The Belgian National Railroad did a safety study, the old joke goes, and discovered that most accidents involve the last car on the train.
So they got rid of the caboose.
That isn't a very funny joke, but it is an apt one, in light of Tuesday's surprise firing of Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy. You have an understaffed, overstretched police department charged with keeping the peace in the most segregated city in the United States, in a city whose murder rate is three times that of New York City, an ossified department that has proved maddeningly resistant to reform, whose officers — surprise, surprise — reflect all the fears and prejudices found in the society as a whole, and then some. When they screw up, as humans do, they go into their duck-and-cover act, forgetting that everyone has a video camera in their phone, and they're videotaping themselves in the bargain, so lying your way through a crisis just doesn't work the way it used to.
Anyone think that replacing McCarthy with someone new will make anything better? Beyond making life better for McCarthy, that is, who now gets to lope off into the sunset to go lick his wounds as police chief of Rancho Mirage or some such garden spot, somewhere he doesn't have to listen to Rahm Emanuel scream at him twice a day. And the mayor gets to present firing McCarthy as the kind of dynamic action he likes to cite as evidence of his own endless chain of success, even though nothing at all is working for him lately, and the myth is definitely toast.
Firing McCarthy doesn't solve any of Chicago's problems. In fact, it creates three more:
Problem One: who replaces him? Someone from within the force who, weaned on the you've-got-my-back-I've-got-yours buddyism that is the air of the Chicago Police Department, knows how things work and could change them were he inclined to. But he wouldn't be; that's how he lasted so long in the first place. Anyone who has risen high enough within the CPD to be on the short list for superintendent should be excluded from consideration.
Bring in an outsider, however, and the rank and file immediately hate him, on general principles, for being an outsider and suggesting that any young cop who arrives with a gun and dream can't grow up to be superintendent. They'll resist with all their might whatever Supt. Not-From-Here tries to do even more than they'd resist someone from within trying the same thing, not that someone from within would do anything beyond symbolic chair shuffling.
That's Problem One. Problem Two: how Rahm Emanuel, whose reputation was built on his invincibility, weathers this latest humiliation and keeps from sinking into Early Onset Lame Duckism. Bad enough he was forced into a run-off with Chuy Garcia, a man who at times seemed challenged to fog a mirror. Now revivified by the smell of the mayor's blood, Garcia has reared up from his political grave to claw at the mayor. It's going to be a long three years for Emanuel. And us.
Problem Three is the real problem, underlying all this. It isn't McCarthy's fault, or Emanuel's fault or even Anita Alvarez's fault, which is really saying something, because everything is her fault. That problem is: how do we fix the grotesque undervaluing of human life that is behind the Laquan McDonald atrocity? It's as if even the public doesn't want to notice. It wasn't the 16 shots, horrible as that was, that was the most horrible part of the video. It was the cops letting the teenager lie dying in the street, unaided, uncomforted, almost unnoticed. As if he were a dog. How do we fix that? Cameras might cow cops into grudgingly doing their jobs better, although Jason Van Dyke certainly wasn't inspired to excellence. Besides, cameras break. We need a police force that knows the people they're policing, the dreaded community policing that was tried and abandoned because it costs money and officers we don't have.
The $5 million given to McDonald's family is viewed only as hush money. Anybody noticed another awful injustice: the same family that left him a ward of the state after two abuse investigations gets a giant payday at his death? You could hire a lot of cops for $5 million. And those cops could get to better know the people they're policing. And then they will be less inclined to shoot them.