Two black youths, both 14, were waiting for a bus in a white working-class neighborhood after a White Sox game. Two white police officers picked them up, the teen-agers alleged, told them blacks did not belong in that community and slapped them before dropping them off in another white neighborhood.
There, they were chased and beaten by a gang of whites. One of the youths required hospitalization.
The incident is one of a number of recent examples of alleged police brutality and racism that have focused new attention on race relations in the city, usually described as the most segregated in America.
Some black leaders are charging that, under the 6-month-old administration of Mayor Richard M. Daley--in whose neighborhood the boys were picked up--the Chicago police have declared “open season” on black people.
“We’ve had a number of complaints from the African-American community . . . even prior to Richard Daley’s election, during the campaign itself, and it intensified after the election,” said Conrad Worrill, chairman of the National Black United Front, a political organization based here. Many callers said white police officers were uttering racial epithets to black residents, he said.
Allegations such as these and disturbances that broke out after a black man was shot in the head by an arresting police officer earlier this month led the City Council to hold hearings on the brutality issue Thursday and Friday.
Daley and Police Supt. LeRoy Martin asserted before the council meeting Thursday that they will not stand for Chicago police officers abusing their authority. Then Daley made a plea that his political opponents not use the brutality issue for political purposes.
“I ask every leader in this city to work toward building public trust in the police department rather than undermining that trust for narrow political purposes,” Daley said. “This is too important for political games. In fact, it’s dangerous.”
Segregation, Racial Tension
The hearings began on the heels of a report, issued after a 15-month-long investigation of race relations, that concluded that segregation and racial tension in Chicago are as pronounced as ever. The report, made by the Chicago Community Trust Human Relations Task Force, found a “shocking” lack of contact between blacks and whites at all socioeconomic levels.
This racial isolation not only fuels fears and tensions, the study concluded, but the rigid containment of black people caused by housing and lending discrimination makes the struggle to escape poverty more difficult. It means also that middle-class black families are more likely to be crime victims, attend poorer schools, live in more dilapidated surroundings and face a poorer social environment than white families of the same income and occupational levels, according to the study.
There had been predictions that the mayoral election last spring would spark an increase in racial incidents in Chicago. The report said that was not the case. Critics of Daley contend, however, that his neglect of racial issues and of the black community is sending an ominous signal.
Cases of Alleged Brutality
On Thursday and Friday, the committee heard allegation after allegation of racism and brutality involving police officers. Many of the alleged incidents occurred before Daley became mayor.
A young black man, Melvin Davis, charged that a drunken off-duty white policeman pulled a gun on him and two friends last July as they were standing on a corner. Davis said the policeman pointed the gun at each of their heads and once fired the gun close enough to leave a powder burn on one of the men before grabbing Davis and threatening to take him to an alley, where, he said, he was going to kill him.
A black grandmother, Kelly Bryant, said that seven verbally abusive white police officers came into her apartment two years ago and beat her, her daughter and her grandson, sending the daughter to the hospital. It all was spurred by a complaint that the son had broken a window during a street football game, Bryant alleged.
A black minister, Thomas F. Lee, said policemen came to his home in the middle of the night in 1983 saying they had come to pick up a mental patient. Lee testified that, when he told them they had the wrong house and refused to let them in, they struck him in the face and chest and entered anyway.
The testimony was punctuated by frequent rounds of applause and occasionally shouts of “Hitler’s Germany” from the audience.
The allegations, many of which are still in litigation, were left unrefuted. Alderman William Beavers, who was chairman of the hearings, said they will be investigated.
Attacks Not Uncommon
Racially motivated attacks and allegations of police brutality are not uncommon in Chicago. The current uproar began in August after the two black youths allegedly were picked up and abused by white police officers in Daley’s neighborhood of Bridgeport.
"(Bridgeport) was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Beavers said.
Police Supt. Martin has acknowledged that an internal investigation has found that the two officers violated department rules in mistreating the two youths. The state’s attorney is weighing criminal charges against them. In addition, five juveniles and two adults alleged to have beaten the youths have been charged with aggravated battery and ethnic intimidation.
Despite this incident and the police shooting earlier this month in which a man was killed, Daley’s supporters say the brutality issue has been politicized.
David Fogel, director of the Police Office of Professional Standards, said statistics show that there have been fewer police shootings this year, since Daley was elected mayor, than last year.
Fogel said that talk about the police having an “open season now on blacks” is coming from “a handful here and there.”
“We don’t have any evidence of that at all since Daley came in,” he added.
Statistics show that the number of complaints against the police department has fluctuated from a high of 2,514 to a low of 1,904 between the years 1980 and 1988. Both the high and low occurred during the administration of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, who served from 1983 until his death in 1987. So far this year, there have been 1,610 complaints, and Fogel estimated that the statistics will roughly match the 2,190 complaints lodged during Washington’s last year in office.
After Washington’s death, Eugene Sawyer, who also is black, served as acting mayor until Daley was elected early this year.
Many of the black leaders who are most vocal in their denunciation of what they call a permissive atmosphere at the police department under Daley had campaigned against Daley in his quest to fill the remainder of Washington’s second term. Charges of politics have also been fueled by the fact that their criticisms have been aimed at Daley and not Martin, who is a black Washington appointee.
Fogel called the brutality hearings “the first round of the 1991 election (campaign)” and said: “I think it’s nonsensical.”
He said fatalities involving the police are down 44% compared with last year, and shootings are down 17%.
Worrill, denying that the criticism is politically motivated, said the brutality issue cannot be debated on statistical grounds.
“Our position is it is more of the climate now and a lack of strong leadership,” he said. "(Washington) created an environment where police officers didn’t feel too cool to do some of the things that have occurred so blatantly the last few months.”
One of the most inflammatory incidents recently involved the fatal shooting of a black suspected drug dealer by a police officer who also is black. Beavers said emotions ran high in the community because the police, contrary to policy, allowed the body to lie in the street for more than an hour after the shooting.
The state’s attorney has indicated that charges may be filed against the officer in that incident.
During the hearings, several council members called for the abolition of the Police Office of Professional Standards.
They charged that the office, which investigates allegations of police misconduct, covers up wrongdoing more often than it investigates it, and they said it should be replaced by a citizens’ board.
“The Office of Professional Standards is like one big washing machine,” said committee member Anna Langford. “Everything goes in dirty and comes out clean.”
Of the 2,242 complaints filed with the office last year, 139 were sustained. Figures provided by the office showed that this was typical.
“We’re trying to find out has OPS been hiding some of the incidents and not necessarily reporting them,” Beavers said.