Chicago’s Police Problem

Despite a long history of scandals and abuse, the city has yet to discipline and reform its police department.

By Kari Lydersen May 16, 2007

Diane Bond was known as a cheerful, positive presence in Stateway Gardens, one of Chicago’s infamous high-rise public housing projects. A middle-aged single mother who  is a janitor for the Chicago Public Schools, she took pride in her work. “I love taking care of the kids and cleaning up after them,” she says.

With an inner toughness and courage belied by her affable demeanor, Bond had built a stable life after a difficult youth that included gang rape and incest.

But on April 13, 2003, her world was shattered by a group of Chicago police officers known locally as “the Skullcap Crew.”

According to a civil rights lawsuit later filed on her behalf, four officers approached her around 5 p.m. in the hallway of the building where she lived, and one of them put a gun against her head. Then, they allegedly took her keys from her hand, forced her inside the apartment, handcuffed her and proceeded to ransack her home and terrorize her. One officer allegedly brought her inside the bathroom and forced her to expose her genitals repeatedly as he “stared and smirked;” another officer allegedly threatened to plant drugs on her. The suit also maintains that the police officers forced her to watch as they beat her 19-year-old son, Willie, and then forced him to beat up a middle-aged man they had brought into the apartment, apparently for their own amusement. The officers finally left, according to the lawsuit, but the nightmare wasn’t over. They allegedly continued to harass Bond in incidents that took place over the next year.

The Chicago police department did not respond to interview requests for this story. A city law department spokesperson said the officers deny any contact with Bond.
But police critics say her case is indicative of an ongoing problem of police abuse and lack of city accountability in Chicago, which has gained national attention for several scandals involving drug-dealing cops and police torture.

The day after her first encounter with the Skullcap Crew, Bond told her story to Jamie Kalven, an independent journalist and author who also worked as advisor to the resident council at Stateway Gardens and ran a grassroots public works program that employed residents to clean out vacant apartments and do landscaping.

Kalven put Bond in touch with Craig Futterman, founder of a police accountability project at the University of Chicago’s Mandel Legal Aid Clinic. Futterman filed a civil rights lawsuit on Bond’s behalf, charging five individual officers, the police superintendent and the city of Chicago with violating her civil and constitutional rights, including through excessive force, unlawful search and discrimination based on race and gender.

“They engaged in a series of horrific acts that were just utterly sadistic, racist and sexist,” said Futterman. He obtained internal department personnel records showing that the department was doing little or nothing to track rogue officers with multiple complaints of abuse filed against them and that officers were extremely unlikely to ever be punished for misconduct. Between 2002 and 2004, Futterman reported, out of 10,500 serious abuse complaints, only 18 resulted in “meaningful discipline” of at least a seven-day unpaid suspension.

While the data could be viewed as supporting the “bad apples” theory often offered by police spokespeople—only a small number of errant officers give the department a bad name—Futterman’s analysis showed that the department has done little to weed out or change the behavior of these dangerous officers. The five men who allegedly terrorized Bond had a “pattern of similar abuse of a substantial number of African-American women in Chicago public housing for years,” according to Futterman.

Because of the high number of complaints, the lawsuit argued that the city would have been alerted to the abuse had there been an adequate early warning system. This lack of tracking and accountability is especially disturbing given that Chicago is still suffering the effects of various police scandals, including that of Jon Burge, a commander fired after an internal investigation held him responsible for the systematic torture of 60 or more Black men during the 1970s and ‘80s. Special prosecutors investigated 148 torture allegations linked to Burge and announced in summer 2006 that they believed torture had occurred, but the statute of limitations precluded any criminal charges. African-American city council members and activists complain that the city is still paying Burge’s pension and defending him in civil lawsuits filed by alleged torture victims. Meanwhile, in February, lawyers for three men tortured by Burge filed motions demanding the city produce $14.8 million they say was promised to their clients in November 2006 settlements; to the lawyers’ outrage, the city law department now denies a settlement was ever reached.

An independent advisory panel formed by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1997 urged the city to install a computerized early warning system to identify and track problem officers and provide close supervision of narcotics units. But none of the panel’s recommendations has been implemented, according to Kalven’s extensive reporting.

"The city works hard not to know things it has the power to know about patterns of police abuse,” Kalven asserts. “And the costs of this regime of not knowing are huge. Because they are not held accountable and so operate with impunity, ‘a few bad apples’ do vast damage to individuals, communities and the institutions of city government."

In 2003, the year the lawsuit says Diane Bond was abused, Chicago police fatally shot 17 citizens, compared to only 13 people shot dead by police in much-larger New York City. Jon Loevy, an attorney who recently filed two wrongful death lawsuits on behalf of Chicagoans killed by police, blames the lack of meaningful department oversight and discipline.

“There’s a total breakdown in the system for investigating police shootings,” he said. “They’re quick on the trigger because they know they won’t be investigated or disciplined for what they do.”

Bond alleges Chicago police officers retaliated against her after she made her story public through the lawsuit and a lengthy dispatch Kalven wrote on his website On Jan. 31, 2006, according to an emergency motion for a restraining order filed by Futterman, two officers detained Bond in their cruiser, and one said, “You know too much. I could kill you right now.”

By the fall of 2006, Stateway Gardens was vacated and demolished, like most Chicago public housing units, as part of the city’s controversial redevelopment plan. But unless major changes are made, people fear, officers will continue to harass and abuse residents of marginalized, disenfranchised communities on a whim. In December 2006, the city settled Bond’s lawsuit without admitting any wrongdoing for an amount in the six figures, pending city council approval. Bond, now 52, might use the money to fulfill her dream of buying a house where she can mow the grass. “But that money’s not going to change what the police did to me,” she acknowledged. “They ruined my life. I’m all broken up inside.”

Still, Bond hopes her experience will help spark changes. “I hope they think twice before they mess with somebody now.”

Kari Lydersen is a staff writer for the Washington Post out of Chicago.