We’re kicking off Giving Tuesday early this year! Your donation today will be matched up to $10K, doubling your impact! If you donate $50 today, the Reader will receive $100.
The Reader is now a community-funded nonprofit newsroom. Can we count on your support to help keep us publishing?
There’s a lot of ad hoc groups that spring up after a crisis and then break down. But these folks stay with it. They concentrate on institutional change. . . . They’re the only ones performing that task that I know of. –former Chicago Police superintendent Fred Rice
It’s a cool spring evening at Central Police Headquarters, 11th and State. A young policewoman behind the reception desk is informing Mary Powers that she and any other civilians who wish to attend the monthly meeting of the Chicago Police Board must sign in.
“Oh no,” Powers says very politely, “we never sign in. You see, we’ve been coming to these meetings for 22 years, and if we had to sign in, people who are afraid wouldn’t come to the meetings. They wouldn’t want to give their names.”
“I’m sorry,” says the policewoman, “but everyone has to give their name. It’s the rule.”
Powers, a suburban mother and grandmother, pats her on the arm and says, “Now please don’t think we’re blaming you. It’s a matter of principle with us.”
The policewoman phones upstairs seeking the intervention of a superior; Powers remains unperturbed. A police lieutenant arrives and suggests there would be no harm in signing the register; it’s a routine matter and will take only seconds. “No,” says Powers, “I’d prefer to wait.” And sure enough, the word is finally phoned down from the upper recesses of the building: attendees at Police Board meetings are not required to sign in. “Sorry for the delay,” says the policewoman.
Powers smiles graciously and heads for the elevators. “There are so many new people around here,” she says. “Misunderstandings are bound to happen.”
Misunderstandings between citizens and the police have been part of Powers’s life since 1969, when she became involved with Citizens Alert (CA), and she has been its most visible representative for most of the last 20 years. CA was created as a Chicago Police Department watchdog, with particular concern for excessive force and other abuses of the public. Yet it would be difficult to imagine a less ferocious appearing watchdog. CA has only a handful of active members, a yearly budget of $23,000, a shoe-box office, and almost no paid staff. And that’s how it’s been almost always.
The CA approach, reflecting perhaps Powers’s own style, is generally nonconfrontational, rarely threatening. It operates on the Rome-wasn’t-built-in-a-day model, eschewing flashy headlines in favor of long-term, often unnoticed reforms. Like the duck that nibbles its foes to death or the relentless drip of water that wears away granite, the organization succeeds by persisting.
Police misunderstandings with the public come in many forms. Powers’s momentary standoff at the desk is one kind. The beating of Rodney King is another, and the LA riots that left nearly 50 dead. Chicago has been spared violence, in the wake of the King jury’s decision, this time. Credit for that has been doled out in various ways: to the no-nonsense policies of former superintendent LeRoy Martin; to the swift call for calm by a coalition of ministers; to the intervention of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations; and even to the reputed order from Chicago gang leaders to their members to lay low.
At first Powers was just grateful that the city had survived. “Riots are waiting to happen in most urban areas,” she says. “The frustration builds and builds. The cities are like tinderboxes.” But since she’s heard the stock answers on why Chicago escaped, she’s having second thoughts about the reasons. “The more I think about it, the more I’m tempted to believe we’ve had a big part to play,” she says.
Howard Saffold, former president of the Afro-American Police League, concurs. “Citizens Alert is a sobering voice of objectivity in a nation that seems headed on a collision course with insanity,” he says. “We’re going to need CA-type activity in the days ahead whether we like it or not.”
