Michelle Thomas Reedus
In the weeks since a video was released showing a white Chicago cop shooting black teen Laquan McDonald 16 times, the city has understandably been in chaos. Chicago activists, and civic and religious leaders protested the delayed release of the dashcam footage.
Others have been outraged over the disclosure that the city paid McDonald’s mother, who lost her son in the shooting, $5 million without a lawsuit being filed. The officer, Jason Van Dyke, was charged with first-degree murder — a first for a Chicago cop in more than 30 years.
Meanwhile, the nation, it seems, has been in shock.
But as a former assistant public defender in Cook County (which includes the city of Chicago), I saw firsthand what Van Dyke’s dashcam video finally made public about the city’s justice system: It includes bad cops who routinely abuse members of the African-American and Hispanic communities.
The corruption cuts deep into the Chicago Police Department. The bad cops lie, and the good cops disappear when the time comes to report abuse. That blue code of silence breathes life into the corrupt actions of many sworn to protect us.
As I watched the horrifying footage of young McDonald being shot to death by Van Dyke, I was reminded of something I preached when I worked in the public defender’s office and that I still preach today: Ending police brutality goes beyond the use of cameras.
The system must change so that footage is taken out of the hands of corrupt cops and stored in the cloud. Safe storage would ensure that dashcam videos are immediately made public (in the McDonald case, video was held for more than a year), and that they won’t be altered.
And all cops must be required to carry liability insurance, which would be paid for out of their own pockets. Insurance companies won’t want to deal with bad cops who have repeated incidents of brutality on their records. That requirement would do one of two things: Either force corrupt officers to curb their behavior or force them out of the profession.
In addition, liability insurance would save taxpayers millions of dollars every year. Police misconduct cost Chicago residents more than $16.7 million in 2014, exacerbating an already beleaguered budget.
A major portion of those millions were tied to court settlements totaling more than $100 million against former Chicago Police Department commander Jon Burge. Burge was fired in 1993 for using torture tactics to force confessions from more than a hundred suspects, most African American. Another financial blow came when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in response to community pressure, approved a $5.5 million reparations package for the Burge victims.
The Burge settlements prompted the watchdog Better Government Agency to investigate exactly how much money, in addition to the Burge cases, Chicago was paying. The municipal agency listed a detailed report chronicling annual costs to taxpayers. Since 2004, the city has paid out more than $400 million in damages, fees and costs.
Under Emanuel, the city council routinely complies with his predilection for quick settlements, with the rationale that courtroom verdicts are potentially more expensive.
Even with a requirement to buy liability insurance, cops on the wrong side of the law may continue to creep into the system. But more mandatory requirements, including the storage of dashcam videos in the cloud, would go a long way toward ensuring as few as possible make it to the streets.
Michelle Thomas Reedus worked for 13 years as an assistant public defender in Cook County, Ill. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Law and has extensive criminal defense experience.