Posted on June 2, 2020

The Racial Politics of Policing in Chicago

James Henderson, American Renaissance, October 2004

Murder in Chicago

Credit Image: © Marcus Dipaola / Xinhua / ZUMA Wire

Cabrini Green in Chicago is one of the most notorious housing projects in the country. Horrific crimes by blacks against blacks are fast and frequent. Some make the national news, as in the 1997 case of “Girl X,” a young black woman who was savagely and repeatedly raped, beaten, forced to drink gasoline, strangled with her own T-shirt, and eventually left for dead in a stairwell. She survived, but lost the use of her hands. A fellow Cabrini resident, Patrick Sykes, got a 120-year sentence for the crime.

The welfare and degeneracy of Cabrini make it the perfect incubator for a flourishing drug trade. There are no whites in these buildings, with the exception of the police officers who run up and down the stairs chasing dealers, and the occasional “walkup” or “roll through” by white addicts looking for drugs. Unlike Hispanic gangs, which defend their territory against all comers, black narcotics dealers are under orders from the top not to hurt white clients. People who fear for their lives do not make good customers, and for black gangs money trumps everything.

Lately, Cabrini Green has been less violent than it used to be, but only because, in desperation, the city reduced the population by sending many residents to some unlucky suburb. Still, as a country fellow might say, a half bag of rattlesnakes is still a bag of rattlesnakes. The residents are not shy about calling the police when they need help, but they sometimes ambush responding officers with sniper fire.

This, then, was the scene of a standoff a year ago between the police and members of the “Crazy Crew,” which produced a media frenzy and the standard city-government reaction when the crooks are black and the police are white: hang the cops out to dry. This is the inside story of what happened, and it is dedicated to the nation’s hard-working police officers who are tired of race-baiting, and of being treated as expendable garbage by politicians.

The Crazy Crew is the Cabrini Green faction of the Gangster Disciples or GDs, who were once the nation’s largest street gang. The very capable Larry Hoover used to run the gang — which controlled more territory than Al Capone ever did — and even after his 1974 conviction for murder, he kept it going quite efficiently from his jail cell in Joliet State Prison. Only after 1997, when the authorities caught on to what was happening and transferred him to Terre Haute Federal Penitentiary in Indiana, did the Disciples start falling apart.

The GDs used to control killing and drug dealing in a centralized, scientific way, but now there is no organization beyond the block level. Most of the Crazy Crew were kids back in the Hoover era, but they filled the vacuum at Cabrini Green.

The Incident

It is April 17, 2003, approximately 10:30 p.m. The police have their eye on a van filled with known drug traffickers. This is a Chicago neighborhood near Cabrini Green that does a booming drug business, and police have just seen a typical hand-to-hand transaction: Another known gang member handed a brown paper bag to one of the men in the van. The police roll up and officers recognize Rondell “Nightfall” Freeman, the alleged shooter in two homicides, and Antonio “P.M.G.” (Playa’ Money Gangsta’) Parker, the named offender in an aggravated battery of a police officer (he punched the arresting officer in the face and got away, though the police recovered narcotics and a gun). The officers can see these men only through the front windshield because the other windows are heavily tinted.

The van pulls into Cabrini, which could not have been better laid out for drug dealers if they had designed it themselves. There are only two ways in, and the gangs can monitor these easily while they do their business. There are wrought-iron fences that keep the police from driving straight up to the doors, so it is easy to make a hand-to-hand and disappear into a building. For added tranquility, the gangs sometimes make a false 911 call to a different part of town to divert the police. This means uninterrupted business for at least 20 minutes. With the lookout system, they almost always know the police are coming, and this time is no exception. Someone in the van probably phoned ahead.

The van stops, but the occupants refuse to get out. Hundreds of project residents gather, surrounding the police and the van. The police immediately call for backup, yelling “10-1! 10-1!” (Officer in need of immediate assistance.) over the radio. Police units start flying in. A sergeant arrives, and officers keep the area around the van clear.