The typical response to police scandals in Chicago has been to shuffle the personnel holding command positions and to reassign functions and responsibilities on the departmental organization chart. While this seems to effectively placate public opinion until the next scandal is uncovered, it does not put an end to corruption, discrimination, or use of excessive force. The problems remain because the basic control structures are not altered. –Citizens Alert Proposal for Police Reform, 1970
Mary Powers can trace her involvement with Citizens Alert to a specific place and time: Fred Hampton’s west-side apartment, December 4, 1969. It’s the same place and time that historians cite for the awakening of black political awareness in Chicago and the birth of the movement that led to Harold Washington’s election as mayor. The predawn raid on the building and the resulting “shoot-out,” which left Hampton and another Panther dead and four of their compatriots seriously wounded, stirred an indignation throughout Chicago similar to that precipitated by the King jury decision. The “shoot-out,” the physical evidence revealed, was more like a summary execution: some 100 rounds fired into the apartment by police, one lone shot fired back. Black leaders conducted tours of the apartment for days afterward, pointing out the bullet holes and confounding the official version of the raid provided by Cook County state’s attorney Edward Hanrahan.
Among the visitors were two carloads from suburban human-relations groups. Mary Powers was irate. “I wanted to get involved,” she says. “I felt I had to do something.”
Powers and other suburban citizens had already made some inner-city contacts through the Contract Buyers’ League, directed by Reverend Willie Baker. It was in the midst of a protracted legal fight to force renegotiation of real estate contracts signed by thousands of south-side and west-side black home buyers. The contracts’ exorbitant terms virtually assured eventual foreclosure, and the suburban volunteers had provided some legal and financial assistance. “We weren’t able to stop a lot of the evictions,” says Powers, “but at least the effort made the people–and us–feel better.”
Powers says she has always identified with the underdog, even as a child, though she doesn’t know why. She served as a social worker with the Red Cross during World War II before marrying and raising four children. Soon after viewing the battle-scarred Panther apartment, Powers saw an announcement about the formation of a new coalition of church, community, and civil-liberty groups called the Alliance to End Repression. Along with many other citizens–most of them white, affluent, and socially liberal–she got involved.
In the early days, under the leadership of former Catholic priest John Hill, the alliance seemed to be everywhere. By 1973 it had 54 affiliates, ranging from the Chicago Peace Council and the Association of Black Social Workers to the Concerned Argonne Scientists; its efforts at reform were directed at the Illinois prisons, the Cook County Coroner’s Office, the county bail system, and the Chicago Police Department. Citizens Alert, which had been created as a freestanding organization in 1967 by several Chicago attorneys, became the alliance subcommittee on the police and the coroner’s office. By 1970 it needed a transfusion, and the founders (among them longtime Evanston alderman Jack Korshak and activist Fred Glick) were delighted to see it become part of the new alliance.
Though it had at most about 30 active members, CA took on a phalanx of foes. They put pressure on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to investigate alleged racist police activity in Cairo, Illinois, and a series of hearings was organized. They filed a lawsuit (Comacho v. the City of Chicago) charging the Chicago police and the city with racial discrimination in hiring Hispanic and black recruits; it was later merged with the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League’s suit, which resulted in court-mandated hiring goals for minorities and women. They quickly put into operation a program to counsel victims of police misconduct and refer them to lawyers.
Citizens Alert was so active in the early 1970s that it and its big brother, the Alliance to End Repression, were targeted for infiltration by spies from the Police Department’s Red Squad. Among those undercover agents were David Cushing, a police recruit, and Adele Noren, a south-side Chicago housewife.
“For a long time we had no idea these people were spying on us,” Powers recalls. “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.”
Cushing said he was a truck driver, but Rick Gutman, a lawyer working with Citizens Alert, found his name on a list of persons scheduled to graduate from the police academy. So CA leaders, including Powers and Mary Alice Rankin (director of the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty), decided to blow Cushing’s cover by attending his graduation. “We got all dressed up in hats, veils, and gloves,” says Powers, “and after the ceremony we rushed up to Cushing and offered our congratulations. He just stood there and looked stunned.” He never again showed up at another CA or alliance activity. Soon after, Gutman’s research exposed a whole nest of Red Squad infiltrators in the alliance and its affiliates, and a massive federal lawsuit was filed seeking to halt the spying.
