It is difficult to understate how far morale had fallen in the Chicago Police Department in January 1960 after the Summerdale scandal broke.
The arrest and conviction of eight police officers for operating a burglary ring cemented public perception of rampant corruption on the force and made the city the brunt of jokes. Sons and daughters of cops heard a new and biting schoolyard taunt: "burglars in blue." The embarrassing affair cut short Mayor Richard J. Daley's Florida vacation and the career of police Commissioner Timothy O'Connor, who retired before the month was out.
But riding to the rescue of Daley and the department wasn't a hard-nosed, tough-talking lawman ready to whip everybody into shape. The unlikely person who would restore morale and push the Chicago Police Department into the 20th century was a tall, slender, graying man who went by the title of dean: O.W. Wilson. He had chaired Daley's search committee to replace O'Connor, was the dean of the criminology school at the University of California at Berkeley, and the author of books with scintillating titles such as "Police Records: Their Installation and Use," "Police Administration" and "Police Planning."
When the search committee offered up its own chairman to lead the department, a reportedly surprised Daley immediately approved. Wilson didn't just bring a sterling reputation, which provided the mayor with much-needed political cover, he also came bearing immediate policy changes ironed out by the committee.
They included suggestions ranging from improving officer uniforms and appearance to a major reorganization of the force, though the most important and revolutionary change was to diminish political meddling and control of the department.
"It is time for them to stop playing politics with the top command of the police department and quit assigning captains on a basis of the influence of ward committeemen and aldermen," Cook County State's Attorney Benjamin Adamowski had said shortly after the scandal hit, zeroing in on what many considered the root of all the evil.
The politicians didn't stop at captains, though, the Tribune reported. The scandal "disclosed, once again, the machinery of the long lived, well-oiled, payoff system that provides big time crime syndicate protection. The city's policemen are the collectors. Politicians proved the 'fix.' Gamblers, gunmen, hoodlum union leaders, dope peddlers and vice lords are the benefactors," the newspaper said on Feb. 23, 1960, as part of the extensive coverage announcing Wilson's hiring. The Tribune explained how the crooked system eroded and rotted the department from top to bottom. "It is a world in which wrong is right — in which all incentive for honor, justice, suppression of crime, and even fundamental discipline has disappeared from broad divisions of the police department, the courts, the all-pervading Democratic political party machine that has a strangle hold on Chicago proper."
A job in the department was based on whom you knew. Advancement in the department was also based on clout, and policemen who opposed it watched as the less-qualified moved up the ranks.
"This situation would be ludicrous if it were not so shameful," Adamowski said.
While Wilson left the university to come to Chicago, he had an extensive police background. He started as a patrolmen in 1921 in Berkeley, Calif., and became police chief of Fullerton, Calif., a month before his 25th birthday. He also served as the top cop in Wichita, Kan., for 11 years. Because of that, Wilson knew he needed the rank-and-file behind him almost as much as he needed the support of the mayor.
To that end, his reform plan included proposals that would play well with the officers, including better pay, allowing policemen to supplement their salaries with side jobs, improving education and training opportunities, buying better equipment and cars, and discontinuing use of much-despised three-wheeled motorcycles.
He made his direct pitch less than three weeks later in two dramatic speeches at the Amphitheatre in the Union Stock Yards, a morning session to half the force and another that same evening to the rest of the department. The Tribune reported that he spoke bluntly, telling detectives and patrol officers he would hold them to a higher standard, and that the department turnaround was mainly in their hands or it risked being "gobbled up by political wolves."
And he got their support, though not without a number of disputes. And for some, the respect came later. But by the time he retired in 1967, Wilson could point to an impressive record: He restored morale, increased manpower and salaries, introduced the blue-and-white squad cars topped by "flashing blue gumballs" that became a symbol of the department, renovated police headquarters at 1121 S. State St. and moved his own office there from City Hall, completely revamped the antiquated communications network and "dressed up the uniforms." He created an intelligence unit to fight organized crime, a canine unit, reorganized the detective division and reduced police districts by nearly half. He also started working on desegregation, ordering some white cops to partner with minority officers.
How much he was able to remove the taint of politics is debatable, though he certainly put the department on the right track, changing the nature of the relationship and setting up his officers to better resist such influences. Certainly the department wouldn't be immune from scandal and crisis. In 1968, the Democratic National Convention would come to town and the city would be subjected to a "police riot."
But when Wilson died in 1972, Franklin Kreml, president of the Chicago Police Board, in trying to sum up the lawman's career, said, "His accomplishments are many, but the thing that stands out above all is that he gave back to the department its rightful pride and self-respect."
For its part, the Tribune thought that was fitting for a man who represented the "best aspect of the Chicago police department."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun