The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Social Contracts, Containment and Laquan McDonald

Protesters walk down the middle of Michigan Avenue on Friday, November 27, hoping to disrupt Black Friday shopping in the wake of charging of a Chicago police officer with the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.  Source:

For those who haven’t heard, Chicago has joined the ranks of Ferguson, MO, New York, Cleveland and Baltimore, among others, as the focal point of protests related to a police shooting of a young black male.  Laquan McDonald was a 17-year-old young man shot 16 times by officer Jason Van Dyke on October 26, 2014 (the police dash-cam video of the shooting is in the linked story).  The shooting and questionable handling by police and investigators sparked protests in Chicago this weekend, shutting down many stores on the city’s Magnificent Mile on the busiest shopping day of the year.

Laquan McDonald was shot and killed 13 months ago, but the rage and frustration resulting from his death has only grown recently.   There was knowledge in limited circles about the dash-cam video that captures the shooting, but the video was suppressed by the Chicago Police Department for more than a year, citing an ongoing investigation into the shooting.  It was only when a court ruled a week ago that the video must be released to the public by Wednesday (November 25) that the general public witnessed young McDonald’s horrific murder.  Officer Jason Van Dyke has been charged with murder, and protesters are pushing for the ouster of Chicago Police Superintendent Gerry McCarthy and the resignation of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

How did we get here?  Not just Chicago, or New York, or Cleveland, or Baltimore or Ferguson, either.  How did our nation — all our cities and towns — arrive at the point where this has become the latest flashpoint on race and inequality in America?  Many will say that killings like this have been happening for decades, but the ubiquity of video technology brings things immediately to light.  That would be true.  However, I see this as the result of institutional and societal choices that were made long ago, which are now being rightfully challenged.  This has as much to do with what our society, we, have asked of police.

If we examine urban policing in America in an historical context, you can see why.

The capture of persons suspected of committing a crime has always been a primary role of police. In early American cities this function was often carried out by sheriffs or loosely organized “posses”.  The concept was simple: capture suspects and bring them to justice.  The notion of protecting and serving, either persons or property, was poorly understood at the time.  Protection was a personal responsibility, one still adhered to by gun ownership proponents.  In fact, in the event of large scale demonstrations, protect-and-serve responsibilities were often reserved for national guard troops, and not local police.

One hundred years ago, police were not called in to quell disturbances as they are today.  They were as likely to participate in the disturbance as to quash it.  Witness these pictures from the 1919 Chicago Race Riot:

Rioters walking through the Bronzeville neighborhood in Chicago accompanied by police (dark shirts, right), looking to engage in violent acts.  Source:, Chicago Commission on Race Relations.  

A Chicago police officer (dark shirt) and rioter stone a man to death during the 1919 Chicago Race Riot.  Source:, Chicago Commission on Race Relations.

Like most disturbances of the time, the 1919 Chicago Race Riot ended when order was restored by 6,000 Illinois National Guardsmen, led by the 11th Illinois Infantry Regiment.  Troops were called to Chicago by Governor Frank Lowden.

Over time our early 20th century cities grew larger and more complex, and cities began to realize that they needed to accept the protect-and-serve function for themselves.  Police were increasingly called upon to stand in the middle of civil disturbances and to protect life and property.  This could be viewed as perhaps the first significant rewriting of the social contract between police and the public.  This wasn’t strictly for race-related disturbances, either.  During the 1930’s, police intervened in numerous workers protestsunion strikes, and other disturbances.  This continued through the 1950’s, as police were asked to intervene in even more race-related riots and protests.

Cicero residents protesting the integration of homes in Cicero, IL, outside of Chicago, in 1951.  Source:

It’s important to note that during this period, police were generally asked to separate protesters from their supposed targets, but not to put an end to protests — or even to violent acts.

This changed with the civil unrest of the 1960’s, and led to another rewriting of the social contract between police and the public.  The disturbances of the ’60s were different from earlier disturbances.  They represented the frustrations of groups in inner cities with the lack of progress in economic opportunities, a sense of powerlessness, and a concern that as suburbanization spread, opportunity was moving away from them.  On the surface the societal response was to confront the issues and improve the conditions of inner city residents through the enactment of civil rights legislation.  However, below the surface the societal response was to develop a law-and-order approach designed to contain unrest within certain areas, protecting and serving those living on the other side of the invisible boundary.

Police were no longer asked to join ranks with community residents to exact violence, or form walls of protection separating groups of protesters.  They were now asked to contain unrest at its perceived source, and utilize any means necessary to prevent its spread.

In many respects, Chicago police serve the interests not just of the city of Chicago, but of the entire region.  Chicago police have been given the broad authority to protect not only Chicago neighborhoods, but also outlying Chicago suburbs.  CPD serves and protects Schaumburg or Orland Park as much, if not moreso, as Englewood or Garfield Park.  The actions of urban police officers, under our existing social arrangement, is contain the spread of crime and hope for its decline.  Urban police officers have been tasked with engaging potential crime at its source, and their actions demonstrate this view of their authority.

Allegations of police abuse, shootings and killings have been on the rise since this new social contract was established.  And this is a concern for all urban police districts.

Calls for the dismissal of a police superintendent, or mayor, will continue as the frustration with our current situation exists.  But they will have little impact.  The nature of policing will have to be reimagined, and a new contract must be codified, to prevent more senseless killings.

2 Responses to “Social Contracts, Containment and Laquan McDonald”

  1. D Holmes

    Great insights on an important topic. What role do you think increases in diversity among the police ranks have played over the last 50 years (the post race riot era)? Are the numbers of minority officers still disproportionately small? Are these officers subject to corruption by the same influences (code of silence, etc.)?


  2. Kevin Klinkenberg

    This is such an important line: \”This has as much to do with what our society, we, have asked of police.\”We ask the police to go to great lengths to \”protect\” us, to fight an unwinnable war on drugs, and so much more, and then we learn that some officers cross the line and commit reprehensible acts of violence. And somehow much of America is shocked by this knowledge. It's really quite predictable. Time for some sea changes in thinking and long looks in the mirror.



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