About 20 years ago I was driving down Cermak Road in Cicero, Illinois, when I passed a Cicero police car that had pulled someone over for a traffic violation, and I thought, “Man, that’s got to suck!”
Just imagine being that motorist: Cicero had been mobbed up since Al Capone took over and made it his headquarters in 1924, local newspapers routinely discussed the brothels operating openly in the north-end bars, and the police were pretty clearly bought and paid for by the Chicago Outfit, and yet here you were with a Cicero cop getting in your face because you blew through a red light.
Over the next twenty years, the FBI indicted the mayor and sent him to prison. His wife took over, but she went to federal prison too. The FBI also tore into the police department, indicting so many cops that the Cook County Sheriff had to take over policing Cicero until the department could be rebuilt, which required replacing more than half the officers.
Cicero government is now fairly clean, at least by local standards. The same cannot be said of nearby Melrose Park:
Former Melrose Park Police Chief Vito Scavo used “extortion and strong-arm tactics” to get local institutions–including bars and restaurants, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church, Navistar and Kiddieland amusement park–to use guards from his security firm for protection, a federal prosecutor charged Tuesday.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Stephen Andersson told a federal jury in his opening arguments in Scavo’s racketeering and extortion trial that Scavo ran his private security firm out of the Melrose Park police station. He often used on-duty village police officers who were paid twice, once by the village and once by the client, for their service, Andersson said.
Assuming these charges are true, it seems unlikely that Scavo was getting work for his men just because he was a nice guy who wanted to help out his employees. Probably, in the Chicago way, he was getting a percentage of the action. This was a criminal conspiracy within the police department. Who knows how many officers were involved?
I’m a little worried about this.
In September of 2006 I was a juror on a criminal case where the charge was aggravated battery against a police officer. In my account of the trial, I described the testimony of an officer on the Hybernia police force who claimed he was attacked by the defendant. We the jury found the defendant guilty.
The thing is, as I made clear at the time, Hybernia was a fake name that I used to disguise the case. Enough time has gone by that I see no harm in revealing that Hybernia was really Melrose Park. And at the time of the incident, the force was still run by Chief Scavo.
Which raises the question: Should we the jury have trusted the testimony of a Melrose Park police officer? Even if he wasn’t one of the cops earning money through Scavo’s (alleged) extortion racket, he probably knew about it. Doesn’t that kind of raise doubts about his credibility? Or are we to believe that a cop in a crooked department would never stoop so low as to tell a few lies in court?
Sidebar: On a totally unrelated note, Scavo’s defense attorney, Thomas Breen, saw things differently:
Breen compared the Melrose Park Police Department to a social club and likened the village to television’s fictional small town of Mayberry.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen The Andy Griffith Show but I’m pretty sure Mayberry didn’t have that many strip clubs.