The seriousness with which law-enforcement authorities regarded the “threat” of these civil-liberties organizations can be clearly seen in the 1975 hearings before the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (a successor to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee). Eugene Dorneker, a Chicago Police investigator, complained during the hearings that it had become practically impossible for spies to infiltrate CA and the alliance because the members had caught on to their tactics. In fact, said Dorneker, this blowing of covers amounted to downright discrimination, if not harassment of police spies. CA infiltrator Cushing told the committee, “It is my opinion that at this point in time it would be impossible for the Chicago Police Department to take any police officer in any capacity and place him in undercover work without that individual being identified.”
The subcommittee’s chief counsel, J.G. Sourwine, was appalled at the situation described. “You mean the department’s entire operation . . . is a matter of public record, open to public disclosure, and there really is no more undercover activity?” When Cushing assured him that was the case, Sourwine said, “That is a terrible situation. If it’s true in other police departments, we are even worse off than the public knows.”
Adele Noren told the committee she had offered her services as a paid spy because people connected with CA and the alliance, like Reverend Martin Deppe and Dick Criley, had connections with known communist or communist-tinged organizations, including the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation and the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights. Her major complaint, however, was that CA invited people to come forth and discuss their problems. “There is an assumption that people are having problems with the police,” she said. “This is a very negative approach; it is a case of looking for problems.”
The Senate hearings had no appreciable effect on the organizations. And when the federal court responded to the Red Squad suit by ordering the Chicago police, the FBI, and the CIA to refrain from spying on any civil-liberties or civil rights organizations not involved in criminal behavior, in effect the alliance and its affiliates got the last word.
The early 1970s provided considerable grist for alliance and CA mills with a plethora of high-profile police-brutality charges. Cornell Fitzpatrick, a recently returned Vietnam veteran, was shot to death for no apparent reason by an off-duty policeman in a hall at Kenwood High School; Eddie Dolberry, a deranged man wandering down West Madison, was virtually executed by three officers who fired 12 shots at close range; several members of the Michael Branion family were beaten on the lawn of their Hyde Park home following a minor traffic violation; and Dr. Herbert Odom, a prominent Englewood dentist, was handcuffed and arrested when police stopped him for having a light out over his license plate.
But almost as quickly as the alliance and its affiliates had pulled together, the reformist energies dissipated. Former alliance director John Hill (who now runs an organization in South Bend, Indiana, to obtain home loans for low-income families) says he saw the handwriting on the wall around 1972. “There was a kind of privatization of concerns developing,” he says, “almost as if people were gradually being inoculated against activism. Concern for the interior life and personal development was growing everywhere.” Hill says that when he observed young college-educated professionals emerging in tears from the extraordinarily popular movie Love Story, he became convinced the apolitical mentality was here to stay.
Funding for the alliance dried up, and volunteers were even harder to find, so the alliance cut staff and trimmed commitments. The steam was gone by 1977, and by the early 1980s it had assumed a sort of Cheshire-cat existence–only its smile remained. Today the Alliance to End Repression is merely a phone number connected to the office of the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights, another organization devastated by changing times. Deborah Crawford, the committee’s acting director, says she still gets about one call a week from someone looking for the alliance’s help, usually regarding police abuse. “I just refer them to Citizens Alert,” she says.
When I’d be asking a question, Superintendent Rochford would interrupt me and say, “Next!” Well, my anger kept building up, so at the next meeting when he said that, I said, “Excuse me, I’m not finished!” The room got real quiet and out of the corner of my eye I could see this big, ugly policeman moving toward me–looked mean enough to step on a baby. But then the superintendent said, “OK, Miss Wells, you may have the floor.” And Mr. Rochford showed us all more respect after that. –Ruth Wells, former director of Citizens Alert
Citizens Alert probably managed to survive the collapse of its sponsor organization because it had never had a large active membership or much of an overhead in the first place. The change in climate wasn’t that noticeable. In the years to come, CA established a name for itself in its successful efforts to reform the Chicago Police Board and scrap the Cook County Coroner’s Office.
John Hill remembers that when alliance leaders were thrashing around in the early days looking for some way of penetrating the police bureaucracy, a lawyer told them to take a look at the Police Board. “We said, ‘What’s the Police Board?'” says Hill. “None of us had ever heard of it.”
