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Victims of police brutality speak out about an unjust system

By Carl Kozlowski

AUGUST 9, 1999:  "I was in an interrogation room with my hands cuffed behind my back when an officer punched me in the chest, knocking the wind out of me and making me fall to the floor. That's when I really got scared."

These words come from a 5-foot 2-inch, 92-pound mother of five named Shirley Alejos, who was 31 years old on that fateful night of June 10,1994.

"I lifted up my leg to push the three officers away and that's when they got mad, starting to punch and kick me while one of them grabbed me by the hair and slammed my head into a desk and filing cabinets," she continues, displaying horrific photographs of the resulting injuries. "Another officer came in and ended up breaking my leg instead of helping me. I had bumps all over my head and bruises across my arms and chest, but they said it was my word against theirs and no one would ever believe me if I reported them."

But Alejos did report what happened in that locked police station interrogation room. She also filed a civil suit against the Chicago Police Department and in March 1996 won a $200,000 settlement that splashed across front pages and newscasts throughout the city. (Had she agreed to a gag order, Alejos might have received more, but she took with her the right to go public with her story.) And along the way, the charges against her were dropped and two of the officers involved in her beating were suspended.

Alejos' nightmare began after she questioned officers outside her Northwest Side home about teenage arrests being made under what she felt were unfairly stringent applications of curfew law. She was called a "smart bitch" and was soon cuffed and forced into the back of a squad car, leaving her children unattended.

When her kids and neighbors saw her again - the next day - Alejos' eyes were swollen shut and another tale of police-inflicted woe spread through a neighborhood already rife with mistrust of the authorities.

Though the department legally paid for its mistake, Alejos is not satisfied. The officers who tortured her still walk their beats, and she finds herself living a curious existence with her home surrounded by a new metal gate and fully equipped with private security alarms.

"I'm still harassed for coming out with my story, so I keep [professional security company] ADP on the line to protect me from the police," she explains, in a surreal twist of how society ought to run. "If they were civilians inflicting that much damage, they would be put away in real prisons or worse."

Alejos' story offers another piece in the disturbing picture of police brutality emerging in Chicago, a problem that goes beyond the headline-grabbing June deaths of LaTanya Haggerty and Robert Russ, both of whom were unarmed and shot during traffic stops. Nearly 3,000 complaints were filed and investigated in 1998 by the Chicago Police Department's Office of Professional Standards (OPS), but the issues and circumstances surrounding these allegations are more complex than mere numbers would indicate.

The public's perceptions of brutality often assume white officers beating minority citizens in the lower classes, but the deaths of Haggerty and Russ destroyed those myths. The officers who killed Haggerty and Russ were African-Americans, just like their victims. And some feel the reason Haggerty and Russ have drawn far more attention than other minorities slain by police fire is that they were middle class.

Yet the broader picture of the way police operate in Chicago also indicates that the hysteria surrounding the Haggerty and Russ deaths may be a study in overreaction. There are 13,500 officers in the CPD and 2,857 OPS complaints were logged in 1998, revealing that nearly 11,000 officers did their jobs in a manner that warranted no complaints.

"Keep in mind that the OPS investigates every single complaint brought forward, all the way down to people complaining that their handcuffs were too tight," says Pat Camden, CPD deputy director of news affairs. "Two hundred and three allegations were sustained, meaning they were supported by sufficient evidence to justify disciplinary action.

"At a conservative figure, there's more than three million contacts a year between citizens and police, so the perception that brutality is running rampant is erroneous."

Yet, critics say, even 203 cases of serious brutality are enough to merit troubled analysis and enough to require sweeping changes in the way the CPD operates.

Interestingly enough, many of the Chicago Police Department's current watchdog entities were formed as direct response to just this kind of public outcry and internal scandal. The most famous and dramatic policy changes yet came out of the 1960 Summerdale scandal, after eight officers assigned to the North Side Summerdale District (now known as the Foster District) were caught burglarizing stores along their own patrol routes.

