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Going through some files last week, I came across a column I’d written in 1993 about Chicago’s police. My topic was a then new book, The Cop Shop: True Crime on the Streets of Chicago, written by Robert Blau, a young reporter who’d covered police headquarters for the Tribune. He’d asked for the beat; he wanted to taste the life.

Today Blau’s an executive editor for Bloomberg News.

Blau described the funeral of Johnny Martin, an officer who’d been shot in an alley. “A dozen kilted, bagpipe-playing members of the police Emerald Society ushered the slain officer’s white hearse down Lawrence Avenue,” Blau wrote. “Johnny Martin was a black cop, and the musicians were white Irish, but on this day the differences were invisible. . . . [Superintendent] LeRoy Martin was the first to take the podium, delivering a short speech on the ultimate price paid by the dead officer. Then he surprised everyone by leading a round of applause for officers who had died in the line of duty, 403 all together. The church thundered. The superintendent had found the right tribute.”

I added a footnote to this tale: “Two years before Martin died he shot and killed a motorist whose car had bumped his outside a dance hall on West Armitage. A police investigation cleared Martin, and then the motorist’s family sued the city. One day before we talked to Blau we’d run into the family’s lawyer, a friend of ours. He said the city settled with the family for a million dollars.”

As we’ve just seen again with the matter of Laquan McDonald, Chicago finds it much easier to shell out millions of dollars to compensate families that seek justice in civil courts than it does to hold cops who kill criminally responsible. Chicago is, to borrow language from couples therapy, nonconfrontational. That’s a term often employed to describe a dependent relationship with a powder keg.

“On the one hand, they were so dissatisfied and angry you could feel it in the air around them,” Blau wrote of police. “Uncorked, they were among the most dangerous people on earth. . . . Yet it was impossible to cover the crime beat without coming to respect the demands and dangers of the job cops were asked to do.” 

Given the nature of that job, it’s understandable that the policy among the civic authorities that nominally oversee the police is to keep the cork in the bottle. A corrupt but compliant force beats a mutinous force any day of the week. But if police are tribal, and if what happens in the tribe stays in the tribe, it’s worth remembering that they’re not the only ones. Among working stiffs in all walks of life, a code of silence is more the rule than the exception. Priests close ranks; so do teachers, so do journalists. We all cut plenty of slack to ourselves, the only people on earth who understand us.