They learned that it had been created by the Illinois legislature in 1959, and that this body of civilians had review authority over the police budget, responsibility for approving all the department’s regulations and general orders, and final say-so on any disciplinary action taken against police officers, including firing from the force. In theory it was a fully constituted board of directors; in reality it was a rubber stamp for the police superintendent.
Only after repeated inquiries did Citizens Alert find out when the board met and where: once a month in a tiny office in the recesses of Central Police Headquarters. One day in mid-1970 some 15 CA and alliance volunteers arrived at the appropriate time and asked directions to the meeting room. They were told the meetings were closed, whereupon they produced copies of the Illinois Open Meetings Act and the state statute creating the Police Board as a public entity. They were then told the meeting room was too small to accommodate them, whereupon they agreed to sit on the floors and windowsills or just stand.
The five-member board, under the direction of retired Commonwealth Edison executive Morgan Murphy, “was dumbfounded when we all walked in,” says Powers. “This had never happened before, and they couldn’t understand why anyone would even be interested.”
The observers quickly grasped the board’s pro forma routine. Whatever the superintendent–James B. Conlisk at the time–put before it was passed without clarification or comment. Everyone was in and out in ten minutes.
“We said we’d be back next time with an even larger group of observers,” says Powers. “We wanted to be educated.” When the delegation returned the next month, they found that the meeting had been moved to the police-headquarters auditorium, where an almost unlimited number of guests could be accommodated. Thus began a peculiar informal dialogue between the public and the police overseers that has continued for 22 years.
The main subject of these early discussions was the police agency handling charges against officers, the Internal Affairs Division (IAD), which was seen as a whitewash operation. Since the IAD was entirely staffed by police, there was obviously a potential for bias. “It was like the fox guarding the chickens,” says Powers.
Citizens Alert spread the word that the Police Board had open meetings and that they needed to hear the other side of police-brutality cases–from the points of view of aggrieved citizens. Church groups and community organizations started sending complainants to the monthly gatherings. “At first we were told the meeting wasn’t an appropriate forum for these issues,” says Powers, “and that people should go to the IAD. We said, the IAD is the problem!”
Little by little, the board’s resistance ebbed. Formerly isolated and aloof, the members began to hear the grief of individuals who believed they had been injured by the police, insulted by the IAD, or both more often than not. Of course board members did not know at first hearing whether these stories had any foundation, but the brief eye-to-eye contact was sensitizing. The unavoidable message was that the IAD must go, that an independent, civilian-based body must be created to probe abuse charges, and that the board must take seriously its responsibility to police the police. The media and established groups like the Urban League took up the cry. In 1973, the Chicago Police Board cast the first nonunanimous vote in its 14-year history and sponsored its first-ever public hearing on police problems. Still, Superintendent Conlisk strenuously resisted CA’s pressure to make the board accountable to the public, and for a time the board meetings, often attended by 60 to 200 observers, became somewhat unruly.
In 1973 Citizens Alert obtained a small grant from the Wieboldt Foundation and hired its first executive director. Ruth Wells, then in her mid-40s, had already cut her teeth on civil rights matters. She was the first west-side home owner to formally complain about the inequitable conditions of her real estate contract, thus earning a reputation as the Rosa Parks of the Contract Buyers’ League. Her arrival at CA paralleled the coming of James Rochford as Chicago’s police superintendent. At first he emulated Conlisk’s brusque, resentful attitude toward mere civilians, but Wells kept plugging away until she broke down his resistance.
“Police protection was uneven and pitiful,” says Wells, who now works in a hunger program at her church. “It was as if in our community the cops would stop for a cup of coffee before they’d answer an alarm. Well, I eventually got a sort of understanding with Mr. Rochford. I could talk to him and even arrange group meetings with him. He’d say, ‘Look, we can’t have everyone coming in here and talking all at once.’ And I’d say, ‘No, there’ll be just a few and everyone’s gonna be polite. I’ll see to it.'”
