Friday, September 24, 2021

O'Sullivan on Civil Liability for Policing in Chicago, 1954-1967

Philip O'Sullivan, the holder of a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, now enrolled in JD and PhD programs at Harvard University, has posted Putting a Check on Police Violence: The Legal Services Market, Section 1983, Torture, Abusive Detention Practices, and the Chicago Police Department from 1954 to 1967, which is forthcoming in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 56 (2021):

This article explores the conception, rise, and initial implementation of a legal strategy which sought to fashion civil liability into a tool for reforming the Chicago Police Department (CPD) from the mid-1950s to 1967. A group of lawyers, working in close concert with the Illinois Division (their preferred name of choice at the time) of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sought to weaponize civil suits into a means of forcing CPD leadership to crack down on abusive and harmful police behavior. Drawing from a strand of contemporary scholarship on how private civil actions could shape municipal policy, the lawyers theorized that, with the correct imposition of civil liability, they could spur the legal industry to cause the number of successful civil suits to become more commensurate with the prevalence of abusive police practices. The lawyers thought the total cost, or fear of future costs, of the resulting civil suits would compel CPD leadership to enact reforms to crack down on a culture of impunity and widespread police misconduct within the CPD.

This article examines the attempt to carry out this legal strategy in the federal civil court system from the early 1950s to the end of Superintendent O.W. Wilson’s tenure in 1967, with a specific focus on police torture and abusive detention practices. This article argues that while this may have been a novel strategy, it was ultimately unsuccessful in forcing CPD leadership to make the changes in departmental policy and discipline which might have stopped police torture and abusive detention practices. A close examination of this legal strategy and the flawed underlying assumptions it made about the interplay between the market dynamics of the legal industry, federal civil court, and police violence offers insight into the utility of private civil suits to rectify and prevent civil rights abuses by the police.
–Dan Ernst