Under these uncertain crowd conditions, you don’t want to risk trouble by arresting everyone, so the sergeant starts negotiating with the driver, Rondell Freeman. The sergeant tells the group he wants only Antonio Parker, the man who punched an officer, and if he comes out peaceably, the rest can go home. Mr. Freeman’s response? “F**ck you!”

Part of the problem is the van’s tinted windows. Tints are illegal in Illinois, because an officer doesn’t know if someone inside is pointing a Tec-9 or a fully automatic “street sweeper” shotgun at his head. In any case, these gangsters usually have something to hide. The van is shut up tight as a clam; the driver’s side window might have rolled down a crack once or twice

Residents start throwing rocks, cans, bricks, and bottles from the high floors of the surrounding buildings. These are the same people who call the police every day. “Baby’s daddy just jumped on me and I have a stomach ache.” “I want him locked up, he stole my Link card (used to collect welfare payments).” Police also get a lot of calls about violations of orders of protection, which are restraining orders on people accused of domestic battery. Many men cozy back up to their women, and everyone forgets about the order of protection until the man spends the welfare money on booze or cocaine. Some women suddenly remember the order and call the police if they catch their man cheating. Now we are all the enemy.

A lieutenant arrives on the scene. The negotiations with the men in the van go on while the crowd grows. Even a guy in a wheelchair comes out to have a look. It’s still raining cans of corned beef hash, and the mob is getting out of control. Fights are flaring up between residents, and the police have to use force to arrest some of them. The lieutenant calls for more assistance citywide.

The negotiations take 30 to 45 minutes, which is an amount of time astonishing only to anyone not a Chicago police officer. There is an unwritten policy in the department for handling situations like this — white officers, black criminals, crowds of hostiles — very carefully. If the least little thing goes wrong, there will be a stink and heads can roll. All the officers know that if there is a hullabaloo the higher ups will not hesitate to fire officers if they think that will quiet angry blacks.

In this case, the men in the van are going to have to come out one way or another. The police alternatively beg, plead, insist, and demand, until they are convinced nothing short of force will do the job.

The lieutenant tells his men to break into the van. An officer smashes a window, and police fire pepper spray into the vehicle. Other men break more windows, both so they can see inside and so the offenders can breathe. Officers reach in through the broken windows and open the doors, igniting an uproar from the mob and the people hanging out of the buildings. More debris come sailing down on the police.

The scene is one of great confusion. No one in the van follows directions. The passengers have to be dragged out of the van, and if you have to get close enough to a felon to drag him out of a car, there is no telling what he may do. You don’t know what weapons he may have, and you must assume his sole purpose is to maim or kill you.

The officers order the four men to lie down on their stomachs, with their hands behind their backs so they can be cuffed. There are four or five officers for each man, and some resist more than others. “Nightfall” Freeman, the first man out of the van, is putting up the biggest fight. Several officers have him on his stomach, but he refuses to do as he is told. He is lashing out with his arms and legs, kicking and squirming, and appearing to reach for his waistband. He is known to carry a knife and maybe even a gun. Officers have to assume he is going to pull out a gun and shoot them all. There are no second chances or do-overs in police work; only trips to the hospital, funerals — or successful arrests.

One or two officers start punching and kicking Mr. Freeman. There is a simple logic here: Once he has suffered enough he will do what the officers are shouting at him to do. All the men in the van understand this: Lie still and let the police cuff you, and the pain will stop.

In this case, the officers want to be out of there as quickly as possible. With a Cabrini Green crowd at their backs anything could happen. Now that white officers have manhandled blacks, someone in the buildings might even open fire.

