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Pat Hill’s legacy

Lessons we can learn from the late, great citizen activist


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For the last few days, I've been trying to think up a worthwhile way for Chicago to commemorate the life and legacy of Pat Hill, the great citizen activist, who died of cancer on September 3. She was 66—way too young.

Given her love for sports, I figure the city should name a park for her—or maybe an indoor running track. With the controversy over Balbo Drive being named for an aviator in Mussolini's air force, how about calling that downtown artery Pat Hill Drive?

Like that will ever happen. Whatever memorial Chicago comes up with will undoubtedly emerge from the grass roots. Hill spent most of her adult life upsetting the hell out of Chicago's ruling political class—I'm sure they'd just as soon forget she ever existed.

Over the years, I turned to Hill for countless quotes and observations. Sometimes we'd get on the phone and talk politics for hours. She was one of those fearless and principled Chicagoans who realize at an early age how corrupt and dysfunctional this city can be and decide the hell with that. Obviously, we don't have nearly enough of this type.

Born and raised on the south side, Hill graduated from Harlan High. She was a high school track star, coming close to qualifying for the 1968 Olympics in the long jump. In the 70s and 80s, she taught physical education at several public high schools. She became a Chicago police officer in 1986, at the age of 35—in order to, as she put it, "fight the repression in the force."

Hill pissed off the brass just by being who she was. She wore a short natural and favored African jewelry and hats. "I try to be polite and respectful to everyone I meet," Hill once told me. "But some people feel threatened by a black person who shows ethnic pride."

As the leader of the African American Police League, she pushed for affirmative action on the force, joined marches against police brutality, championed the rights of officers to wear their hair in braids or dreadlocks, and sat on the "people's side" in court cases involving police brutality.

I met her in the early 1990s, when department honchos, irritated by her activism, wrote her up on bogus charges of insubordination.

This wasn't rare, by the way. Over the years, the department stuck Hill with dozens of horseshit charges. In many cases, she was defended by Joseph Roddy, a lawyer for the Fraternal Order of Police, who more typically defended cops accused of brutality.

"Joe's cool," Hill once told me. "He always calls me Patty. And I send him a Kwanzaa card every year. I also gave him a red, black, and green liberation flag to put in his office."

Roddy said of Hill: "Pat's a great human being. You have to admire her. She's absolutely fearless. The country needs more Pat Hills."

In 2003 a cabdriver named Steve Wiedersberg cooked up a campaign to get Mayor Richard M. Daley to name Hill as the police superintendent. Wiedersberg adored Hill because she'd had the audacity to run against Third Ward alderman Dorothy Tillman in 1999. Hill lost, in large part because Mayor Daley brought out the vote for Tillman.

Hill knew there was no way Daley would make her superintendent. But she went along with the effort, relishing the opportunity to weigh in with her views on policing. She called for hiring more police, "obviously with better training," and especially black and Hispanic officers.

At times she sounded more like a social worker than cop—she was light-years ahead of her time.

"Police can't do it all," she told me. "There's a thing called 'integrated paradigm.' That means you take all the agencies—police, health care, social service—and have them work in an integrated manner. In the case of Englewood—which I know a lot about 'cause I've worked here so long—you have lot of health issues, like mental illness, that become social issues 'cause they're not treated.

"No one public entity can deal with this all by itself. You need the schools and the churches and the social agencies—everything. You ain't gonna solve it, people, by just bringing in the police to knock heads and throw people in jail."

(In contrast, Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed six mental health clinics in low-income, high-crime areas and dealt with the police manpower shortage by making cops work overtime. That's our mayor—determined never to learn.)

Needless to say, Daley passed over Hill for police superintendent in favor of a white guy named Philip Cline, who resigned in 2007 following two separate incidents where police officers were caught on tape beating up citizens. Some things never change, huh?

Even after she retired from the force in 2003, Hill's activism didn't wane. She fought against bringing the Olympics to Chicago. It upset her that the city was eager to squander hundreds of millions of dollars on the games, but couldn't find money to build a few indoor running tracks for high-schoolers, who still practiced in the hallways—just like they did when she went to Harlan.

She said Chicago didn't deserve the games because of its unresolved history of torturing suspects in police custody: "You dishonor the spirit of the Olympics by bringing it to the torture capital of the Western world," she once told me. Pat Hill was unafraid to tell it like it is. Perhaps adopting her ideas about sane and compassionate policing would be the greatest tribute of all.  v

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