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Hide the Power

How Daley's new top cop fits into a long police department tradition



The solution to future police scandals may hinge on the willingness of the mayor to scrub the bureaucracy clean, oust a few political cops, and bring in a Mr. Clean. But in a department like ours--defined by racial divisions, political expediency, and a brutal and corrupt history--logic dictates that the superintendent will always be someone who's skillfully maneuvered through the thicket of middle and upper management at 11th and State. Our police chiefs will never be recruited from national talent pools because Chicago has never worked that way. When the number-one man gets into trouble, as Matt Rodriguez did when his friendship with a convicted tax cheat became a matter of public concern, the mayor selects the number-two man or the number-three man. He never picks the "stick man"--the top cop with the political clout, the one who usually calls the shots.

In the days of the elder Daley the stick man was James B. Conlisk, who drew up every transfer and promotion order and authorized all vouchers and requisitions. Yet few people beyond the inner circle knew who he was. It is said the stick man in this Daley administration is First Deputy Superintendent John Townsend. Even if Daley had wanted to promote Townsend, who's white, it's doubtful that he could have slipped past the reproachful eyes of minority aldermen. A smooth and politically expedient transfer of power occurred when Chief of Detectives Terry Hillard was elevated to the top.

In nearly 150 years of Chicago policing, only one man--Orlando Winfield Wilson--was named superintendent without the benefit of street indoctrination and at least a cursory understanding of the way things are done around here. Wilson, a respected criminologist at the University of California in Berkeley prior to receiving the nod from Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1960, rescued Daley from political annihilation. Walter Spirko of the Sun-Times had broken a front-page exclusive that January revealing that eight cops from the north-side Summerdale district were knocking off dozens of retail establishments during their off hours, in league with a cat burglar named Richard Morrison.

In the early years of his administration Daley was not nearly as invincible as he's remembered. Influential if shrinking Republican and reform contingents still lurked in the City Council. An ambitious Republican state's attorney named Benjamin Adamowski smelled blood and was eager to play the Morrison card to full advantage. Adamowski had been Daley's pal, but he became a sworn enemy after 1955, when the Democratic Central Committee dumped Mayor Martin Kennelly from the top of the ticket in Daley's favor. Adamowski, leader of the northwest-side Poles, renounced the Democratic Party, and by 1960 he had his eye on Daley's office. He would come close to defeating Daley in '63. If their race had been waged on the heels of the Summerdale scandal, the mayor could have lost it.

Other elections were pending in 1960 when Summerdale broke, so Wilson was grudgingly presented a blank check and free rein in order to minimize the political fallout. A hard-drinking, chain-smoking Norwegian who favored the chummy ambience of the Swedish Club, to which he retreated every afternoon at three, O.W. dragged Chicago's police department by the hair into a new era of professionalism. Employing the book theories of his west-coast mentor, August Vollmer, he encountered stiff resistance and a dash of ethnic hostility from Chicago's predominantly Irish-Catholic police culture.

After Wilson organized a 173-man internal affairs division to ferret out the ticket fixers, shakedown artists, syndicate cops, and other grafters great and small, the tide of corruption ebbed for at least a decade. Yet Daley paid a price in the form of rising taxes and a loss of political control. And after Wilson took leave of Chicago in 1967, the mayor appointed his old friend's son, James Conlisk Jr., a bland and unimaginative administrator. Conlisk endured a shellacking from the local media and the federal Walker Commission for his handling of the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots and the mayhem in the streets that continued through the early 1970s.

Those who followed in Conlisk's footsteps were for the most part weak and ineffective political appointees who respected the political realities of Chicago. They served at the privilege of the mayor and tried to stay out of harm's way. Until Matt Rodriguez stumbled into the job in 1992, not one Chicago police chief in the post- Summerdale era had survived for more than four years in office. Rodriguez, a cautious, low-key administrator uncomfortable in the glare of TV lights, lasted through a tumultuous five-and-a-half-year tour of duty.

Three decades after Wilson, a new Daley confronts a familiar but even more vexing set of problems. The department has been rocked by damaging scandals in the Austin and Gresham districts. Complaints of excessive force pile up on the desk of the Office of Professional Standards, and promotional exams considered culturally biased by the minority community divide the department along racial lines. Several rank-and-file officers were observed flashing street-gang hand signals at a picnic hosted by the Fraternal Order of Police. The department circled the wagons and denied press allegations that it had been infiltrated by gangsters. A captain was transferred.

Terry Hillard was a dark-horse finalist for the superintendent's job. He managed to outlast Charles Ramsey and Ray Risley because he connected best with the mayor during their interviews. Hillard is tight-lipped, and he fits the definition of a team player. He's popular with Bill Nolan and the FOP honchos who bargain with the city at contract time, but more important, he can keep the secrets of the cop culture to himself and away from the prying eyes of the media.

Ramsey, who rose to prominence in Narcotics before heading the ballyhooed Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) program, proposed a radical plan to pare down the bureaucracy by eliminating three of the department's five bureaus. Massive reorganizations are always risky, with the elimination of jobs costing the city money and the mayor union support and cop votes, particularly in the bungalow belts on the southwest and northwest sides.

A fourth candidate, John Timoney, was the only non-Chicagoan whose name surfaced during the four-month selection process. Timoney was the number-two man in the New York police department behind Bill Bratton, the cool ex-commissioner who was in town recently flacking his new book, Turnaround: How America's Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic, at the University Club.

Bratton claims a large share of the credit for the remarkable 39 percent reduction in New York crime during his 27 months in office. He effected similar results as head of New York's transit police and as police commissioner in Boston, where he implemented a community policing initiative that was carefully studied and tested in Chicago in 1993, Rodriguez's second year in office.