The officers have to be persuasive with Mr. Freeman. They could inflict more pain if they used batons, but there are too many officers and they are too close to each other to get a good swing without hitting each other. They aim their kicks and punches at his sides, arms, and legs, and are careful not to hit him in the head. He finally does what he is told, and the officers cuff him. They get him to his feet, and hustle him into a paddy wagon driven by Officers Joseph Groh and Bryan Vander Mey. They drive him across the street to the 18th District station.

Officers search the men carefully, and find no drugs or weapons. The police ask if any are injured, and whether they want to go to the hospital. They all say “no.” However, a quick-thinking sergeant knows better. There is no telling what injuries these felons could claim later, and he sends them to a local hospital for pepper spray decontamination and an injury check. A doctor finds no injuries, and signs a document saying so. The Police Department sends an evidence technician to take pictures. Again, there are no signs of injury. (It is best to take pictures without too much warning. Suspects may bite their lips to get blood and smear it around, or puff up their cheeks to make their faces look swollen.)

Back at Cabrini, everyone knows that some “brothers” had a dustup with the police, and about 100 citizens march over to the station and start throwing rocks and bottles. The commander doesn’t want any trouble, and orders the men to take only defensive action. He is as afraid as anyone of a racial beef. The canine units go out to protect the patrol cars, which the mob would love to burn. The officers arrest a few people on misdemeanor charges, but no police are injured, no cars are damaged, and the station is safe. The crowd gets bored and goes home.

The Video

The next day, on the television news, there was a grainy video of the arrests at Cabrini Green, taken from an upper floor of one of the buildings. The station ran the video without the sound track; they wouldn’t want to expose their audience to a mob of blacks calling the police “white b**ches” and “white devil mother f**kers.” The news also failed to mention that everyone in the van had criminal records, and was resisting arrest after more than a half-hour of negotiation. The newscasters all mentioned Rodney King.

The then-Chicago Police Superintendent, Terry Hillard (he is black, but it hardly matters) proclaimed, without the need for any investigation, that “a little more than excessive force was used” and that “I have viewed the tape, and I am personally upset about what I have seen.” He goes on to say: “The Chicago Police Department has worked too long and too hard in all our communities to build very strong relationships with our residents. These types of incidents undermine that relationship.” At this point we have the typical switch, and it is now the police who are on trial and the criminals who are “victims.” In Superintendent Hilliard’s defense, he has never taken a stand for any copper under the gun, so why should he start now?

In the video, it doesn’t look as though Mr. Freeman is having a good time. However, if you pick a fight with the police and decide not to do what you are told, you open yourself up to some nasty moves, and it is all totally by the book. There is no such thing as “half way” in police use of force, and it is either warranted or it isn’t. If you put up a fight, it’s warranted.

In all the classic videos, including the one of the arrest of Rodney King, look closely: Mr. King gets the stick only when he makes a move. The officers are telling him to lie still and he refuses. That is why they were acquitted at their first trial.

In the case of the Los Angeles cops, it was President George H.W. Bush who panicked after the city went up in flames and told us the officers were guilty despite the verdict. The police in Chicago did not need the President. They had a police chief to tell the world they were guilty.

After the King incident, the LAPD switched to the “swarm” method of gang-tackling an offender to subdue and cuff him. That is supposed to be more humane than clubbing him. At Cabrini, the police had to get up close to the criminals and had no choice but to swarm them, but that is not the method they prefer. Why not? Because the first officer in the swarm stands a good chance of being punched in the face, and not many officers want that kind of punishment. The academy gives us better advice: Distance equals shielding. If possible, use the baton, because if you can reach the felon with your stick he probably can’t reach you with his fist.

In the Cabrini Green video, Mr. Freeman gets nothing like the number of strikes Mr. King did, but that makes no difference. You haven’t signed a contract with the thug who is fighting you. There is no agreement that says, “OK, after five strikes — fist or baton — you promise to go down, and quietly let me put the cuffs on you; any violation of the rules can result in serious litigation!” Sometimes it takes more than five strikes — maybe a lot more. The armchair quarterbacks of the courtroom and the mayor’s office should have to go out into the wild with the cops, and see what it is like dealing with some of the world’s problem people.

