You’re driving home from work and you stop at a red light. Just in front of you, there’s a blue-and-white police SUV. The light drags on, and you notice the police car starting to creep forward, nosing over the crosswalk. Then, without turning on its lights or sirens, it crosses the intersection and drives away. You look up: The light’s still red.
This is a situation that Peter Hanson, a Curious City listener, says he’s observed many times.
“One of the things that I got used to, driving in Chicago, was sitting at a red light … and then a police cruiser would kind of edge along, and wait to see if any cars were coming. And then just cross over the street,” he says.
Since moving to Chicago seven years ago, Peter’s lived in North Lawndale, Humboldt Park, Avondale, and Forest Park. And no matter what part of the city he’s in, he says he sees police vehicles running red lights, rolling through stop signs, and driving the wrong way down one-way streets.
Peter says it got to be so frequent — and appeared to be so brazen — that he began to wonder if there was a law he didn’t know about: “some form of a police code that says they have the right to make these decisions, based on the fact that they are in their police car.”
So he asked Curious City: When police vehicles are not en route to an emergency, are they required to obey regular traffic laws like other drivers?
The short answer: Yes, police officers are required to obey traffic laws when there’s no emergency. The Chicago Police Department has a set of policies that apply to the rules of the road. But they aren’t always interpreted the same way by every cop. Part of the reason why that’s the case has to do with something Tim Dees, author of The Truth About Cops: A Retired Police Officer’s Answers to All Your Burning Questions, calls the “organizational culture” of a police department. It’s those unwritten rules that govern the decisions police officers make about how and when they follow the official policies of their department.
And in a city like Chicago, where the U.S. Department of Justice found that many communities do not trust the police, public perception matters. So if police officers drive in a way that appears to disregard traffic laws, that can send the message that those laws don’t apply. At least not to cops.
The ‘by the books’ rule
“When they’re not in an emergency situation, police officers are bound to the regular traffic laws like anybody else,” says Jerry Latherow, a Chicago attorney who has represented both cops and civilians in traffic accident cases involving on-duty police officers.
And when they are responding to an emergency call, Chicago police officers are required to activate a police light — and at intersections, and when vehicles are blocking the road, a siren — to let the public know they’re coming.
“The standard protocol is that if they’re responding to any kind of emergency situation, then they’re going to put the lights and sirens on,” Latherow says.
So no police light, no emergency — and an officer who runs a red light is breaking the law. Right?
Not necessarily. Experts agree that there’s at least one notable exception.
“For instance [if an officer] didn’t want to alert a possible offender who was shortly in front of them, they might not put those lights and sirens on right away, ” says Latherow.
And that would be perfectly legal.
Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesperson for the Chicago Police Department, confirmed this via email. And the Chicago Police Directives specify that when officers are close to a crime scene, they’re allowed to “exercise discretion” regarding use of lights and sirens.
So don’t be too quick to assume that just because a police vehicle doesn’t have its lights and sirens on that it isn’t performing official duties, Latherow says.
But that’s about the only legal exemption.
And while it’s difficult to track how often police officers actually break these rules, we’ve gotten enough questions about this very topic over the years to suggest that there’s at least a perception — among Curious City listeners, anyway — that Chicago police violate traffic laws relatively frequently.
In most cases, if there’s no emergency, it’s technically illegal, Latherow says.
“But,” he adds, “who’s going to ticket them?”
How do the rules work in practice?
So the traffic rules that cops are supposed to follow are pretty clear.
“If you don’t have that emergency equipment going, then you’re supposed to obey all the traffic laws,” says Tim Dees, a retired police officer from Nevada.
“As a practical matter,” he says, “we all know that cops don’t really do that.”
The biggest, most obvious reason why that’s the case? Because they can, Dees says.
Every driver wants to know how to get around traffic laws, he says. “The fact is, driving a police vehicle is one of the best ways to get away with it.”
Dees was working as a patrol officer in Reno when he pulled over two of his superiors, a sergeant and lieutenant, driving together in an unmarked police vehicle, after seeing the car coast past three stop signs in a row.
“They just laughed at me … They didn’t stop because they didn’t have to,” says Dees.
Since nobody was coming — and no one could get hurt — they thought it was okay. They didn’t think there would be any consequences for their actions, he says.
