Congressman Ralph Metcalfe talks to reporters at City Hall in 1972. The findings of his panel on police misconduct are eerily similar to the findings of today's police accountability task force. Credit: Sun-Times

On the evening of April 15, 1972, Dr. Daniel Claiborne, a 70-year-old dentist, was driving on 87th Street near Cottage Grove when he suffered a stroke and sideswiped a parked car. A white police officer dragged Claiborne, who was black, from his car, arrested him for drunk driving, and took him to a district station. He was placed in a cell and kept there, in a coma, for more than five hours before his wife was notified. Claiborne died two weeks later; his family attributed his death to the delay in medical treatment.

The incident prompted the convening of a panel that summer to study police misconduct, just as the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald would lead to the convening of a task force (after the video was released) with a similar mandate 43 years later. Judging from the observations of the two groups, it’s remarkable how little has changed in 43 years.

Lori Lightfoot announcing the findings of Mayor Emanuel's Police Accountability Task Force last week.
Lori Lightfoot announcing the findings of Mayor Emanuel’s Police Accountability Task Force last week.Credit: Sun-Times

The 1972 panel was often called the Metcalfe panel, after Ralph Metcalfe, the south-side congressman who’d convened it. In the introduction to the commission’s report, Metcalfe, who was black, noted that police abuse had been a problem for years, but the community was now “gravely distressed” about the extent of it.

Police misconduct had become a high-priority issue for Metcalfe a month before Dr. Claiborne’s death, when another black dentist, Dr. Herbert Odom, was pulled over by two white officers because the light above his license plate was out. Odom gave the officers “some lip,” he allowed later, and the officers responded by roughing him up, handcuffing him, and taking him to the Englewood police station, where they kept him several hours without charging him with anything. Odom happened to be a close friend of Metcalfe’s and chair of his reelection committee.

The Metcalfe panel conducted four public hearings in June and July of 1972, carried out other research, and published its report in 1973. The current panel, the Police Accountability Task Force, held four community forums, addressed particular topics in working groups, and published its report last week. Their findings are strikingly similar: 

—Metcalfe panel: Residents of minority neighborhoods are frequently stopped and frisked without probable cause, and subjected to false arrests and illegal searches of their cars and homes.

—Task force: In the summer of 2014, 72 percent of those stopped, questioned, and sometimes searched by police were black, although only a third of the city’s population is black. This has “deepened a widespread perception that police are indiscriminately targeting anyone and everyone in communities of color.” 

—Metcalfe panel: Young minorities are often verbally abused by police. Few young blacks and Hispanics “have been spared the experience of having to swallow their pride and take a bullying insult from a police officer.” 

—Task force: “We heard story after story of officers treating youth with disrespect, humiliating them or worse.”

—Metcalfe panel: Seventy-five percent of those killed by Chicago police in 1969 and 1970 were black, though only a third of the city’s population was black.

—Task force: Seventy-four percent of those shot by Chicago police from 2008 through 2015 were black, though only a third of the city’s population was black.

—Metcalfe panel: The actions of officers in minority neighborhoods, and the responses of their supervisors, betray a departmental belief that “aggressive police conduct towards citizens is desirable and legitimate.” 

—Task force: Many blacks “do not feel like they have the ability to walk in their neighborhoods or drive in their cars without being aggressively confronted by the police.” 

—Metcalfe panel: Complaints against officers for excessive force and other civil rights violations were almost never sustained by Internal Affairs, the police division responsible for investigating them. Because of the “total lack of public confidence” in Internal Affairs, “an entirely new, independent investigating agency” should be created.

—Task force: Misconduct allegations against officers rarely are sustained by the body now responsible for investigating most of them, the Independent Police Review Authority. As a result, many Chicagoans believe “the current system is a sham.” IPRA “cannot fulfill its most basic function in the face of such widespread mistrust” and “should be replaced with a new Civilian Police Investigative Agency.” 

The Metcalfe panel’s call for a new agency to investigate misconduct complaints led to the creation in 1974 of the Office of Professional Standards. OPS was headed by civilians but answered to the police superintendent. It began its work months after the superintendent announced its formation; according to a 1974 Tribune story, the delay was partly due to “the fear of top police officials that a powerful OPS may induce policemen to be timid.” That should sound familiar: Mayor Emanuel warned last October that the ubiquitous scrutiny of video cameras had caused some cops to become “fetal.” In 2007, after years of complaints that OPS was failing to hold cops accountable for misconduct, it was replaced with IPRA, the agency that the task force now wants to replace. 

The task force report observes that Chicago’s troubled history of police and race relations dates at least to the city’s 1919 riots, which began because of an incident that July at the 29th Street beach: 17-year-old Eugene Williams drifted into the waters that whites considered theirs, whites on the beach threw rocks at him, and Williams drowned. Blacks pointed out one of the rock-throwers, but a white police officer refused to arrest him. Then a white man lodged a complaint against a black man, the officer arrested him, and the riot started. Most of the people wounded or killed in the week-long riot were black—but so were most of those jailed and prosecuted. 

The task force points to other “notorious flash points” in the history of blacks and police in Chicago, including the 1969 raid on a west-side apartment in which police killed 21-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and another Panther, 22-year-old Mark Clark; and the infamous 1980s and ’90s, when numerous suspects, the vast majority of them black, were tortured by Jon Burge and other south-side detectives.  

“The time for action, for police reform, has come,” the Metcalfe report said in 1973. But apparently, it hadn’t. The Metcalfe panel had little clout, because it hadn’t been convened by the mayor, Richard J. Daley, who saw the group as an irritation and did his best to ignore it. The current panel was convened by Mayor Emanuel, and maintains that its report is “a blueprint for lasting change.” Tomorrow we’ll look more closely at that report, and discuss how likely lasting change is this time around.