Death in Custody: The Legal Outrage in Chicago


Any death in custody is a tragedy on a personal level, but it also raises civil rights issues that cannot be ignored. For example, race and class are important predictors of vulnerability of incarcerated individuals. Many of the people that die in custody are poor and ethnic minorities. Whether the police admit it or not, the public perceives systemic abuses that culminate in the violation of people’s basic and fundamental rights. The case of Laquan McDonald is no longer that unique. The typical narrative seems to be that of a white officer shooting an unarmed young black man. Although the law enforcement agencies try to argue that this a reflection of criminal proclivities, the reality is that the disproportion is so great as to cause public disquiet.

In the courts, the judges are primed to believe the law enforcement agencies until and unless there is irrefutable evidence against them. The introduction of the video camera and smart phone has meant that local vigilantes can poke holes into the official story that is provided by the police. Whether this is a positive development is open to debate. The mantra of institutional racism has become a catchall phrase for all the ills and mismanagement that are associated with law enforcement agencies across the board, and not just within the precincts of Chicago.

When the Duty of Care is Not Met

In ideal situations, nobody should die in custody. However, it is also recognized that there are many reasons why people die in custody; it is not just as a consequence of police brutality. The protests that normally follow these incidents are an expression of dissatisfaction, but they rarely actually change the status quo. Instead, the law enforcement agencies close ranks and stonewall until the investigations cool down. Meanwhile the family and friends of the victims are left wondering whether the justice system actually cares for them. At other times, the law enforcement agencies have engaged in what is tantamount to character assassination, the implication being that the victim was too bad to deserve any better.

Those who do not wish to fully appreciate some of the abuses that occur hide behind the notion that this is all about identity politics, that the communities affected by police violence are really exaggerating their pain. Given the predictable negative response that such assumptions elicit, the spokespeople for the law enforcement agencies have learned to couch their missives in language that is seen to be patriotic or even focused on community safety. In reality, the law enforcement agencies have amongst them people who have a pathological desire to victimize and intimidate those in custody.

Chicago and the Rights of Suspects

The state is not yet achieving the full standards of compliance that are expressed in the law. For example, many people who are arrested have no access to legal representation. In other instances, no meaningful effort is made to properly assess the health needs and status of the people who are put in custody. When the suspect pleads for assistance, he or she is ignored on the assumption that he or she is only playing it up in order to avoid facing the consequences of his or her actions.

Most of the work that is done in order to understand what happened is retrospective rather than prospective and proactive. It takes a serious incident that is accompanied by negative publicity for acknowledgement to be given to the fact that the police and other law enforcement agencies must get their act together if they are to retain public confidence. Until that happens, deaths in custody will continue to hurt the reputations of these officers and agencies. For expert assistance with your death in custody case, contact David Freidberg Attorney at Law at 312-560-7100.

(image courtesy of Greg Rakozy)

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