How deep does misconduct run in the Chicago Police Department? Is race a factor? Do officers themselves ever feel they've been targeted by abusive cops?
I wasn’t expecting straight answers when I cold-called Officer Richard Wooten on his cell phone. Getting a police officer to talk about misconduct among his peers seemed like a long shot.
Not only was I naming names in a follow up to my investigation into repeat offenders within the CPD for The Chicago Reporter, but I was also exposing a pattern of brutality in the Gresham District where Wooten lives and works.
I was stunned when he invited me over.
We sat down in a commercial building on 75th Street, the headquarters of a private security company Wooten owns. I couldn’t squeeze our entire interview into our latest story, “Abusing the badge.” But here’s more from our conversation:
Is race a factor in police misconduct?
Race is a factor. The police department is not, by a long stretch, racist, [but] we do have racist people in the department. That’s just the way it is, no matter what you do, where you go, what profession.
We had officers out in Englewood [7th District] [that] I didn’t agree with how they policed. I apply it to the stress factor, but I also apply it to not knowing the race of the people that you’re dealing with. You have people who have never seen a black person, never went to school with a black person, never lived around a black person, but then they’re assigned to a black neighborhood. And that black neighborhood is such a crime infested area, it’s totally different from what they come from. Sometimes they can misjudge a person’s character because they begin to look at everybody the same.
You know how many times I get stopped? I was taking my son to a football practice a few years ago, and a police officer pulls up to the right of us… I was driving [my Cadillac] through Englewood at the time, and he probably thought I was a young guy. So he pulls us over, and he asks for my driver’s license and insurance. All of a sudden you see the whole thing kind of twist around. ‘You speeding?’ ‘No, I’m not speeding. I just pulled out from the light.’ Some officers out there, very small fraction of them, get out there and they pre-judge.
Why are most police misconduct cases concentrated in certain neighborhoods?
I worked in Englewood for ten years. And what I saw was that the people that were working the hardest got the most complaints. Then people realize that the city wants to settle, so they continue to make these complaints. I’m not defending these officers. There are some officers that do things that should not be done. But anytime someone gets out there and works hard, you’re going to get sued. That’s just the nature of the job. When I was in Englewood [7th District], I was sued three times.
It happens in high crime areas. And in high crime areas, you have more unemployment, more drug incidents. The police are always running. They get burnt out. And when you get burnt out, your stress levels go up. They should do a rotation, just to give people breaks. You can only stand so much before you burst.
How has the police department changed since you joined the force in 1993?
Everyone is trying to point the finger and the responsibility from themselves to the police officers. So people are using it as more of a social service. I took two kids to school the other day, [who] were walking around their neighborhood with a 20-year-old guy. It’s like we have to go pickup and babysit now. I spent a whole hour with those guys, when other calls on the radio are coming out….That’s the problem we have. We’ve been put in to the position of not being the police.
We [also] have a younger department now. We have a lot of officers that have come on this job because it’s a good paying job, but at the same time a lot of them don’t have the patience. So when you’re put in a high crime area, that stress kicks in, and they’re ready to leave. But because [they’re] new [they’re] stuck there for a while. …You have a lot of officers that take a lot of stress, [and] take stress home with them. It’s very difficult when …you work in a high crime area where you’re going to respond to 20 or 30 calls a day.
What’s happening now in the 6th District, where you work? How is Auburn Gresham changing?
Churches don’t have the resources like they used to have. You have all these churches that only open their doors on Sundays … but they don’t have any interaction within the community.
I grew up in Auburn Gresham, and now I’m a police officer in that area. I see where my community has come, and what transition it has made. Crime has taken hold. If you had social issues, either you talked to a pastor or you talked to a counselor. Those things don’t exist in our communities anymore.
Right now we have several community organizations that are focused on making the community more aware, being very proactive, fighting crime themselves. What we realized is that the police department cannot do all the things that are required.