He let his superiors go without a ticket.
“In their mind, I was wrong for having stopped them,” Dees said. “I was supposed to know who they were, and I was not supposed to question what they were doing.”
In a line of work that requires you to adhere to the chain of command, it can be difficult to hold your superiors accountable.
Which brings us to another reason why Dees says some police officers don’t obey traffic laws: organizational culture.
“Organizational culture is the expected social and behavioral norms … that are expected by the people that you work with every day,” Dees says. “There’s a kind of classic movie cliché where the rookie gets into the police car for the first time, and the old veteran … will lean over and say, ‘Okay, now forget all that stuff they taught you at the academy. I’m going to teach you how to do real police work.’ And what he’s going to teach him is organizational culture.”
Dees didn’t work in Chicago, but as a police officer working in a different city, he says he was well aware of the Chicago Police Department’s reputation.
“The organizational culture in Chicago — and actually with Illinois law enforcement, generally — is that the cops will do whatever we want,” Dees says. “And that has been the case for a long time. And that’s an incredibly difficult thing to change because it’s been ingrained in people’s behavior over the years.”
Research suggests that the attitudes of colleagues and supervisors do play an important role in guiding police behavior. And sometimes, that behavior includes overlooking infractions, big or small, by fellow officers. In a 2000 study by the National Institute of Justice, 50 percent of police officers polled said it was not unusual for officers to turn a blind eye to improper conduct by other officers.
And that’s important, Dees says, because “what’s expected of you from the people you work with is a lot more important — to many cops — than what is expected from the people you work for.
‘Just doing their jobs’
Chicago Police Department spokesperson Gugliemi says officers are expected to obey traffic rules in accordance with its policies. “CPD takes traffic and officer safety very seriously. Any allegation of improper vehicle operation or improper driving by any department member is thoroughly investigated and individuals are held accountable when wrongdoing is discovered,” Gugliemi says.
One former Chicago police officer says Dees’ characterization of the Chicago Police Department’s culture is inaccurate. Bob Angone, a retired lieutenant, who spent 30 years on the Chicago police force, says he believes that expectations set by supervisors have a lot to do with officer behavior. But he thinks most Chicago police officers are just trying to do their jobs and protect the public.
So it’s not as simple as cops running red lights for the thrill of it, Angone says.
“Ninety percent of the time,” he says, “when you have on-duty policemen in a blue and white squad car and they’re creeping through a red light — they call that ‘lagging’ — when they’re lagging on a job, the officers are responding to a call.”
Angone points out that as a patrol officer, you’re often listening to a police dispatcher over the radio, waiting to hear how a situation develops. There may be a gap between when you’re officially assigned to a call and when that call becomes an emergency. So as an officer, at this point, you won’t turn on your blue light yet; you’re not allowed to at this stage, since it still is not technically an emergency. But in the meantime, you might start lagging — running a red light, as long as there’s no oncoming traffic — to get a head start. So that if and when the situation does become an emergency, you’re only two blocks away, instead of ten. Angone says that can mean the difference between catching a suspect or letting them get away — or, even worse, allowing them to harm someone else.
So in cases like these, even if the public doesn’t think officers are responding to a call, they usually are, he says.
Furthermore, Angone suggests that turning on police lights and sirens can come with dangers of its own — including causing other drivers to swerve or run red lights to get out of the way.
As long as officers aren’t driving recklessly, Angone says they should be able to use discretion.
Even if it annoys other drivers.
Oversight and accountability
Legally speaking, cops should be able to ticket other officers, or at least reprimand them.
Angone and Dees agree that the most effective way to hold police officers accountable when they don’t follow protocol is through strong supervision. A good supervisor, Dees says, will be the person who is most familiar with the habits of the officers he oversees. And it’s important for supervisors to hold subordinate officers accountable — even for things like traffic violations, he says, particularly if they’re part of a behavioral pattern.
But civilians can report improper driving by police officers as well.
Even Dees, who says he never did so intentionally, got a few civilian complaints during his time as a cop for things like speeding or running stop signs.
Natalia Hernandez, a Curious City listener who asked a question similar to the one Peter asked, wanted to know what she’s supposed to do — if anything — when she sees an officer doing something that she suspects is a traffic violation.
