming support [for more public oversight] because they’ve experienced [police abuse]. They’ve witnessed it.”

Headshot of Angela Caputo

Angela Caputo

is a staff reporter at The Chicago Reporter.