How the politicians react to an incident like this depends to a huge extent on factors that have nothing to do with what an officer actually did. The most important is how much media coverage there is, and whether there is a race angle. A video tape that can be made to look like “racists” in action — and that gets a lot of air time — is about the worst thing that can happen to an officer.

Mr. Freeman filed a complaint with something called the Office of Professional Standards (OPS), and the city chose the two officers who drove him to the station, Joseph Groh and Bryan Vander Mey, to take the fall. On June 1, 2003, OPS charged them with “discharging pepper spray without permission,” and with “battery” of Rondell Freeman. In fact, it is not entirely clear they even did the things they are charged with, since the only evidence was probably filmed from ten floors up, and is not much clearer than a “Bigfoot” video. There is a pile of people, and there are some kicks and punches, but it’s not at all clear who anyone is. There was so much chaos at the scene that not even the other officers are entirely sure who was doing what. The sergeant says he had pepper spray in his eyes, and the lieutenant says there were men at the scene he did not recognize.

As for spraying pepper without permission, technically that’s true. However, it is so common to use pepper under circumstances like these, the lieutenant wouldn’t have thought twice about it. This is the sort of charge you get in a political case. The local media said the police used “tear-gas grenades.” This is pure sensationalism. Chicago police carry pepper dispensers on their belts similar to the ones the public can buy.

Later, the District Attorney even brought criminal charges against Mr. Vander Mey for which he is likely to go on trial, but first a word about the Office of Professional Standards. The department already had something called the Internal Affairs Division, which looks into officer misconduct, so a second bureaucracy wasn’t necessary. The OPS was set up to improve community relations — probably to please blacks — and encourages the public to call if someone has a problem with the police. This means OPS has become the perfect tool for anyone who wants to stir up trouble against the police.

This, needless to say, includes criminals, and if they have a cell phone chances are they have the OPS number on their speed dial. Often, when an officer makes a simple traffic stop, the driver is already on the phone to OPS before the cop can make it to the driver’s side door. Even a completely baseless complaint — the huge majority — means time-consuming paper work, and any working Chicago police officer can expect to “do paper” on at least one complaint every other week.

It is because of groups like OPS that officers have to list the race of everyone they stop. OPS says these statistics will affect only a small percentage of officers, but “affect” means disciplinary measures. The message is simple: “Write up too many minorities and we’ll drop the hammer on you.” These groups have never heard of racial differences in crime rates.

Of course, the statistics also list Hispanic criminals as “white,” which artificially inflates the white crime rate, and makes blacks look less crime-prone than they are. Statistics are a wonderful thing in the hands of publicity-conscious administrators. An attempted murder can miraculously become an aggravated battery, and a “hate crime” can become a mere assault. As most any cop will tell you, a crime is a “hate crime” only when the perpetrator is white and the victim is a minority. All it takes is the click of a mouse to sanitize an entire district, but even after all possible adjustments, blacks are still the most serious offenders, and Chicago still leads the nation in homicides.

The OPS has its own agenda. Lori Lightfoot, black head spokesman for the office, went on a black public access television program called “The Munir Muhammed Show” and listed the names of the officers under investigation in the Cabrini case before there were any official findings. This is against policy, but the police department would not dare reprimand a prominent black for this blatant violation.

On the program, Miss Lightfoot failed to mention a little investigation carried out by representatives from OPS, Internal Affairs, and the State’s Attorney’s Office. They visited “the gym” in Chicago’s police academy, where officers learn use of force guidelines, and showed the famous video to the officer in charge. He quickly determined that it showed standard procedure, not police brutality. He told them the “victims” were, in fact, assailants. The witch-hunters didn’t want to hear this, so they went to the man’s immediate supervisor, who just happened to be a black woman. She would certainly give them the answer they wanted. Wrong! She agreed with the first officer. Nothing more has been heard of these opinions, and both the officer and the sergeant have since been transferred out of their jobs at the gym. Rumor has it that Miss Lightfoot took her video (without the colorful soundtrack) to the Cook County State’s Attorney, but was laughed out of his office.

