Anthony Driver has spent years thinking about ways to improve policing in Chicago. But he said there was actually so much he didn’t understand, until he recently spent a day shadowing a couple officers.
“My mind was completely blown, you would have never been able to convince me that that was the job that police officers do, had I not actually had that experience and had that talk and got a chance to ride around in a beat car,” said Driver, who is the president of Chicago’s new Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability. “It completely changed my perspective of what I thought policing was.”
Driver said it took months of pushing and pleading to get permission to go on the ride-along, something that is commonplace in other cities.
“For the majority of the time that I’ve been president of this commission … it’s been pretty hard to talk to rank-and-file officers and the reason that I’ve been given is that there’s a chain of command culture, where they’re not supposed to talk to me, and I’m supposed to always talk to the person above them,” Driver said. “But it makes it really hard to actually get a sense of what’s really going on. Because many times folks in the brass are not giving you the perspective of somebody who’s in a beat car.”
Driver’s experience highlights an issue in Chicago: Crime and policing is top of mind for residents, but there’s an obvious disconnect between officers and the public. The disconnect is widened by CPD’s almost blanket refusal to allow reporters access to officers as they do their work, a long-standing policy that creates an empathy gap, sidesteps basic accountability for the $2 billion per year agency and has failed as a public relations strategy if the measure is the quality of CPD’s reputation.
A plea for empathy for police officers
Outside the wake for slain Chicago Police Officer Andres Vasquez-Lasso earlier this month, mourners talked about a desire for more coverage of what police officers do everyday. Sandra Wortham, the sister of deceased police officer Thomas Wortham, called on journalists covering the visitation to “report accurately about what police do.”
“Report accurately about public safety needs in the city. That’s the best thing you can do for us right now,” Wortham said to the assembled reporters and camera operators.
For years, the Chicago Police Department’s communications practices have made that more difficult.
WBEZ’s recently completed Motive podcast season tracked the lives and efforts of anti-violence workers on Chicago’s West Side. In the early stages of the project, WBEZ made multiple requests to CPD to also shadow police officers in their fight against violent crime. Those requests, repeated over the course of many months, went nowhere.
The denials are part of a longstanding practice by CPD to restrict access to the people actually doing police work. The result is a fundamental lack of understanding of what police officers do on a daily basis and what might cause acts of misconduct or abuse. It also means over the past few years, the only police voices the public heard regularly were the politicized statements of the controversial CPD Superintendent David Brown or the conservative firebrand police union President John Catanzara.
Speaking to WBEZ, mayoral candidate Commissioner Brandon Johnson stopped short of committing to allowing the public more access to police but said, “I’ve been very clear about making sure that our government is accessible, right? I believe in that.”
Johnson’s opponent in the mayoral runoff, Paul Vallas, did not respond to multiple interview requests or a written question about expanding media access to police.
Driver said the election of a new mayor, and the eventual pick of a new top cop, gives the city an opportunity to embrace transparency and improve public understanding. He said the practice of restricting access to officers is “very old school, it’s played out and it needs to change.”
Frank Chapman, the executive director of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, said he isn’t interested in media coverage that helps the public “better understand” policing.
“Our communities have been policed by racist cops and corrupt police forces for over 100 years in Chicago, and we have a deep understanding of what the hell they’re doing,” Chapman said. “We understand that they’re using excessive force.”
But Chapman said it’s essential the media get more access to cops “because we need to keep the police in service of the public interest and not acting against it.”
“We never scripted them at all”
Former FBI Special Agent Ross Rice used to run media operations for the FBI’s Chicago office. Now he teaches law enforcement agencies how best to interact with the press.
“The vast majority of the citizens of Chicago or any other community, and quite frankly, the vast majority of elected public officials have no idea what police officers do on a day-to-day basis,” Rice said.
Rice said he believes there is an anti-police bias in much of the media. But he said law enforcement agencies being “more proactive and more transparent” with the press would be a “great” way to help better inform the public.
Rice said there are times when legal or safety concerns can limit access, but he always saw a benefit in bringing reporters into the fold as much as possible.
“I’m very big on transparency and providing as much information to the public, either directly or through the news media, as you legally can,” Rice said.
Former Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck spent a brief period of time as interim superintendent of the Chicago Police Department.
He said police generally are skeptical about the media, but when he arrived in Chicago in 2019 he found a department that was more cautious about media access than the one he had run in Los Angeles.
“In LA, we were pretty comfortable [with officers talking to press]. And it was part of the manual that if you have the information, then you can talk to the media,” Beck said.
He remembers being warned about the harsh journalists of Chicago, but ultimately finding them “much fairer in my opinion, in the way they covered the [police] than in LA. [In] LA, everything’s an opinion piece, you know?”
Despite his misgivings about reporting in Los Angeles, Beck said he welcomed journalists who wanted to spend unmediated time with police officers and detectives and found the media coverage and increased public understanding “very valuable.” Author Jill Leovy wrote the award-winning book Ghettoside based on her time with a Los Angeles homicide detective. Officer Deon Joseph became something of a local celebrity because of his time taking reporters on tours of skid row.
“I was the chief for both of them, and we never scripted them at all,” he said.
Robert Wildeboer contributed reporting.