In 1974 the Chicago Police Board, at Rochford’s request, surprised its critics by creating the Office of Professional Standards (OPS)–with 30 full-time civilian investigators–to examine charges of police brutality exclusively. “I honestly believe Citizens Alert made that possible,” says Wells, “and I’m not saying that out of any sense of false pride. We alerted the public and kept the pressure on.” When Rochford planned to step down as superintendent in 1977, the first person he notified after his family was Ruth Wells.
The creation of OPS did not diminish CA’s presence. The organization pressed for OPS to shift its offices from Central Police Headquarters (where complainants had to pass dozens of police officers when they arrived to give testimony) to more neutral territory. CA also urged expanding the Police Board from five to nine members and appointing more minority members. Both goals were achieved in the late 1970s.
In 1983 CA entered an almost Camelot-like era with the appointment of Fred Rice as police superintendent; his tenure closely matched Harold Washington’s as mayor. “We always had good relations,” says Powers. “He was someone who would listen, and no subject was out of bounds.”
Rice, now retired, says, “I was open with them, and they appreciated that. There’s no use sticking your head in the sand, pretending abuse doesn’t exist. The police in this city have millions of contacts with the public every year, so it’s not surprising that some act unprofessionally.” Rice required that his top command officers routinely attend Police Board meetings so they could hear the complaints of visitors and “take appropriate action.” That practice has continued under his successors. When Rice retired in 1987 (one month before Washington’s death), he presented CA with an award acknowledging their concern for relations between the police and the public and their “contributions” to the department.
Over the years, however, OPS has not inspired great confidence in anyone. And critics of the civilian-run agency, like the Fraternal Order of Police, blame CA busybodies for helping foist it on the police department. During Jane Byrne’s administration the OPS reportedly became highly politicized; aldermen and ward committeemen had a say in the hiring of investigators. As recently as 1990 auditors criticized the OPS for inefficient management and incompetent investigations. One auditor claimed that poorly trained OPS civilian investigators were like “rabbits going after wolves” when they tried to grill accused police officers. Since then the OPS director has been replaced, and reform efforts are under way. Rice and Powers both say there are signs of improvement and reject the suggestion that brutality complaints be reassigned to the IAD.
OPS presents its disciplinary recommendations to the superintendent for review, but ultimately the Police Board decides on suspensions and firings. Last year OPS sustained an all-time high of 346 citizen complaints and recommended the dismissal of 32 officers–twice as many as in the previous year. The Police Board is still reviewing many of these cases. Whether the high numbers reflect OPS’s improved efficiency, more police brutality, citizens’ greater willingness to file complaints, or an aberration in the statistics remains to be seen.
One case on which the board acted swiftly involved two officers accused of dropping off a pair of black youths in the racially tense Canaryville neighborhood, where they were beaten by a white mob. Though a Cook County Court judge had acquitted the officers because they couldn’t be positively identified by witnesses and victims and there was no written record of the event, the Police Board fired the officers last March anyway.
Currently sitting on the Police Board desk is the somewhat similar case of Commander Jon Burge, who is accused, along with a police detective (and another’s acquiescence), of torturing Andrew Wilson, a police killer, almost ten years ago. County courts failed to convict the three, but Superintendent LeRoy Martin has asked the board to dismiss them. Whichever way the decision goes, it will have serious implications, especially in light of the Rodney King verdict and LA riots.
Citizens Alert has been the unquestioned leader in keeping the Burge case in the spotlight. It convened 35 local organizations to form the Coalition Against Police Torture and Brutality, which has monitored the charges against Burge from the beginning and insists that he and his associates be fired in view of the considerable evidence against them.
Albert Maule, president of the Chicago Police Board, declines to comment on the Burge case but admits that “for better or worse” Citizens Alert has kept the issue hot for several years. Other observers contend that if it were not for CA pressure, Martin would never have reopened the investigation, sending the case to the board. And in Mary Powers’s view the present Police Board, six of whose members were replaced by Mayor Daley in 1990, is capable and responsible.
In its early years Citizens Alert was a force in scrapping the antiquated Cook County Coroner’s Office. Whenever a citizen died at the hands of law-enforcement officials, Dr. Andrew Toman, the coroner, presented his inquest findings to a coroner’s jury. This consisted of retired city payrollers and relatives of politicians; they usually took four or five minutes to rubber-stamp whatever Toman, himself an elderly gentleman of questionable competence, told them. CA members began attending the inquests and campaigning for change. Even when there was gross evidence of police misconduct, they argued, Toman and his jury never found it.
“There wasn’t a man under 80 on the jury,” says Wells, “and a lot of them nodded off while the evidence was being presented.” Like the Police Board meetings, coroner inquests had traditionally been private affairs, so the CA volunteers who began attending inquests were less than welcome. Wells recalls sitting on the front bench at an inquest and being glared at by the policeman on duty. “He just kept staring at me,” she says, “never even blinked, and he would not look away. I wanted to get up and leave, but I said to myself ‘Ruth, if you run here, you’ll run for the rest of your life.’ I stayed.”
For a time Citizens Alert called for ad hoc “blue ribbon” coroner juries in very sensitive cases, like the killing of Cornell Fitzpatrick at Kenwood High School. But CA and a growing number of reputable citizen’s groups agreed that more radical measures were needed. In cooperation with the Chicago Law Enforcement Study Group, a longtime critic of coroner practices, CA argued for the more efficient medical-examiner system. Toman resisted for a while, promising reforms but never delivering them.
In late 1972, largely due to the publicity about Toman’s incompetence, the Cook County Board put a referendum on the ballot to replace the coroner’s office with “a Medical Examiner system headed by a licensed forensic pathologist to be chosen and governed by a commission composed of the chiefs of the Pathology Departments of the major medical schools in Cook County.” The referendum passed overwhelmingly. When Dr. Robert Stein took over as the first medical examiner, he told Powers that without Citizens Alert, “I wouldn’t be here today.”
The new system has worn well over its 15-some years of operation, and CA maintains a relationship with the office. Whenever someone in police custody dies, CA is notified. Powers or another volunteer contacts the family of the deceased and offers to accompany them to the medical examiner’s hearing, refer them to OPS, or help contact an attorney. Such deaths occur about 20 times a year now, says Powers; 20 years ago, she adds, there were about 50 such deaths a year. In an article in the journal Legal Medicine 1991 Dr. Edmund Donoghue, deputy chief examiner in Chicago, wrote, “Cooperating with [Citizens Alert] has been as beneficial for the police and medical examiner as for the deceased’s family. Many times, Citizens Alert has served as a calming influence in tense situations. In a number of cases, allegations of abuse by police were unjustified and CA was able to help convincingly explain these findings.”
I’ve been to so many marches it’s hard to remember–the gay-rights parades, the Puerto Rican parade, the demonstrations against the Shah of Iran. And we’d see the cops up there on the roofs along the parade route with their guns, almost expecting trouble. Of course, we’d never go unless the sponsors asked us to. And generally it seemed everyone behaved a little better when we were there. –Dorothy Tollifson, Citizens Alert volunteer
She’s never been a victim of police brutality, but 82-year-old Dorothy Tollifson has been part of almost every CA project since day one. She remembers when the group “stormed the bastion” of the Police Board in 1970; she has referred scores of abuse complaints to law offices; she was an active campaigner when CA took on Coroner Toman; and she has walked many, many miles as a matter of principle.
Her concern for the underprivileged stems in part from an incident that occurred more than 25 years ago. Tollifson, a cultured, fashionably dressed, and articulate Winnetka resident, injured her ankle in a minor car accident in northern Illinois. After receiving emergency medical treatment she was prepared to take a bus home, but the police wouldn’t hear of it. “They were absolutely marvelous to me,” she says. “I was transported by police car from one jurisdiction to the border of the next, where another police car was wating to take me further.” In all, four or five municipalities cooperated to escort Tollifson like a queen to her door.
“It wasn’t that serious an injury,” she says. “I had to wonder why I was treated so royally.” Down deep she knew. “The maid who worked in my home would not get that kind of treatment,” she says. “I remember one time she told me, ‘The next time around I’m gonna be white.'”
Tollifson wanted to do something about inequities this time around, so she took up with Citizens Alert. Also prompting her involvement was the fact that her daughter, her only child, was a lesbian. Rather than hide that fact or try to change it, Tollifson and her husband (now deceased) determined very early–long before gay rights were openly advocated–to support her choice. Tollifson regularly participated as CA monitor and possible peacekeeper at tense public events like the early gay-rights parades. She recalls the tension and the jeering from some spectators. “You could never be sure what might happen,” she says. “I have to believe our being there and our calm, quiet support had some effect on everyone.”
CA’s first venture in peacekeeping occurred in 1976, when an organization of black clergy called the Martin Luther King Movement sponsored a protest march in Marquette Park, the southwest-side site of numerous antiblack and anti-Jewish demonstrations by the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. CA hastily pulled together concerned civic leaders and Superintendent Rochford in an effort to avert violence. When the King Movement marched, CA volunteers wearing arm bands went along as unofficial observers. The violence was minimal.
When two Puerto Rican youths were killed by a policeman in Humboldt Park in 1977, triggering a series of demonstrations and a near-riot, CA intervened. “I don’t know how it might have ended without Citizens Alert,” says Viola Salgado, a board member of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. “They were our guardian angels. They set up meetings for us with the local police commander, and they got the families in contact with the U.S. Attorney’s office. We didn’t know where to start.”
The shooting led to the annual Alternative Puerto Rican Day Parade, held in the Humboldt Park neighborhood in June. For years afterward the event was suffused with an ominous tension, since participants advocated Puerto Rican independence from the United States and several local independence zealots had been convicted of attempted terrorist bombings. Tollifson says the relations between police and the community have warmed up somewhat over the years. She marches anyway–just in case. “I think the authorities now realize these people don’t have horns,” she says, “just a cause.”
I can’t look at a police car. When I’m near one, I’m a nervous wreck. I hate to be like this, but I can’t rationalize my way out of it. –Linnear Hanna, Citizens Alert board member
For a time, efforts to help victims of police brutality obtain justice–a cause close to CA’s heart–were rather ad hoc. But in the mid-1980s Susan Swanson, then CA director, and Mary Saddler, the CA’s community outreach worker, established a step-by-step program involving contact with victims, interviews with witnesses, the collection of relevant documents, and ongoing cooperation with lawyers, especially those at the People’s Law Office. They trained dozens of volunteers for the project. In a little more than a year they had probed 32 police-related fatalities, all of which the OPS had ruled “justified.” The probe resulted in 4 lawsuits; 12 cases were dropped for lack of substantiation; and 16 were still being studied when another in the long line of CA fiscal crises struck. The project was shelved.
Part of the problem, says Swanson, was bad timing. “City and police officials wanted to know why we were taking such a proactive stance just at the very moment the city had its first black mayor and first black police superintendent.” Partly in order to maintain its overall good relations with the police at this time, CA dropped the program.
Citizens Alert keeps no exact records on how effective its fight against excessive force and brutality has been. Powers can remember only one criminal conviction resulting from a CA-triggered investigation, though CA has had a hand in several firings and more than a few successful lawsuits.
Swanson believes Citizens Alert could be more effective if it operated “more like a corporation, less like a family,” but she understands that its resources are extremely limited. “These are really good people,” she says. “They’re doing work that has to be done.”
Over the years Citizens Alert has had six full-time paid executive directors. Most stayed only a few years, and in the last six there haven’t been any at all. The problem is cash. Projected income for 1992 is about $23,000–less than 3 percent of what’s been spent thus far on Jon Burge’s defense. The revenue, mostly from small church grants and individual donations, barely covers rent for the office (at 59 E. Van Buren), part-time secretarial help, conference-organizing costs, and basic overhead. Powers, who puts in 50 hours or more a week, does not take and has never taken a salary. “What we need to do is hire a fund-raiser,” she says, “but we can’t afford to pay one, and I’ve never been very good at fund-raising myself. People-oriented things always seem to come first.”
