Shoot to Kill: The Chicago Police Department and Black Power

Mae Connolly

As part of the University’s History and American Studies degree, second year students are trained to make use of the rich archival collections held around the city relating to the history of the United States. Students work with collections held at John Rylands Research Institute and Library and the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre, and are shown how to request, use, and interpret such sources in the context of the programme’s revamped module, AMER2002: US History Long Essay. This past year students examined documents relating to the United Bronx Parents group, which was set up in the mid-1960s amid the civil rights revolutions, and policing in Chicago following the urban rebellions of the mid- and late-1960s, and their research was the basis of an extended study of these subjects. Their main findings are shared in blog posts.

My project examined Chicago at a very specific moment—in the late 1960s and amid the emergence of Black Power. Urban rebellions were sweeping the US in the late 1960s, with protests taking place in Chicago in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, and during the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention. As well as a longstanding centre of black activism, Chicago was also the site of disproportionately intense police violence towards its African American population, and the Chicago Police Department was very much a part of Mayor Richard Daley’s ‘white power structure’.

My research during spring 2022 was based around a unique body of materials held at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre, and found in its US Civil Rights Collection. These materials offered perspectives on how US police departments, particularly in the city of Chicago, responded to the aftermath of the urban rebellions of the late 1960s. They included materials relating to the Afro American Patrolman’s League (AAPL), a fascinating group within the Chicago Police Department, which was founded in 1968 as a response to Mayor Daley’s “shoot-to-kill” order, and made up of black officers who rejected discrimination. I was drawn to examine the apparent contradiction of black police officers operating within a racist department while also working with groups such as the Chicago Black Panthers.

Sources such as the CPD’s 1972 training bulletin provided a unique perspective on the department’s responses to the urban rebellions, especially those that followed in the wake of King’s assassination, in April 1968, and the Democratic National Convention four months later. The bulletin’s aim ‘to actively promote mutual understanding and respect between the police and the citizen’ was undoubtedly connected to Mayor Daley’s view of the black community as ‘a problem in need of containment’, helping to justify increased police-civilian liaisons. With its aim being to create a ‘wholesome image of the police’, the bulletin reads as a concerted effort to promote, and celebrate, the city’s police department. It highlighted programs such as ‘Officer Friendly’ visits to schools, which emphasized the importance of law-and-order for young people. Similarly, programs like the ‘District Explorer’, which gave high school students tours of police headquarters, were done to improve the police’s image, rather than address the conditions and distrust that were already prevalent within black communities.

In fact, the CPD rarely engaged with black communities in any manner other than as a negative and hostile force. As historian Simon Balto argues in Occupied Territory (2019), Chicago’s black community was ‘over patrolled and under protected’—offering an increasingly militarized presence alongside de facto neglect of those communities. Official government publications, such as the 1967 Kerner Commission report, published in response to the nationwide urban disorders of the Sixties, take a similar perspective. It ascribed the causes of the riots of 1967 to the frustrations of black urban life, which significantly, white society was ‘deeply implicated’ within. The report claims that the police were ‘not merely a “spark” factor’ in causing the rioting, and that police misconduct in whatever form would, and had, contributed directly to the risk of civil disorder within black communities.

The Afro American Patrolman’s League (AAPL) was one response to broader and prolonged instances of police brutality within these communities. As a poster for the organisation shows, the AAPL tried to combat police abuse, brutality, and harassment, as well as police negligence. The League referred to itself as representatives of police reform, guardians against abuse. The poster advertises a free complaint and referral service, accompanied by the slogan ‘Brothers Helping Brothers to be Brothers’. It embraces the raised Black fist symbol, which in the aftermath of the Mexican Olympics of 1968, was internationally known as a subversive symbol of Black solidarity. In aligning themselves with such Black Power symbolism, it is clear that racism within the CPD politicised black police officers, and their provision of ‘open, stinging criticism’ coincided with Black Power organising across Chicago, and in other black and minority communities.

 The late sixties and early seventies can be viewed as a major transitional period for policing across the US—and the city of Chicago, viewed through these documents, can be seen as a template of the more oppressive treatment meted out to urban neighbourhoods. The intense policing of black urban spaces laid the groundwork for racial injustices into the twenty-first century, with police brutality remaining a major and prevalent issue, from which the recent Black Lives Matter movement has emerged.