(This is part one of a two-part series on the People’s Hearing on Police Crimes. Part two can be found here.)
CHICAGO – On Saturday morning, July 21, 2012, I stood with one-hundred and fifty fellow Chicagoans to work toward drafting solutions that address the Chicago Police Department’s use of systematic, extrajudicial force upon its own citizenry.
The event, A People’s Hearing on Police Crimes, created an open dialogue for the general public, elected officials, clergy, and community leaders to hear the accounts of survivors and the families of deceased victims, accounts mostly silenced or reported by the mainstream media with information produced by the very same perpetrators of the illegal acts. As the survivor of a violent Chicago police assault and the ongoing victim of a “Blue Wall” cover-up, I was honored to both participate as an organizer for the People’s Hearing and to speak as a police brutality victim.
The People’s Hearing however was more than an opportunity for victims to counter the official constitution of Truth by the police in crimes involving their own. Participants used the information produced by the victims and survivors to discuss proposals for legislation that would enable prosecution of police crimes through an elected civilian oversight council of the Chicago Police Department.
Led by the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR) and the Criminal Justice Program at Kennedy-King College, and including representatives of 30 organizations, the focus of the Hearing was on building a coalition and a movement that would ultimately transform practices in Chicago-area law enforcement institutions for the benefit of the people, thus ending the reign of police impunity.
Murder and Accountability
Several family members of police murder victims testified, including Emmett Farmer, the father of Flint Farmer, who was lying unarmed and incapacitated on the ground when a Chicago police officer executed him with three shots in his back at point-blank range.
The entire incident was captured on the officer’s own police cruiser dash cam as his partner drove around the block. In the five months prior to Farmer’s murder, Chicago cop Gildardo Sierra shot two other young black men, killing one of them.
The Chicago Police Department ruled Farmer’s death a “justifiable homicide.”
The parents of Stephon Watts spoke about the shooting and killing of their 15 year old son in their suburban Chicago home earlier this year. His parents called police for help in calming Stephon, who was autistic, as they had done before on several occasions. Calumet City Police officers arrived to find Watts at the bottom of the basement staircase wielding a butter knife.
“He’s autistic, he immediately acted nervously around the police. He had a butter knife,” said Steven Watts.
Cops standing at the top of the basement staircase shot and killed Watts. The City has maintained that the officers had no choice but to shoot, an argument that the Watts family firmly refutes.
In the 6 months since Stephon’s murder, Watts has been left wondering if things might have gone differently if officers, as first responders, had been properly trained in dealing with children like Stephon. “I mean this kid is autistic and all you have is a 9 mm for dealing with it?”
The same Calumet City Police Department shot and killed the unarmed Prince Alim Bantu Akbar in broad daylight on January 4, 2010. Akbar, or Jus Rhymz as he was known in the community, was a Chicago Def Jam slam poet, comedian and hip-hop artist.
Police received a call that the 32 year old Akbar was behaving oddly. When police arrived, they claim the unarmed Akbar attacked them.
Akbar’s mother, LaJuana Lampkins, told a different story. She said Akbar was in an altercation with an officer when another officer arrived. Even though the first officer had the situation under control, the second officer shot Akbar dead. (A more complete narration that counters the officially reported police story can be found here).
Lampkins was in prison at the time of her son’s death and was unable to speak out until her release within the past year.
Develt Bradford’s mother talked about her son’s arrest on Nov. 16, 2011, for the murder of an armed security guard at an Aldi food store on the South Side. Bradford, 52, was taken to Area 2 Police Headquarters and booked. He was found dead in his cell at 2 am the next morning, an alleged suicide.
Video cameras that monitor the lockup at the new facility were turned off.
Frank Chapman of the CAARPR spoke on the lack of accountability in cases of police shootings and fatalities, expanding on the individual cases presented at the People’s Hearing to show the institutional nature of impunity.
“In the last 3 calendar years, Chicago police have shot 167 people. Fifty-five were killed. Black people were 122 of them. Latinos were 24. This is according to the Independent Police Review Authority. That’s the police reviewing the police,” said Chapman, a key organizer of the Hearing. “Not a single police shooting was found to be unjustified, even when the victim was committing no crime and had no weapon and posed no threat to anyone.”