As the title of the self-congratulatory memoir suggests, Bratton is not a modest man, nor does he lack ambition. Ambition coupled with a defiant streak allowed him to steer free of entrenched status quos.

"I was always a bit of a maverick in that I don't march to the common beat of the go-along kind of cop," he said. "Everybody has to make their own decisions as to what they want to do with themselves as police officers. I, from day one, said I was not going to the old school, and it worked out quite well for me."

Fewer than 30 people showed up to hear Bratton articulate his theories of police accountability, of the need to attack crime strategically by empowering precinct commanders to become frontline managers responsible for the upkeep of their own turf. The New York department is the cleanest it's been in years, and Bratton takes credit in the name of his zero-tolerance policies against crooked cops and cops who use or deal drugs.

"There is no such thing as a corruption-free police department," Bratton said in an interview. "The department is staffed by human beings and human beings are subject to temptation. But there are things you can do, and it starts right at the top. Leadership should speak out on the issue and not be afraid to admit this is a problem that needs to be addressed."

During the 1970s and '80s--after Frank Serpico went public and ratted out his crooked pals--police administrators in New York were obsessed with corruption to the point that interference from downtown paralyzed the cop on the street. Precinct commanders were afraid to act upon even the most trifling matters, bouncing routine policy decisions back to headquarters. The inertia fueled a sharp rise in crime. When Bratton took over as commissioner in 1994, he said, New York cops were afraid to enforce existing laws aggressively for fear of the consequences.

"New York is one of the few police departments that routinely run anticorruption sting operations. We run seven or eight a year with over 600 officers assigned to the internal affairs function. Indeed, the NYPD has always focused a lot of attention and resources on very aggressively seeking out corruption and not just waiting until a report comes in."

Bratton, Timoney, and the rest of the cleanup crew vested greater powers in precinct commanders in exchange for greater accountability. And today New York is a better managed and better policed city than Chicago.

In both Boston and New York, community policing emphasizes foot patrols. Chicago's CAPS program still relies heavily on the auto patrol, which in the view of O.W. Wilson back in 1960 was a reform offering a faster means of canvassing the city. But it isolated patrol officers in marked squad cars, which quickly became a symbol of police repression in low-income areas.

The homicide rate in New York, a city that hires outside administrators as a matter of course, stood at a staggering 2,246 in 1990. Civil libertarians accused Bratton of overly aggressive tactics when he instructed his precinct commanders to enforce all laws, but New York's homicide rate dropped to only 750 last year, with major crime down in all reported categories. Bratton is convinced that one thing leads to another, that a casual tolerance of an open beer can, or of a prostitute lingering too long on a street corner, contributes to society's meltdown.

According to Bratton, the anything-goes permissiveness of the 1970s led to New York's social and economic collapse. "The city was very liberal, very permissive, particularly in Times Square, where the adult businesses and the street action was left alone," he said. "It was very frustrating for the cops, and while they may have been standing there with a bemused look on their faces, it was also frustrating to be prevented from interrupting [vice] activity because of the cost of overtime, the fear of being accused of corruption, or the idea many people share--that what was the harm? Prostitution is not victimless, because the neighborhood is victimized by this activity and it pays a price."

Targeting the "squeegee pests" who descend upon hapless motorists stuck in traffic and the panhandlers, pimps, and perverts who hustle Times Square tourists, the new commissioner borrowed heavily from Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's quality-of-life sound bites. And Giuliani, whose reputation as a rackets buster helped to get him elected in 1993, threatened to fire Bratton just one week after Bratton was appointed police commissioner.

The new commissioner was viewed as being too high profile by Giuliani and his press office. He stole headlines, delivering bold salvos to the city. On his first day on the job, he paraphrased Winston Churchill: "We will fight for every house in this city. We'll fight for every street. We will fight for every borough. And we will win." Bratton and Giuliani were barely civil to each other after that opening-day press conference, and they haven't spoken since Bratton abruptly resigned early in 1996.

"He made it quite clear that he considered himself the police commissioner and the real police commissioner was actually the first deputy," said Bratton, who doesn't mince words discussing a man whose ambitions were on a par with his own.

Outside the plush dining room where Bratton spoke, book sales were sluggish. Only the brittle Fred Inbau, an elder statesman of the Chicago law enforcement community and professor of law emeritus at Northwestern University, paused to study the memoir Bratton had written with Peter Knobler.

Inbau had directed Northwestern's prestigious scientific crime detection laboratory when it was merged into the Chicago Police Department in 1938. Twenty-two years later, Inbau's colleague at Northwestern, Franklin Kreml, sat on the mayoral commission that chose O.W. Wilson. It was the last time a selection process in this town looked past the concerns of the mayor and the traditional alliances between politicians and cops. In all likelihood it will never happen again. Inbau muttered a few words of praise for Bratton before departing.

"To be quite frank, your police situation here in Chicago bears no resemblance to New York or Boston," Bratton said. "Houston, New Orleans, San Diego, Boston, and New York are doing quite well. It all depends on what they are being rated on--their ability to reduce crime, their ability to work with the community, and their ability to address racism and brutality. Some cities do better than others.

"But," he added with a hint of cynicism, "you had more murders in Chicago [last year] than in New York City with half the population."

Though Bratton said that he was contacted by headhunters about the Chicago job, he didn't pursue the opening. Taking into account the city's inherent distrust of outsiders and intellectuals with highfalutin ideas, he decided that he'd retired from the business of turning around police departments in trouble.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Ralph Creasman.

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