None of this came up on “The Munir Muhammamed Show,” where Miss Lightfoot was clearly trying to fuel the racial fire and create a name for herself in the black community.

One curious fact in this case is that Officers Vander Mey and Groh stayed at their jobs for seven months after the Cabrini incident. If the department really thought they were violent, run-amok officers — and all the brass had seen the tape — they would have been off the street immediately. At a minimum, they would have gone to a center that takes non-emergency calls over the phone. This is a desk job a suspect or injured officer can take and still be paid. Cops call it “crips and criminals duty.” Some of the officers who work in callback have even killed people — justified or not.

But no, the Cabrini officers continued to work. Watch commanders continued to fill their gang activity reports with information about the Crazy Crew. The reports regularly mentioned Rondell Freeman as its leader. Members of the Crazy Crew were the main suspects in a series of home invasions in the Cabrini area, but the residents were afraid to testify about what they saw. Watch commanders continued to warn us that these men fight the police, so we were to use extreme caution around them.

Rondell Freeman, the “beating” victim, was arrested again on Jan.16, 2004, for violating bail bond and for a weapons charge, after he was stopped for a tinted-windows violation. Once again, Mr. Freeman would not get out of his car. A sergeant had to be called in, but this time he got out without a fight. Officers found a push dagger in plain view on the floor of the car, where he had been sitting. They also found a group of bullet holes below the passenger-side airbag. From the tight grouping, it looked as though they were probably made with an automatic weapon.

While he was being processed at the station, Mr. Freeman threatened the arresting officers, saying he had a “working relationship” with Internal Affairs (IAD), and that he could have the officers transferred out of the district. Mr. Freeman had a visitor’s pass to IAD in his possession, which suggests the department had called him in for a nice talk. Mr. Freeman has since been locked up again, for getting into a fight at a nightclub.

Another passenger in the van in the Cabrini incident was Adam Sanders. He has since been jailed for stealing a truck. After he crashed the truck, he got out and fought police officers, so he faces multiple charges of aggravated battery, too. In an act of great creativity Mr. Sanders is suing the department, claiming false arrest in retaliation for the famous April 17, 2003 incident — as if the police slid a stolen truck under his body.

There were other unsung developments in the case. While the police had their hands on the Cabrini incident van, they ran a search for a “trap.” This is a hidden compartment built into a vehicle for storing weapons, drugs, etc. They are hard to find, because it may take a sophisticated sequence to open one — like turning on the air conditioning full blast while tuning the radio to a specific frequency. In fact, there was a trap in the van, but it was empty. In Chicago it is a misdemeanor to have a trap in your car, but by the time police found it, the case had blown up so big the top brass probably figured they’d be accused of planting the trap in the car if they publicized it. No charges were filed.

In February, a Chicago paper ran another scathing article about police “racism.” It was a collage of stories, but the two main ones were the Cabrini incident and one about a Chicago firefighter who allegedly said “nigger” over the radio. The point was to taint all the stories with the “N word,” and a creative newspaper artist can easily link stories like this to “200 years of oppression and slavery.” By then Chicago had a new police superintendent, a white man named Phil Cline, and this was too much for him. Two weeks after the story, on March 2, 2004, he suspended Officers Vander Mey and Groh without pay. The department had officially named their scapegoats.

The internal, administrative investigation had gone nowhere because there was so little to build a case on, but when there is enough media pressure prosecutors can build a case against just about anyone. On June 3, 2004, the Cook County DA charged Mr. Vander Mey with four counts of “official misconduct by a police officer,” alleging that he assaulted the “victim,” Rondell Freeman, while he was handcuffed.