Police officers, according to IPRA, were thus deemed “perfect” in their use of lethal force upon individuals. That is, each time a Chicago police officer reached for a service weapon and discharged it upon another person, striking that individual with bullets, the officer’s actions were held justifiable by the very state that employs, and not coincidentally, bears fiscal responsibility for that officer in civil proceedings.
Torture and Forced Confessions
The mothers of torture victims who remain imprisoned gave emotional testimonies, demonstrating that the fallout from Commander Jon Burge’s elaborate torture operations at Area 2 and Area 3 is ongoing, with many of the victims still incarcerated.
Armanda Shackleford, the mother of Gerald Reed, tortured in 1990 by Chicago Detectives Michael Kill and Victor Breska working under the direction of Commander Jon Burge, spoke about her son signing a false confession to end the torture. Based upon that confession, Gerald Reed was convicted of a double murder and sentenced to natural life in prison where he remains.
Jeanette Plummer testified on behalf of her son Johnny Plumber, who was arrested and tortured by detectives working under Jon Burge into making a false confession for two murders. Plumber was only 15 years old. Based upon that confession, he was sentenced to natural life in prison. “These are our sons, these are our kids,” Jeanette Plummer said. “If we don’t push for this to stop, they will keep taking people.”
Carolyn Johnson spoke about her son Marcus Wiggins, who was arrested and beaten in custody at the age of 13. Wiggins was taken to the Area 3 police station where officers applied an electrical shock current to his body.
Bertha Escamilla testified about her son Nick’s ordeal after he was arrested, beaten, intimidated, and threatened into signing a confession for a gang murder he did not commit. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison and served 15 before his release last year.
“I’m sitting down with a few ladies whose [sons] had the same police officers that my son had. These police officers are being investigated, have been investigated! And nothing happens to these police officers.”
Mark Clements, who was recently released from prison after serving 28 years for a crime he did not commit, testified as well. As a 16 year old, Clements was tortured by Jon Burge’s detectives at the Chicago Police Department’s infamous Area 3.
At the People’s Hearing, Clements discussed the institutionalization of torture as a labor practice. “We are a people that have adjusted to torture in our society. We are paid to torture for a job. You have policemen, you have correctional officials, where poor people are paid to torture other individuals. When is this going to stop?”
Clements added the People’s Hearing was necessary “to spotlight the need for an independently elected board of citizens that can investigate these police crimes.”
Jeff Baker of the Committee for a Better Chicago gave a report on the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), the city’s current “enforcer” of police conduct, to highlight the need for civilian control of the police. Baker noted that while IPRA can make recommendations for the police to discipline officers, it does not have the authority to discipline police officers for crimes.
Baker then read some startling statistics related to IPRA’s track record of pursuing Chicago police officers for disciplinary action.
“If [police officers] don’t fear discipline, why would they stop to think twice about pulling the gun and shooting?” asked Baker. “Out of 9,643 allegations, 3,067 cases were investigated by IPRA, and 47 cases were sustained,” amounting to the exceedingly low figure of “.04 percent of allegations” in one calendar year (2009-2010). This means that “the police are damn near perfect” in misconduct cases investigated by the Independent Police Review Authority and the City of Chicago, said Baker.
While I also spoke that day, which was a meaningful experience, I was deeply moved by the talks that came before and after my own. Other victims and speakers shared their own thoughts on the experience of hearing the voices of those who had spoken before them.
Cook County Commissioner and former Illinois State Senator Jesus Garcia was one who was deeply impacted by the testimonies. “The people who came up here are everyday people, ordinary people who have suffered, who are living torture, who are raising the flags of warning that some things are amuck in the criminal justice system,” said Garcia. “They have shared their pain and their suffering and they’re calling us to ban together and figure out how to create accountability in our police system.”
“You’re educating us about the urgency of having greater transparency and real accountability,” said Cook County Commissioner Garcia. “There is great urgency here. All of us are threatened by police departments that may be going wild.”
(In Part Two I will complete coverage of the People’s Hearing on Police Crimes, including speakers on the role of police in political repression, and testimony by Howard Morgan’s wife, Rosalind Morgan, among other victims. I will build upon this with general reflections on the Hearing. For updates on the release of Part Two, follow me on Twitter @gmalandrucco)
Some early-edited video of the People’s Hearing can be viewed here: