Feeling the heat, Chicago Police counter criticism, highlight ‘good works’

Chicago police department, awards
Chicago police officers at Tuesday's award ceremony wait to hear their names called.

By Thomas Vogel

De-escalating a domestic dispute in Englewood. A drug bust in the Harrison District. A South Side foot chase to catch a carjacker. These are just a few of the instances the Chicago Police Department recognized Tuesday morning at its monthly Commendation Ceremony.

Designed to emphasize positive instances of crime fighting, the event offered the department a way to counterbalance the negative attitude many Chicagoans have adopted toward the nation’s second-largest police force following several embarrassing incidents.

Negative media coverage, public criticism and even a federal justice department investigation have also resulted. The instances include the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014, the accidental killing of a 55-year-old woman on the West Side, and most recently, the release of a 2013 video showing the killing of Cedrick Chatman at a South Side intersection, among others. A February 2015 report released by The Guardian also revealed a clandestine “black site,” where police suspects were held off-the-grid away from attorneys and family members.

“This is one of the best times of the month for us,” said Interim Police Superintendent John Escalante. “In today’s climate, the Chicago Police Department is under the national spotlight. It’s good to remind ourselves why we do what we do.”

Escalante thanked the dozens of attendees for braving the morning’s frigid temperatures, highlighted the significance of family support in the lives of the department’s officers and stressed the importance of acknowledging solid police work.

“This is the stuff the men and women of the Chicago Police Dept. do on a daily basis,” Escalante said. “It is a nice opportunity to recognize what they do.”

In a not-so-subtle brag, Sgt. Andres Zayas, who coordinates the monthly ceremony, said the roughly hour-long ceremony involves a substantial amount of planning, citing the large number of award nominations he receives from the department’s commanders.

“There are a lot of good deeds.” Zayas said.

The awards recognize officers from many divisions within the department ranging from gang enforcement to forensics. Some of the awards were given to outside agencies including the FBI.

Zayas, who described the ceremony as a “morale booster,” said he has not perceived a change in the rank-and-file’s attitudes following a few turbulent episodes in the past few months, including well-attended demonstrations in the Loop over Thanksgiving weekend and former Police Supt. Garry McCarthy’s resignation in late 2015.

Zayas did, however, echo Escalante saying the ceremony offers an opportunity for officers to recognize their colleagues and for families to interface with the department.

“We are all one family. Families are an integral part,” Zayas said. “They are the support system for the officers.”

Photo at top: Chicago police officers at Tuesday’s award ceremony wait to hear their names called. (Thomas Vogel/MEDILL)