The Police Laboratory


Simone Weichselbaum | TIME Magazine | April 24, 2016

As the country’s most violent big city struggled to contain an epidemic of deadly shootings, the police force opened itself up to top criminologists, law professors and sociologists. Theories drawn up at Harvard and other bastions of elite thought were being taught to, and in some instances practiced by, the nation’s second biggest police agency. Superintendent Garry McCarthy, Chicago’s top cop at the time, preached a gospel of reducing crime by fostering healthy relationships between police and the communities they serve—especially black communities. The police would be transformed, as the reformers put it, from “warriors” to “guardians.”

At a time of heated debate over the conduct of America’s cops, this line of thinking proved especially appealing. Policymakers nationwide were intrigued by Chicago’s alliance of academics and law enforcement, and the “Chicago model” of policing strategies influenced departments from Oakland, Calif., to New York City. The Justice Department is spending millions of dollars promoting ideas hatched in the Chicago workshop. A policing task force formed by President Obama after the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., recommended that cities adopt some of Chicago’s strategies. Think tanks at Yale, John Jay College of Criminal Justice and UCLA are touting its innovations.

But days after Thanksgiving, Chicago’s reform engine stalled. Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired McCarthy, calling him a “distraction,” after protests erupted over the delayed release of a police video that showed a white officer firing 16 bullets into a black teenager, Laquan McDonald. An array of academic theories and programs nurtured by McCarthy are now in limbo.

On March 15, angry Chicago voters threw out the state’s attorney, Anita Alvarez, in a primary election viewed as a referendum on police excesses and the perceived indifference of city hall.

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