This was more than even the media had bargained for, and the papers noted that it was “unprecedented” for an officer to face criminal charges in an incident that produced no injuries. However, when a society is rotting, the latest outrage is always “unprecedented.” When the media kick up a fuss and race is involved, the “unprecedented” should never be a surprise. In any case the accusations are preposterous. Observers say no officer struck Rondell Freeman after he was handcuffed.

(Actually, there is nothing in the use of force protocol that says an officer can’t strike a man after he has been cuffed. You may be in cuffs and on the ground, but if you are kicking officers, you are fair game for wrist locks, arm holds, baton strikes, and punches. If you have an officer’s neck in a leg lock, he has grounds even to shoot you. Most officers probably wouldn’t, but they have to make split-second decisions, and a mistake can be fatal.)

In any case, the main purpose of the indictment is to pacify blacks and maybe even ensure the re-election of State’s Attorney Dick Devine. The rumor among police officers is that the word to charge Officer Vander May came straight from Mr. Devine himself. Rumor also has it that his subordinates warned against bringing such a weak case.

There are other signs there is nothing to this case. Despite all the media hype, Jesse Jackson, who lives right in Chicago, hasn’t moved a muscle. Johnnie Cochran’s main office is in Chicago, but he has been quiet, too. You can be sure he would be all over this case if he smelled money.

Even the DA knows he has a lousy case. Several times, he has offered to let Mr. Vander Mey plead to misdemeanor battery of the lightest kind — it would carry no jail time, and would be expunged from his record if he kept out of trouble. Mr. Vander Mey has refused to plea bargain, partly on principle, partly for practical reasons. He is convinced he is being railroaded simply for doing his job and has nothing to apologize for. Also, even a no-jail-time, no-record misdemeanor, which would not be a handicap for most people, would be a big problem for a police officer. It would be grounds for dismissal, and he wants to stay with the force.

The fact remains that Officers Vander May and Groh have been suspended without pay since March 2, 2004. They are not even at the non-emergency call center. Mr. Vander May’s police administrative hearing has been put off until after his criminal trial, and that could drag out for another year. No trial date has been set. Mr. Groh — likewise on leave without pay — is still subject to administrative hearing, but his seems to have been put on hold, so he is in limbo.

In the meantime, these two officers are off the payroll. An indicted cop has a hard time finding work in his usual line of business, but Mr. Vander Mey managed to scrape up a part-time job. With charges pending he can’t carry a weapon — not a pleasant situation for an officer who has put away a lot of Chicago criminals and who is now famous.

Now, for the crime of leaving the station to help officers in need, he faces four counts of felony “official misconduct.” He doesn’t have many options. For a Chicago cop, a jury trial is suicide, so he will go before a judge. Many jurisdictions allow a case that has already been prejudged in the press to be relocated to a different jurisdiction, as was done with the cops who arrested Rodney King. This has never happened in Cook County.

Needless to say, cases like this send police morale straight to the bottom. If a man can face jail time for doing his job, it makes cops hesitate when they are on the street, and that can put their lives at risk. Even many of the bosses are disgusted. Officers Vander Mey and Groh join a long list of cops who have been thrown to the dogs because they did their jobs, and the media blew it up into a racial incident.

The politicians and police brass will do anything to avoid controversy, especially if there is the slightest whiff of anything that could be call “racism.” It is easier to sacrifice the little guys than do what’s right. Politicians stare at the crystal ball and try to predict how the public will act. For the men on the force, it is a question of guts; and they think the politicians don’t have any. And that is why you get the levels of crime, and contempt for the police from blacks that you see all over this country.

Carl Sandburg famously called Chicago the “hog butcher of the world.” The stock yards moved out long ago, but the city continues to live up to its name. Blacks still like to call police “pigs,” and any officer who takes his job seriously knows that every assignment could be his turn to be run through the meat grinder.