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'We serve and protect . . . ourselves'

Chicago Police Officers Jerome Finnigan, left, and Timothy McDermott with an unidentified man | Photo from court file

The truly disturbing thing about the photograph of two cops brandishing rifles and grinning over the prone body of a black man wearing antlers (wearing antlers — how do you even do that? “C’mere buddy, put these antlers on and let this third cop take your picture before we turn you loose?”) is not that it jarringly captures one moment of grotesque bad judgment and racial insensitivity a dozen years ago, but that it is also a perfect expression of the main ongoing problem then, now and into the foreseeable future of the Chicago Police Department.

The motto on Chicago squad cars, “We Serve and Protect,” is a phrase without an object. “We serve and protect whom?” The implication is the people of the city of Chicago, and to be fair, much serving and protecting goes on, all the time, all day, every day. Any discussion of the Chicago Police has to start with a caveat: that there are over 12,000 sworn officers, most doing their jobs in a laudable fashion, enduring an at times dull, at times difficult routine, performing acts of heroism, sometimes laying down their lives.

But the ooze from the bad apples spatters them, big time. The routine competence and occasional excellence of the department is undercut by a general atmosphere that could be emblazoned on their cars as “We serve and protect ourselves.” The attitude is that their job is so dangerous that their first duty is to each other, and it fosters an insular world of corruption and cronyism. Every illegally parked car with a pair of handcuffs or a checkered hatband hanging from the rearview mirror is a whisper of “I’m a cop; give me a break.”

And they do, on matters big and small, and it leads to cops like Jerome Finnigan, on the left in the instantly infamous photo. Finnigan is in a prison in Florida serving 12 years for robbery and home invasion. The other officer, Timothy McDermott, is still trying to get his job back, and the public has to shake its head that the Police Board voted 5-4 to fire him last October.

Really? A close call? McDermott argued it was a youthful prank, and to the degree that could be true, you have to feel sorry for him. But the Chicago Police Department has long been a weight on our city’s reputation. Try to pick an era without a jaw-dropping police scandal, from this latest embarrassment rocketing around the Internet to Burge torture to the police riots of the 1960s. It never ends.

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At some point the police need to at least give the impression they care, that the best interests of any officer who does any misdeed imaginable and some that aren’t won’t trump what is in the best interests of the department and the city.

Finnigan and the three officers working for him logged 200 complaints without raising any alarm among their superiors, and when you look at how one of those complaints was handled, you see why. In 2002, Finnigan and his fellow Chicago Police officers broke into the home of Robert Cook, who turned out to be a Chicago firefighter. They beat him in front of his children. Cook filed a complaint. Here is how the complaint was handled, according to Cook’s lawsuit against the city:

The next day, May 30, 2002, an investigator from the CPD came to plaintiff’s home to discuss his complaint. The investigator told plaintiff that plaintiff was a drug dealer and that his complaint was “bogus.” A day or two later, the investigator returned to plaintiff’s house and told him that if he pursued his complaint the police would cause him to lose his job. Plaintiff told the investigator that he would not pursue the case so long as the police did not arrest him, plant drugs on him, or have him fired. As the investigator left plaintiff’s home, he told plaintiff, “just forget about this; otherwise kiss your job goodbye, and you’re f—-.”

Over the past decade, the city of Chicago has paid out $500 million in lawsuits based on such police work. A half-billion dollars. That’s almost exactly the nut due on the ballooning police pensions. If cops weren’t so adept at ignoring the malfeasance of their brethren, Chicago wouldn’t be quite so broke.

Police have a tough job, which they make tougher by coddling the rotten apples among them. We haven’t had a Ferguson-type crisis in Chicago yet out of pure dumb luck. But luck only holds so long, and the Chicago Police Department must start policing itself better.