“I spent an hour Googling and couldn’t find anything,” she says.
Guglielmi says the police department “strongly encourage[s]” members of the public who observe improper driving by police officers to report it. In Chicago, traffic complaints, like all service complaints, against members of the police department can be filed by phone (complaint hotline: (312) 746-3594), in person or by mail at police headquarters, with any CPD supervisor at any district station, or online through the city portal.
Experts say that complaints about reckless driving by a police officer will generally fall to the department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs, where they are frequently passed on to a supervisor for review. Less serious complaints might go directly to an officer’s sergeant (or a lieutenant, if the complaint is about a sergeant, and so on).
While Angone says many supervisors in the CPD do hold their subordinates accountable, in its investigation earlier this year, the DOJ found that the Chicago Police Department’s Internal Affairs generally fails to conduct “any meaningful investigation of the complaint unless the complainant meets an investigator in person” and submits a sworn statement. The lack of anonymity may deter some members of the public from reporting.
The DOJ also found that the process for reviewing allegations of misconduct is “convoluted,” and gives little guidance to officers; it’s also unclear how often officers are actually disciplined for misconduct, and based on what criteria.
Many people — including Peter and Natalia — care because it feels somewhat inequitable, and unjust. “Clearly, if any of us had done that, we would be breaking the law,” Peter says.
“Obviously, it’s not something as serious as what we see now on the news, where they’re shooting unarmed people. But it’s also something that’s like, hey, why do I have to pay a $100 fine for this?” Natalia says.
In the grand scheme of things, a police officer rolling through a stop sign or lagging at a red light when there’s no oncoming traffic probably isn’t all that dangerous, Latherow says. He says the majority of officer-involved car accidents he sees occur during high-speed pursuits, when the police vehicle’s emergency equipment is activated.
But traffic laws are in place for a reason, Latherow says. And those reasons go beyond helping keep the public and police officers safe.
From a legal standpoint, the police light requirement helps determine liability. Since civilians are required to yield to police vehicles only when a police light is activated, whether or not the vehicle was clearly identifiable as performing emergency operations can help determine who is at fault in the event of a crash.
Plus, research suggests the public is more likely to follow the laws themselves and obey police commands when they see the police force as legitimate. That legitimacy, the research says, is directly tied to police behavior — which may include whether or not police follow the rules they’re supposed to enforce.
Dees thinks it’s reasonable to expect officers to obey the law for its own sake, even ones as mundane as traffic laws. “We expect police officers to make crucial, literally life-and-death decisions. And if you can’t handle obeying simple traffic laws … then you probably shouldn’t be wandering around with a gun on your hip.”
And while it’s true that onlookers may not know what’s going on inside an officer’s head, Dees doesn’t disregard the importance of public perception.
As a ranking officer, he says, “you’re supposed to be setting an example” — for subordinate officers, but also for the public.
More about our questioners
Originally from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Peter Hanson works as a recruiter for a Christian international development nonprofit. At his current job, he can work remotely, so he often finds himself sitting in a coffee shop and gazing out the window, which he says gives him a clear view of police vehicles creeping through red lights or driving the wrong way down one-way streets — often without lights or sirens.
After moving to Chicago for graduate school in 2010, Peter initially lived in North Lawndale, which is where he met his wife, who lived next door. Since then, the two have lived in Avondale and Humboldt Park — and recently bought a home in Forest Park.
Born and raised in Chicago, Natalia Hernandez is a freelance photographer who spends her time driving all over the city, taking photos of food and people. Driving around, she says she often sees police vehicles appearing to violate traffic laws — and has always wondered what she’s supposed to do about it.
Natalia wasn’t surprised to hear Dees’ take on the organizational culture of the Chicago Police Department. But whether her complaint gets taken seriously or not, she says that the next time she sees an officer driving in a way that seems overly reckless, she’ll report it, now that she knows how.
Natalia also works as a freelancer in radio, television and occasionally travel writing under the pseudonym Charlie Higher. She currently lives in Portage Park, but spent the last few years living abroad. When she isn’t in Chicago, Natalia spends every last dollar she has travelling around the world.
Maggie Sivit is Curious City’s intern. Find more of her work at maggiesivit.zone