The Sheriff Who Wants the Public to See How Brutal His Jail Guards Can Be

After years of inmate abuse, a Cook County, Illinois, lawman is trying to flood the facilities he runs with sunlight.

Jim Young / Reuters

Prisoners are brutalized by correctional officers with scandalous frequency. A recent abuse scandal in Los Angeles County ultimately sent former Sheriff  Lee Baca to jail. In Texas, “the state prison system’s inspector general has referred nearly 400 cases of staff sex crimes against inmates to prosecutors. An analysis by The Marshall Project found that prosecutors refused to pursue almost half of those cases.” In Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s list of misdeeds is too long to summarize in a sentence. In New York, the union for prison guards has helped dozens of abusive members to keep their jobs. Last year, human rights groups “called for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Florida state prisons, contending that ‘immediate intervention’ is necessary to stop the widespread abuse, neglect, torture and deaths of inmates in the Florida Department of Corrections.”

And in Cook County, Illinois? There is brutal inmate abuse there, too. But Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is making efforts as aggressive as any I’ve seen to confront and improve on the status quo. In recent years, he installed 2,400 fixed-position video cameras and purchased handheld cameras and body cameras for guards.

Then, last week, he took a very unusual step: “He decided to release videos in cases where a civilian oversight board has sustained allegations of excessive force without waiting for Freedom of Information Act requests,” the Washington Post reports.

He declared, “The public has a right to know when officers abuse the public trust.” If you follow police reform efforts you’ve probably guessed who opposes his approach:

The local union called the videos' release “nothing but a political move.”

“Posting these videos on public websites is not only a violation of privacy of our officers, but it’s infringing on their right to a fair trial. The 'transparency' of these videos only goes one way,” Teamsters Local 700 said in a statement. “It’s not a true outlook of what happens at the jail on a daily basis, which are only small clips of the entire alleged incidents.”

There is a grain of truth to what the correctional officer’s union says. This is a political move. The sheriff wants to fire guards who abuse inmates. The union fights to save the jobs of guards who abuse inmates. And insofar as it can wage the fight behind closed doors, it can more easily prevail. But the political calculation changes if the public is permitted to see the behavior in question. Suddenly it’s a lot harder to keep guards on the job after particularly egregious brutality.

The other union objections are weak.

The video is only released after an independent oversight panel sustains allegations of excessive force, and the union is free to file a public-records request and post even more video if it feels a clip was truncated at a misleading moment.

The footage released so far involves 14 officers.

“Five of them were fired, one resigned, and eight were suspended without pay for between 45 and 180 days,” the Chicago Sun-Times reports, citing the sheriff’s office. The incidents happened in 2011 and 2012. And Cara Smith, a Cook County Sheriff Department spokesperson, told the newspaper “the public should expect to see more videos in the coming months, as cases come before the merit board.”

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