In response to Summerdale, that same year the department established its Internal Affairs Division to investigate suspected illicit activities among officers. The Office of Professional Standards (OPS) was added in 1974 to examine accusations of extreme unethical behavior, particularly brutality in the interrogation process.

But, according to Richard Lindberg, author of the new CPD history book "To Serve and Collect" and former editor of the Illinois Police and Sheriff's News, the recent killings show that "the department has taken three steps forward and two steps back.

"The problem today is the strength of the police unions in shielding these guys and giving officers a sense of infallibility because they know they're rarely going to lose their jobs," says Lindberg. "The unions' support of the city in clear cases of malfeasance and physical abuse diminishes the credibility of the rank and file police officer and creates mountains of mistrust, fear and suspicion within the public."

Lindberg says the local Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge 7 will present a stiff legal challenge to avoid termination of the officers in the Haggerty case, an assertion that current lodge president Bill Nolan believes as well. Lindberg also points to the pattern of little abuses of power that people see daily from police - ranging from free meals at patrol-route restaurants to running red lights at will - that stir up resentment among average law-abiding citizens.

In fact, Lindberg believes that the current cases may make the problems worse in subtle ways even as allegedly sweeping reforms are enacted on the surface.

"Bill Nolan said motorists who get pulled over for traffic incidents should smile, pull over, and put their hands on the wheel, which sounds suspiciously like a police state," Lindberg states. "It means to me that if you're not nice and respectful, cops are going to be rough and physical with you, creating a sense of invincibility and a suspension of civil liberties. That to me is the whole core of the problem."

Nolan takes serious issue with Lindberg's view of the FOP's alleged "police state," and contends that the aforementioned traffic-stop suggestions were not a coy reaction to the recent killings, but common-sense proposals disseminated in FOP community-outreach brochures two years ago. "Should you keep your hands in full view? Yeah, because if you do that when an officer pulls you over it alleviates a lot of the uncertainty that comes with approaching an unknown driver," says Nolan. "We like people to know that under the law, you must stop for the police. If you don't stop for the police, you run the risk of the policeman chasing you, and then people might get hurt." Although each was unarmed, Haggerty and Russ were both shot after leading police on chases following the officers' attempts to pull them over in routine traffic stops. Russ' family has filed suit against the city, while CPD Superintendent Terry Hillard has called for the firing of the four officers involved in Haggerty's death on charges that they ignored orders to suspend their pursuit of the vehicle.

Nolan says the FOP must defend the Haggerty officers because he believes they received their punishment without first receiving a fair trial before a hearing officer or the Chicago Police Board citizen-review panel. Such strenuous defenses of dismissed officers often wend through several layers of the judicial system and help ensure that the firings are carried out years after the fact, if ever.

"The fact of the matter is that [Haggerty and Russ] precipitated this, by not listening to the police," says Nolan. "The officers have a right to a trial to find out exactly what rules if any they violated, and if they did so intentionally. In this case, the officers were found guilty before the investigation started."

One group that can lay claim to much of the current success in drawing and keeping public heat on the police is the Stolen Lives Project, a coalition of three other citizen activist groups formed in 1996 to coordinate the battle against police brutality. The group's current projects are its most dramatic yet: the creation of a giant black banner and a book, each memorializing the names of 2,000 citizens nationwide killed by police under questionable circumstances in this decade alone. Stolen Lives has been at the forefront of the public outcry against police in the Haggerty and Russ cases, and also counts Alejos among its members. SLP organizer and longtime political activist C. Arriba Jue even made the front page of the Chicago Tribune the day that Police Superintendent Terry Hillard announced that the department was moving to fire the officers involved in the Haggerty homicide.

According to Jue, the fact that the officers who pulled the triggers in both cases and their victims were all African American reveals that police brutality goes beyond simple black-white racism. "These killings show that racism in the Chicago police department is institutionalized, and that the way major media choose to deal with police shootings centers on class," alleges Jue. "Haggerty had a respectable middle-class job and Russ was about to graduate from Northwestern.

