Should we have read this exposé of Chicago's criminal courts 19 years ago? | Bleader

Should we have read this exposé of Chicago's criminal courts 19 years ago?

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STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
  • Stanford University Press

"The community's lack of trust in C.P.D. is justified," says the damning report of the Police Accountability Task Force that Mayor Emanuel established to study Chicago's police. "C.P.D.'s own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color."

The report was issued Wednesday, and on Friday the New York Times ran an op-ed maintaining the problem isn't limited to the police force. "Racist practices extend far into the criminal courts, indeed they are the very foundation of the cases that enter into the court system," writes Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve. "The hands of many judges and prosecutors are just as dirty as the bigots in blue."

Van Cleve is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Temple University. More to the point, she's the author of a book soon to be released titled Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America's Largest Criminal Court. (We should hope her book's polemical title belies the quality of her scholarship.) 

In her op-ed Van Cleve explains that back in 1997 she became a clerk in Cook County's criminal courts and observed police officers showing up to testify: "Often, they would sit in the jury box, next to the judge (regardless of the appearance of impropriety) and would dutifully teach me how the justice system really worked, how black men really were 'dogs,' and how judges and prosecutors who focused on due process 'nonsense' were 'liberals' who were throwing away 'their' cases."

Van Cleve goes on to say the judges and prosecutors "often participated in this culture. They spoke in overtly racist ways in court," mocked black defendants, and held them "to blame for their poverty, an ideology that justified a host of abuses . . . " A judge she got to know well "laughed at the fabrication of police reports as if it were a novelty, rather than an abuse of power."

But "novelty" might be the wrong word. Van Cleve tells us she polled 27 judges about police perjury and 20 of them said it occurred. Only one judge said it did not. Prosecutors were more guarded: 12 of 27 said it "sometimes occurred" and eight said it didn't.

"What was unclear from these interviews [with prosecutors]," she writes, "was whether the silence or denial was based on an unwillingness to talk, or on a fear of talking. From my experience, it was rooted in fear. Prosecutors need the police. They are their star witnesses." Prosecutors who don't win cases, she observes, don't get promoted.

Van Cleve spent about ten years working on her book, but my thought as I read the op-ed was that much of what she has to say in it could have been written years ago, based on her observations and conversations as a court clerk. It's easy to picture a Sun-Times or Tribune reporter going under cover for a few weeks and then writing a riveting series of stories.

But the dailies don't do that kind of journalism any longer. Since the Sun-Times's Mirage series in the late 70s, they've sworn off undercover reporting, and in 1996, Jack Fuller, a former Tribune editor, wrote a book, News Values, codifying the shift. 

"Why should newspapers shy away from impersonation and undercover practices?" Fuller wrote. "First, because in most cases there are other ways to get the information: deception is just a shortcut. Second, because it creates an environment that tolerates lying, which is highly dangerous for a journalistic enterprise. And third, because a newspaper's strongest bond with its audience is the simple truth."

I wasn't totally persuaded. I'm still not. An academic, Van Cleve took her time, presumably dotting every i and crossing every t, and 19 years after she worked in the criminal courts we find a dignified university press—Stanford's—publishing her critical study of it (though under an indulgent title that does her scholarship no favor). 

If a reporter with a good ear and eye had published the same blistering observations in 1997, perhaps the revelations Van Cleve is finally sharing with us would not be so painfully topical today.

Correction: An earlier version of this post mistakenly calculated the time that's passed since Van Cleve worked at the Cook County court system. She was there 19 years ago. 

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