RIVER NORTH — Chicago's former top cop took a big-picture look at the current state of law enforcement Monday in a speech to the City Club, saying police were suffering under the burden of having enforced the laws of a racist society for centuries.
"We've never had the trust," said former Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, "so how can we rebuild it?"
McCarthy insisted, "The police are not the problem in this country. The criminals are."
In a speech entitled "Legitimizing Non-Compliance in America," he said police were being undercut by "mixed signals" coming from society and the government.
"We're in a world that's been turned upside down," McCarthy said. "Criminals are being given free rein, and we're investigating police, not the criminals."
He cited several reasons for that, from institutionalized racism to "legal cynicism" to long-sustained social inequities, saying, "All of this together is empowering the criminals," a note he sounded time and again.
"The police are not the problem in America. It's just not the case," he added. "It's a social-economic problem that transcends generations."
Chicago, he suggested, was a primary example, saying, "It was built this way on purpose," with African-Americans and Hispanics tracked into slums on the West and South sides.
While not offering any easy answers to a complex racial problem, McCarthy emphasized, "If we're going to change that narrative, we have to first recognize it," later adding, "It's a failure of the government to recognize the roots of where we are."
McCarthy also defended what some have labeled "racial profiling" as simply good police work, saying that officers were trained to track the most likely people to be criminals.
He pointed to the Town Hall Police District on the North Side, saying 7 percent of the population there was African-American, but that 53 percent of the suspects in crimes were identified as being African-American. This, he said, explained why 48 percent of police stops in the district were of African-Americans.
McCarthy said the U.S. Supreme Court had affirmed stops of suspects on reasonable suspicion, but that the Department of Justice was sometimes simply looking at the racial percentage of stops to draw the conclusion of whether civil rights had been violated.
McCarthy called it "very confusing for the police," making it "very difficult to get your job done." It was also, he said, having a "chilling effect" on law enforcement.
McCarthy said the city was on pace to reach 700 murders this year, while police stops were down 95 percent, adding, "Do you think any of this happens by accident?"
Having defended the use of overtime over the hiring of more officers while police superintendent, McCarthy now said that hiring more officers "wouldn't hurt," but that the city has enough officers to do the job if they're put in the right place at the right time. That, however, is not the case, he said, because of the uncertainty and chaos that has resulted from the current questioning of police methods.
"You're either on the bus or under it," he said of accepting his pronouncements, but he quickly added that did not refer to "anything that happened to me," meaning his firing by Mayor Rahm Emanuel late last year after the release of the Laquan McDonald video.
In fact, in a news conference with reporters after his speech, McCarthy was given every opportunity to criticize the mayor and did not. "It's a handful," he said of the position. "He's got a very, very, very difficult job." McCarthy added that his replacement, Police Supt. Eddie Johnson, had the second-toughest job in the city.
McCarthy defended the delayed release of the Laquan McDonald video, saying, "I would have recommended against it if I was asked."
According to McCarthy, "the mayor was not in charge of that video," and the Law Department was simply following what was then city policy in arguing against its release in court. "I'm not a conspiracy theorist," he added.
On the other hand, he said the recent police shooting of Paul O'Neal following a high-speed chase in a stolen car was probably "a legal shooting," but that it violated a department policy he had instituted against the use of lethal force in a car theft. He also insisted, "Confrontation begets confrontation," adding, "Don't steal a car. Don't lead police on a high-speed chase. And definitely don't crash your vehicle into a police car at 50 miles per hour causing a violent confrontation and then be upset about the results."
McCarthy touted a 38 percent overall reduction in crime under his tenure, and pointed to how murders dropped in 2014 to the lowest level in 50 years, while the Department made fewer arrests and committed fewer police shootings. Yet again he insisted those gains had been undercut by the undermining of successful policies in the current environment.
"I'm actually trying to go cold turkey on this whole cop thing," McCarthy said of his life since leaving the Department. "It's not working."
McCarthy made a pointed crack aimed at San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick after the luncheon began with the national anthem, saying, "I want to thank everybody for standing during my favorite song. I didn't see anybody kneeling because their NFL career is over."
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