Even more than funds CA needs warm bodies. The old guard–among them Powers, Tollifson, longtime board president Gladys Lewis, and loyalists Al Peterson and Charles Washington–are all at or well past retirement age. In recent years they’ve made an effort to recruit new people, and that effort has borne some fruit. Of the 17 current board members, 13 are members of racial minorities. Unfortunately, few of them have the luxury of financial independence that Powers, Tollifson, and other veterans have had.
One of the newer members is Linnear Hanna, a 32-year-old secretary for the Chicago office of HUD who first heard about Citizens Alert from her grandfather, Reverend Willie Baker, the very person whose Contract Buyers’ League stirred activist vibrations in Ruth Wells and Mary Powers some 25 years ago. Hanna finds a kind of poetic satisfaction in helping round out the circle.
Her concern about excessive police force comes from firsthand experience. Four years ago, Hanna was driving in the Maxwell Street district early one morning with her sister. She was pulled over, and a policewoman asked for her driver’s license. When the officer determined that it had expired, she ordered Hanna out of the car and patted her down. “I demanded to know what was the charge,” says Hanna. “I explained that I had renewed my license and it was on my bureau at home–they could check it out. But she just kept treating me like a criminal.”
As Hanna protested verbally, a male officer emerged from the police car and said, “We got another asshole here?” He grabbed her from behind, put her in handcuffs, and had her hauled off to the 12th District station, where her grandfather had once been the beat representative. Hanna says she suffered a chronic wrist injury as the result of being kept in handcuffs for almost an hour. She was finally issued two tickets–for failure to carry a valid license and for running a yellow light–and released.
The psychological hurt has proven more severe than any injury. “Whenever I see something like the Rodney King thing on TV, I relive what I went through,” she says. “I have no confidence in police and there’s just no shaking it.” When she consulted a lawyer about pressing charges, he told her she didn’t really have a case and should forget about the incident. “Why did the police act like that?” asks Hanna, mirroring Dorothy Tollifson’s question of many years ago. “I have a college education, I was well dressed, I hadn’t been drinking, I wasn’t violent. Would they have treated a white woman that way?”
Hanna now gives as much time as her job permits to CA activities. She accompanies families to medical-examiner hearings; she refers brutality complaints to lawyers; and she attended many of the court hearings on the Burge case. Hanna is also attempting to get her friends involved in CA.
“We need to support this sort of thing now, while the old guard is still around,” she says. “We need mentors for the work or it’s not going to go on.”
Powers agrees on the need for new people. “When you’ve been around these problems so long, you can get immune,” she notes. “You can find yourself saying, oh, just another brutality case. We need people who are genuinely shocked at racist and sexist brutality.”
She believes that the civilian-watchdog movement may be ripe for revival, spurred at least in part by the King fiasco. Under her direction, Citizens Alert has convened a new organization, the National Coalition for Police Accountability, which already includes some 50 groups like CA in cities as diverse as San Diego, Minneapolis, and Baltimore. Powers is excited about the possibilities of sharing strategies and discussing new models of civilian oversight.
In early May CA celebrated its 25th anniversary with a fund-raiser at the Newberry Library. The attendees were mostly white of countenance, gray of hair, and a bit worn around the edges. Yet there was a noticeable sprinkling of younger blacks and Hispanics.
Powers was thoroughly embarrassed when she called the movement’s veterans to the microphone to recall the organization’s great moments. Almost without exception they paid homage to her. Said CA cofounder Jack Korshak, “When you need the right person to provide continuity to a cause, more often than not that person is a woman. . . . For CA, Mary Powers is that person.”
Next day, Powers is back in the cramped CA office, awash in newspapers, clippings, and reports–some yellowing with age, others straight from the morning edition. “I enjoy what we’re doing,” she says, seemingly oblivious to the ongoing shortage of funds, the public’s apathy, the mounting threat of urban turmoil, and the phone that needs answering. “What we’re really doing here is fighting racism.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Al Kawano.