Mary Powers (on far left), with members of Alliance to End Repression and Citizens Alert in 1977 Credit: SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION
Mary Powers, left, with members of Alliance to End Repression and Citizens Alert in 1977
Mary Powers, left, with members of Alliance to End Repression and Citizens Alert in 1977Credit: SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION

Years before there was the Invisible Institute suing Chicago’s police department in hopes of cleaning it up, there was Citizens Alert, doing the same thing. And by years, I mean decades. In 1970, three years after it was founded to monitor the police, Citizens Alert filed a suit charging the city with racial discrimination in the hiring of recruits. 

Citizens Alert became such a thorn in the city’s side that the police department infiltrated it. Mary Powers, the soft-spoken North Shore woman who ran the organization, recalled figuring out that the CPD’s Red Squad had planted agents in CA’s midst. “For a long time we had no idea these people were spying on us,” she told the Reader‘s Bob McClory for a 1992 profile. “Maybe we should have. They were the best volunteers we had. They’d come out at any time of day or night and do any kind of work, from sweeping floors to leading a demonstration.”

But when David Cushing, a police recruit who’d said he was a truck driver, graduated from the police academy, Powers and other CA leaders attended his graduation. “We got all dressed up in hats, veils, and gloves,” she told McClory, “and after the ceremony we rushed up to Cushing and offered our congratulations. He just stood there and looked stunned.”

Cushing didn’t come around again. 

Mary Powers died Saturday at Evanston Hospital at the age of 93. She’d been ill a short time, and she’d remained active in Citizens Alert until the organization finally folded last year, its papers being moved to the Jane Addams College of Social Work at UIC. In its heyday it was about all there was in the way of a police watchdog in Chicago.

McClory recalled that in 1959 the legislature created a Chicago Police Board to oversee the CPD, yet the board operated in such total obscurity that no one knew it existed. When CA found out in 1970, and a small delegation showed up for the next meeting, they had to produce copies of the Illinois Open Meetings Act before they were allowed in. The board turned out to be a rubber stamp, approving whatever the police superintendent wanted approved without comment or dissent. A meeting might last ten minutes.

Powers and CA spread the word that here was the public’s opportunity to actually have a say in police affairs. Attendance rose from zero to as many as 600 people. In 1973 the board cast the first un-unanimous vote in its 14-year history.

Powers, a gracious, quiet woman, stood a watch when that watch was a lot lonelier than it is now. In 1993 the police board kicked Commander Jon Burge off the force for abusing prisoners. Three years later the state appellate court upheld Burge’s dismissal. But I found out about that from Powers. It was big news to her, but she wasn’t surprised that it hadn’t made the newspapers.

Disciplining bad cops simply wasn’t a cause on a lot of people’s minds back then. Powers had just issued a warning: across America, enemies of police reform were trying to make it harder and more pointless to attack police abuse. Civilian review boards were being undermined and dismantled, civilian complaint mechanisms were being abolished. A bill submitted in Congress would cap punitive damages for cops accused of official misconduct at $10,00o. Why should a young cop fear losing his “financial well-being,” the national president of the Fraternal Order of Police reasoned, at the hands of judges and juries who don’t appreciate what cops do?

Actually, the FOP leader thought the bill didn’t go far enough. Why limit it to “official” misconduct? he wondered. That just gave those judges and juries a loophole. Write it to protect all misconduct across the board! 

When I wrote about Powers that time I called Citizens Alert “the sort of pesky police watchdog group that antagonists say makes mountains out of molehills.” They didn’t seem like molehills to Powers, and these days I’m not sure anybody would call them that.

I told Joanne Powers, one of Mary Powers’s four children, that her mom had done good. “She was very useful,” Joanne said proudly.