"These were not the inner-city poor who are most often subjected to this traumatic violence by authorities. If they were, they would have been written about on the crime page of the Metro section."

And Chicago isn't the only city in America dealing with hyperactive police. The problem stretches literally from coast to coast, with the Rodney King beating and Los Angeles riots awakening the nation to the simmering discontent of the inner cities. And in New York, two recent deaths have rocked the nation, shocking Americans with the underside of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's get-tough-on-crime tactics: A street vendor, Amadou Diallo, was shot forty-one times by white officers while standing unarmed in his own apartment; and Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was brutally beaten by four NYPD officers, one of whom sodomized him with a nightstick.

One result is that the granddaddy of all human rights groups, Amnesty International, has chosen police brutality in America as its main issue for 1999. An organization that has spent nearly four decades calling attention to the abuses of Third World dictators is now placing a wakeup call to the Land of Liberty.

"Police tend to be viewed up there with Mom, God and apple pie, and the issue of police brutality usually ends up being raised by groups that are marginalized by mainstream society," says Gerald LeMelle, Amnesty International USA's deputy executive director. "Police are thus given the benefit of the doubt with brutality because society generally thinks police are doing the best they can with hardened, often violent criminals."

In 1996, Amnesty sought to change that perception by releasing a report identifying and documenting the stories of eighty persons nationwide who were victims of police brutality. The results showed that, rather than abuses arising from heated arrest situations where victims were fighting with officers, the incidents often stemmed from officers "going over the line" with little provocation.

LeMelle stresses that Amnesty realizes the need for police to use force in certain situations, and notes that U.S. police forces rank among the best in the world in terms of training, sophistication and tactics. He adds that the American system is failing, however, with regards to its "culture of impunity."

"The real problem is the idea that officers will back each other to the hilt and the judicial system will not prosecute or indict," says LeMelle. "New York City has some of the most stringent regulations in the world, even beyond what the United Nations requires, but it's seemingly never enforced. The risk now is that with the rare conviction of Officer Justin Volpe in the Louima case, people will naively believe the system works."

Amnesty's suggestions for dealing with the problems between minorities and the authorities include making more police serve the communities in which they live. Another idea, suggested by Amnesty's Chicago office director Nancy Bothne, is that officers have less discretion in selecting their partners. The Sun-Times reported this week that CPD allows 80 percent of patrol assignments to be filled according to bids based on seniority. Veteran patrolmen often choose not to work with young officers, which might result in situations like the Haggerty shooting, where the officer who pulled the trigger had just two years of experience while more seasoned officers were calling in orders from afar.

The Chicago office of Amnesty International will host a public hearing on brutality on October 21 at an as-yet-undetermined location. The hope is that pressure will stay hot on the Justice Department to conduct a sweeping investigation of brutality in Chicago and the nation.

"What's the difference between getting your head bashed in by an agent of the state in Kashmir or an agent of the state in Toledo, especially if you're innocent or surrendered?" says LeMelle. "You can't prioritize saying our police officers don't hit as hard or as often here. People have a right to disagree with a police officer without getting their head smashed or a nightstick up their rectum."

With criminal charges rarely filed against abusive officers, civil suits are often the only recourse offered to victims of police brutality. Janine Hoft has been a lawyer with the Peoples Law Office - the city's preeminent private firm dealing with police brutality and civil rights violations - for twelve years.

With an average of fifty lawsuits pending against the department at any given moment, Hoft's experience has provided her ample insight on the odd and ugly ways that racism snakes through police culture. Like the officials at Amnesty, Hoft pegs much of the problem on a small percentage of officers known as "repeaters," whose transgressions are not punished sternly enough early on and then boil as their careers lengthen and their arrogance grows. One local officer is known by activists as "The Million Dollar Man," because the city has paid out more than $1 million in damages due to his violent career.

