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A New Book Traces 50 Years of Policing in Chicago

Occupied Territory examines the turbulent history between the CPD and black Chicagoans.

Photo: University of North Carolina Press

In the sixties, Lyndon B. Johnson created the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, the advisory council whose recommendations would serve as the blueprint for his “War on Crime.” A few years ago, historian Elizabeth Hinton argued that the commission’s prescriptions represented the beginning of a system of policing that targeted black Americans across the country, diverting resources from community programs to crime control.

But a book published last month argues that, at least in Chicago, policing was structurally harmful to black communities long before the Crime Commission. In Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power, Simon Balto, a professor at the University of Iowa, suggests that the wars on crime and drugs of the ’80s and ’90s are closely tied to transformations in local policing decades before. Specifically, Balto documents the history of policing in Chicago from the 1919 race riot until the late sixties, tracking harassment, surveillance, and targeting of black Chicagoans over that period.

Balto will be in town to discuss Occupied Territory at the Harold Washington Library on June 6. In the meantime, here are four key takeaways from the book.

CPD was accused of torture as far back as the 1920s

It can often seem that the conversation surrounding police torture in Chicago begins with Jon Burge. But Occupied Territory suggests that the CPD tortured black people in significant numbers as far back as the early twenties.

In 1922, the book notes, a Chicago judge ruled that, because of the possibility of torture, he would no longer allow confessions to be used in court. That same year, one victim testified to being beaten with a rubber hose during interrogation while future CPD leaders were in attendance.

Balto found that black people, who made up only around 5 percent of Chicago’s population in the twenties, were 40 percent of the people killed by police in cases the courts ruled “justifiable or excusable.” And as the Chicago Defender pointed out at the time, the Tribune’s monthly police bravery award went to an officer who had killed someone — more often than not a black man — 70 percent of the time.

Black police played a role in both violence and reform

For much of the early 20th century, the number of black officers in the CPD remained low. Black community leaders and police reformers often argued that hiring more black officers to police black neighborhoods would help prevent brutality.

However, historian Timuel Black hypothesizes that white officers were more likely to view violence against black communities as acceptable if they saw black officers engaging in it, too. In support of this idea, Balto cites the career of Sylvester Washington, a much-lauded black officer nicknamed “Two-Gun Pete”:

Within six months on the force, Washington had killed a twenty-seven-year-old robber with a hail of bullets. After that incident, he came to the nickname “Two-Gun” after the twin .357 Magnums that he wore on the beat. He supplemented those weapons, frequently, with his nightstick and fists… By his career’s end, he proudly declared that he had killed eleven or twelve men.

But black police were also at the forefront of Chicago’s reform movements around policing in the late sixties. The African-American Patrolmen’s League, formed in 1968, explicitly aimed to transform “the role of the police in perpetuating racial domination” in the city. To that end, the League created its own intake system for police complaints, experimented with new strategies to curb gang violence, and sued the city for discriminatory hiring practices within the CPD.

“Special patrols” exacerbated distrust between civilians and police, especially in black neighborhoods

In 1946, Balto writes, a shrewdly timed report by the Chicago Crime Commission — a largely white activist group that had advocated for harsher policing since the twenties — pushed the CPD to create “special squads” to cover the South Side’s Fifth Police District, citing a surge in hold-ups of delivery drivers. According to Balto, the squads were a turning point in the CPD’s engagement with black communities:

The squads’ implementation and guiding logic represented the beginning of a shift away from beat-patrol policing, a transition from a police system built on general familiarity between patrolling officers and citizens … and toward one that prioritized rapid responses and legitimated blanket assumptions about the criminality of local residents.

In the 1950s, the special squads were expanded into a much larger task force, with the mandate to “fight crime until it is knocked out. 225 officers were deployed nightly throughout the city, visiting black neighborhoods 20 to 28 times more often than white ones.

Chicago ramped up punitive policing in the ’60s, with questionable results

In 1960, the criminologist Orlando Wilson became the CPD’s first superintendent. (Until then, the position had been titled “commissioner,” and was renamed to skirt residency requirements for the recently transplanted Wilson.) Using the language of liberalization and modernization, he advocated for more expansive policing practices, like stop-and-frisk and preventive patrols.

Wilson’s argument for expansion was partly statistical. An internal CPD memo from the mid-sixties predicted that an increasing black and shrinking white population would lead to a 20 percent increase in “major crimes.” This was used to justify a broader, harsher set of police practices and the doubling of the CPD’s municipal budget allocation. But as Balto points out, the more punitive approach was a failure:

Statistics from the time… offer precisely no causal relationship between escalating arrests and safer streets; indeed, any statistical relationship that existed was a negative one. … In Wilson’s final years in office, when aggressive preventive patrol and all its attending invasions and violations were firmly in place, murders jumped by nearly 40 percent in Chicago, with black neighborhoods experiencing most of the terror. When black citizens talked about being both overpoliced and underprotected, this is what they meant.

Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power is on sale now. University of North Carolina Press, $37.50.

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