During the summer of 1985, I was a seminarian working with street gangs at St. Malachy Church adjacent to the old Henry Horner housing projects. One day a family came to see me. A teenage gang member had been arrested for a crime, but the officers had humiliated him in public. I drove the family to the police station.
At the station, the Police Captain met with me, the gang member, his mother, two witnesses, and the two police officers in a room. For about a half hour all sides talked and an agreement was worked out that the charges would be dropped against the gang member and the actions by the police officers would be forgiven. The only words I spoke were to the gang member and his mother, “Is this agreeable to you?” They wholeheartedly agreed. I was relieved. Once we got into the car, I was surprised everyone started cursing and said that they were going to get those officers. Later they asked me if I knew a lawyer to sue the officers and the department. I realized that being with gang members and their families was going to be complicated.
Twenty years later, in the summer of 2005, I was walking in the Dearborn Homes. I was looking for information concerning a funeral. The neighborhood was quiet. Women told me to be careful because the police were locking people up for trespassing. While I was writing down the funeral information, I was surrounded by the gang tactical unit of the Chicago Police. Jerome Finnegan, head of the unit, began bullying, threatening, and intimidating me. He asked me for my driver’s license and my Catholic Charities ID. The remaining officers tacitly agreed with Officer Finnegan. I had a choice to force an arrest or to back down and leave. I left.
Officer Finnegan was recognized for his courage and valor by the Chicago Police Department. He was considered heroic until he was disgraced and imprisoned for hiring a man to kill a fellow officer who challenged his actions. Since then, Officer Finnegan’s misdeeds have been a humiliation for the Chicago Police department. However, many police officers were aware of his actions and instead of reprimanding him, he was promoted and seen as an answer to the problem of gangs.
Generally, the police and gang members hate each other. They both want to be left alone by the rest of society so that they can do what they want. Police are taught to shoot to kill. Gang members know this so they must have a way out in a direct confrontation, or else surrender, be injured, or die. If they cannot find an escape they will lose.
Gangs are conducting illegal activities and are heavily armed. In the past 10 years I have known two teenagers murdered for selling drugs on their own, with nobody backing them up and not being armed. Hustling drugs was the easiest way for them to make money. One cannot sell drugs in gang neighborhoods without being armed.
The conflicts between the police and gang members are real and dangerous for both sides. Some police officers are known to be fair and trustworthy. They have proven themselves to do their jobs without adding bogus charges, beating arrestees, and by listening to complaints. They are able to see the problems in gang neighborhoods and are uncomfortable with regular police tactics. Yet they do not feel that their suggestions are heard.
These officers, with years of street experience, are the ones who are best able to lead the efforts for reform. The main problems, as I see it, are if reforms are made then many officers and the police union will resist the changes. Second, because the situations are difficult, when reforms lead to mistakes or when something bad happens to the police officers things will go back to the way things have always been. Protests will continue and people will get hurt.
–Brother Jim Fogarty