"African-American or Latino officers are taught that race doesn't matter, but it's not in a positive way," explains Hoft. "Those officers are taught to identify with the color blue rather than any other color, so that they become the 'us' of the police department against the 'them' of the communities. Officers are encouraged to see themselves as separate from their community and connected to other officers as an occupying force."

And the impact of brutality goes beyond the bruises, leaving scars that monetary awards can never fix. Some families have lost their loved ones forever.

George Morris is a computer consultant whose 18-year-old son Kevin was shot in the back of the head by an off-duty officer outside the West Side bar Sherrie's Lounge on the night of January 18, 1998. The officer was working as a bouncer in the club and, according to Morris, ran out ready to shoot when he received word that a citizen was standing outside with a gun drawn.

The officer alleged that Kevin had a gun, an assertion that subsequent hearing witnesses disputed, and shot him in the thigh. When Kevin ran for a friend's car, the officer followed and shot him in the back of the head before shooting out two of the car's tires. The subsequent flats ensured that Kevin Morris never saw an emergency room in time.

Kevin Morris' death was ruled a justifiable homicide by the Cook County State's Attorney's office, despite George Morris' claim that department rules forbid off-duty officers from working as bar security. Kevin was tested by pathologists and found clean of drugs or alcohol - an exam that was never performed on the officer.

And even if the police side of the story was true, George wonders why killing Kevin rather than capturing and trying him was the solution. Today, George Morris' life has been scarred, although he has found strength through his newfound political involvement in Stolen Lives.

"You spend your whole life dedicating yourself to doing right and your whole world gets shattered," says Morris. "Since that time, my wife had a heart attack and is in a coma with a nursing home. I have five other kids at home, ages 10 to 18. People don't understand how these cases of police brutality eats into the family and destroys it, creating more than one victim."

Barbara Pillow and Pat Hill are two police officers who believe the problem cuts through entire communities as well as families. As the present and former presidents of the African American Police League, they have spoken out against what they deem are the racist policies of their own department.

The League was founded in 1973 by officers who disagreed with CPD treatment of minorities. Their verbal pyrotechnics landed them in hot water with department heads until scoring a remarkable court victory in 1976. League members were protected with a permanent injunction, allowing them to speak their minds off-duty as representatives of the group while restraining their criticisms on-duty.

"What drives everyone is numbers, because the powers want arrests, tickets and school absentees that give them something to measure activity on what's happening in Chicago," says Hill. "You wouldn't believe how many arrests are made and then charges are thrown out, because the important thing isn't getting convictions."

According to them, the problem stretches from headline-making deaths and beatings to the mundane recesses of traffic court, where Hill estimates 85-90 percent of alleged offenders are nonwhite. Hill believes this lack of proportion with the overall Chicago population shows that nonwhites are targeted by the system.

"We are approaching a system in which we're running police by apartheid, where the police are a separate super class," says Pillow. "One way around this is to teach people in the inner cities to cut down their reliance on police in the first place. We need to become more sufficient, which will lessen the frequency and chance of these interactions going wrong."

Hill and Pillow also feel that the current conflagration over the Haggerty case reflects a double standard in how officers are treated.

"In virtually every case of a white officer killing a citizen, their names are protected from press and public scrutiny," says Pillow. "But two days after LaTanya Haggerty's death everyone knew [Officer] Serena Daniels was the shooter."

Seeking out the official police side of these issues bears out Pillow's and Hill's view that the department is driven by numbers, as indicated by Camden's aforementioned statistics. And some of the information he provides on CPD solutions is even relatively positive.

Camden points out that programs are in place to help officers with anger and stress management problems, and the Police Board citizen review panel serves to monitor police activity from an objective outside angle.

Yet Camden still offers a disturbing comment when asked why officers like "The Million Dollar Man" aren't punished with the loss of their jobs even after they repeatedly cost the city money due to their aberrant behavior.

"Should they be?" he asks tersely.

The answer seems obvious. Police are supposed to serve and protect, and we are the customers paying their salaries. If you cost your company a million dollars because you repeatedly beat your customers, you know damn well you'd be out of a job.

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