Before the pandemic, and before George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis Police custody, my partner and I were modestly productive. We did traffic stops, gave warnings when possible and tickets when unavoidable, and recovered the occasional pistol or bag of dope. No traffic stop is routine, but the way I start every stop is: Walk up to the car, greet the driver and tell them why I’m interrupting their day, then ask for ID and if there are any weapons in the car. One time a driver replied to that question with “Nah officer, no guns. So don’t shoot me.”
“Why would I shoot you?”
“Come on man, I watch the news,” he said.
So I asked him how many people were shot in Chicago so far that month. He didn’t know. I asked him how many were shot by police. He didn’t know.
“I thought you watched the news,” I said.
Field training opened my eyes to how people can get used to an insane level of violence. Neighborhood kids riding bicycles in the area of shots fired sometimes told me the caliber of the pistol from the sound alone. In June alone, over 420 people were shot in Chicago, with 89 murders. As of July 23, 443 people have been shot this month, with 78 shot and killed. It’s worth noting that none of those deaths are attributable to Chicago cops.
Being a police officer, especially in Chicago, is always going to entail some level of frustration: Frustration with corruption in the department, city, and courts, frustration with some of the officers around you, frustration with the criminals you deal with, and with the things you have to see. Officers learn to cope with that frustration, or they don’t have very long careers.
But recently, Chicago cops are experiencing a new kind of frustration in the form of an inability to do the job they were hired to do, coupled with blame for failures beyond their control. Those kids riding bikes through what’s effectively a warzone between rival gangs and drug dealers didn’t grow up acclimated to the sound of gunfire because of CPD. Criminals weren’t emboldened to loot the city because of CPD. Repeat violent offenders aren’t making entire neighborhoods unlivable because of CPD.
Make no mistake, the department can be improved in a multitude of ways that aren’t even mentioned in our federal consent decree: COPA could have trained and licensed investigators. Ranks above captain could be based on ability, not on political appointment and clout. All promotions to sergeant, lieutenant, and detective could be based on public, objective criteria and not some undefined “merit.” “Bosses” like Commanders Kenneth Johnson, Escamilla, and Sanchez, and supervisors like Sergeant Mohammad could meet the same discipline for their crimes and policy violations as would a patrol officer — prison and termination — instead of probation and maybe a demotion. Hiring and training could be overhauled, and field training officers could finally be empowered to fail recruits they believe to be dangerous.
I believe most police officers would support those changes. But it would be for nothing if the offenders driving the violence in the first place don’t change too, and if the court system designed to hold them accountable for their actions continues to empower criminals, not victims.
When the Cook County court system is combined with a dramatic decrease in self-initiated police work, this month’s violence is the result. Proactive officers who used to prevent violent crime are now reactive — mostly driving to and from their dispatched jobs. Limiting our exposure to the public is the sensible thing to do for officers who care about their future. Because now, if drivers during those “routine” traffic stops have guns tucked under their seats, and they understand how the powers that be have chosen to side against the police, they’ll make the encounter a confrontation. They won’t show their hands, or get out of the car. And when you, the police, work within law and policy and use force to get them out of that car, you might get one pistol off the street. But you’ll also be the one facing jail time for aggravated assault, in civil court listing assets, and out of a pension.
“The job” our old timers sometimes refer to is a memory. And for thousands of CPD officers who became the police to help people and to hold accountable those who hurt the innocent, we’re the cops who feel like our profession has been reduced to a report-taker. Even after my worst days I never doubted the worth of my work. Not after watching kids die, being shot at, seeing dead coworkers, hearing friends yell for backup on the radio, being there when parents outlive their children, losing friends because of my uniform, and not after being witness to an unquantifiable waste of life and potential, because I knew my presence was productive. It was worth it to be the best part of someone’s worst day, to contribute to turning the wheels of justice towards a criminal’s conviction or a victim’s restitution, and to be a resource for my coworkers, my city and its citizens.
But I have doubt now. I don’t know if it’s worth it anymore.