In the two years since Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in the Missouri suburb of Ferguson, the relationship between police and black communities and citizens of the United States has been the subject of national discourse and debate. The summer, the issue resurged when in two consecutive days two videos of black men being killed by police officers went viral, and two shooters in Dallas and Baton Rouge murdered 8 law enforcement officers.
Last week, Baltimore received a scathing indictment from the Department of Justice, citing racist policing practices and a culture of prejudice that pervaded the BPD. Another city and police department that have been under the microscope are Chicago and the Chicago Police Department. Chicago was placed in the national spotlight last year, when video footage of the murder of Laquan McDonald by police officer Jason Van Dyke was released over a year after the incident, after an attempted cover-up by police and City Hall. After McDonald was killed, police returned to the scene, asking to access security camera footage from a Burger King across the street from where the murder took place. After that, footage from the camera of the shooting was missing. The city then paid a $5 million settlement with the McDonald family before they even filed a lawsuit instead of releasing the video footage. Then there was the Chicago Tribune report that showed that the mayor’s top aides and lawyers knew that the footage of the incident contradicted police reports months before the mayor claimed he was briefed on the issue. The signs all together pointed towards an all too familiar story in Chicago: misconduct and corruption. The outrage over that cover-up might be why another video of a black teenager being killed has been released so soon after he was killed.
Paul O’Neal sideswiped a cop car in a stolen Jaguar in South Shore when police began to chase him, guns drawn and blazing like they were in a scene out of a Bourne movie and not the Southside. CPD regulations make it clear that police cannot shoot at a stolen car when the only danger is the vehicle, but the cops did so anyway, and this led to the confusion that cost O’Neal his life. The officer who shot O’Neal thought that the 18-year old, and not his fellow officers, had fired the shots, which was allegedly why he put a bullet in his back as he fled from the car. We can’t know for sure, because the body camera of the officer who killed O’Neal was turned off, and there is no footage of the fatal shot Paul O’Neal was unarmed. All the other footage from the incident is enough to show that if not racism, then at least gross incompetence is responsible for his death. The footage even shows the officer who shot O’Neal saying he wasn’t sure if he was armed or not, yet he fired regardless.
The Chicago Police Department has come under serious fire in recent years, prior to the national discussion sparked in Ferguson. In 2005, the story broke that CPD commander Jon Burge and the detectives that served under him had tortured hundreds of suspects to get confessions in the 1970s and 1990s. Methods included placing plastic bags over suspects’ faces and electrocution. All those tortured by Burge and his cronies were black. The evil lay not only in the hands of Burge and his fellow torturers; police superintendents knew what was happening and did nothing. The state’s attorney’s office knew of the torture and prosecuted no one. It seems when it comes to police misconduct, Chicago seems unable to prevent itself from adding corruption to the cruelty, and covering the tracks of the countless “bad apples” that turn the problem into something systemic. The same problem of corruption and suspicious actions were present in the death of Laquan McDonald and now, Paul O’Neal. In the McDonald case several indicators pointed toward a cover up, such as police returning to the scene to delete security camera footage from a Burger King of the murder to mayor’s aides discussing details of the video of the shooting while the mayor later claimed he had no idea police reports and the video of the actual incident were contradictory. Now, there is the missing body camera footage of the Paul O’Neal shooting. The only body camera that failed to function during the incident was that of the officer, as of now unnamed, who fired the final shots. The camera may have simply malfunctioned, but many Chicagoans have seen too much in terms of cover-ups and shady dealings to swallow that story at the moment.
Police officers in the city of Chicago face a difficult job. To say that the problems with the American criminal-justice system begin and end with the police is a gross misunderstanding of the many ill-conceived policies that make up the War on Drugs, tough-on-crime legislations, and the legal system, not to mention centuries of white supremacy. And when it comes to Chicago, nobody can deny that parts of the city are dealing with crippling gang violence that police are meant to confront. Illegal guns flood the streets, and countless gang factions and splinter groups mean that people kill each other over territory that extends for mere blocks. Chicago’s murder rate is much higher this year than the last, much higher than it has been since the 1990s. There have been reports that West Side gang leaders have met to discuss attacking police officers. Police have said that these reports are unsubstantiated, but according to the Chicago Tribune, police have been alerted to gangs potentially attacking them with automatic weapons and a sniper. Being a police officer in the city of Chicago is not a job for the faint of heart. That is why serious change is necessary, and now the city and its police department will face their greatest test since protests last year over the shooting of Laquan McDonald. After the release of the video footage and subsequent community outrage, the city set itself on a course toward reform. How the leaders of Chicago and the CPD respond to the death of Paul O’Neal will be instrumental in either strengthening or weakening trust in the department. For many people disenchanted with law enforcement, the police are seen as just another gang in the streets, only with a badge. They are seen as an occupying force rather than protectors and defenders of the community. Now the CPD will have to decide whether they will hold their own accountable for their actions or not. They will decide whether the Chicago way will keep being corruption and avoidance justice, or whether it will be honesty and change.