How A Top Jewish Cop in Chicago Wound Up Managing Its Explosive Police Scandal by the Forward

How A Top Jewish Cop in Chicago Wound Up Managing Its Explosive Police Scandal

Commander Marc Buslik was greeted with blank stares as he stood before a group of rank-and-file Chicago police officers, hoping to explain why the federal government was investigating them for unconstitutional policing.

“In October of 2014,” he noted bluntly, “Officer Van Dyke decided to pump 16 bullets into Lacquan McDonald.”

His shoulders slumped and his head aimed at the floor, Buslik paced the front of the drably painted meeting room. The whole world had seen video images of Officer Jason Van Dyke killing the 17-year-old teen as he veered away from officers while carrying a small knife. Many knew, too, of the false story the department had put out afterward, before the video surfaced, claiming McDonald had lunged at and attacked the cops.

Buslik paused and looked up. The room was silent. Everyone knew this story.

Now, thanks to these revelations and more, Buslik is the man in the middle. The guy at the interface of that federal probe. Among other things, he told the cops, it was his job to obtain whatever records, documents and information the feds wanted from the force. And to give them what they needed to know and more about the Chicago Police Department and how it does business.

Buslik’s presence that day in the city’s 14th District headquarters, his own former command post in Logan Square on the city’s Northwest Side, was part of a mission of transparency and communication: the first of 22 stops in a district-by-district informational tour. Rank and file Chicago police officers needed to know what they were in for. He was the only man who could tell them.

“I find myself now with a foot in both worlds,” Buslik said later during an interview in his spacious office at police headquarters downtown. “Straddling the sometimes-electrified fence.”

It’s hardly a comfortable position. But as one of the highest-ranking Jews in the Chicago Police Department’s command structure, Buslik is familiar with what it means to inhabit multiple worlds. And if being both Jewish and a cop in one of the country’s most violent and segregated cities bucks the typical ethnic stereotype, Buslik has a ready explanation for how he ended up there.

“We can’t all be doctors and lawyers,” Buslik said.

Buslik’s unique, if uncomfortable position right now, stems from the wide-ranging Justice Deparment investigation, the goal of which is nothing less than to determine if the department’s patterns and practices have violated the Constitution or federal law.

The decision came after a Circuit Court judge ordered the release of a videotape showing Van Dyke firing his gun 16 times into McDonald. The video showed Van Dyke, continuing to shoot the youth even after the McDonald fell to the ground, motionless. Weeks later, the issue of police accountability in the city was compounded when a Chicago police officer fatally shot a mentally ill college student as well as the teen’s unsuspecting 55-year-old neighbor.

The officer who fired the gun said he feared for his safety, as the teen was wielding a baseball bat. Again, in April, the city was compelled by a court order to release a dashcam video related to the death of Heriberto Godinez, who died in the back of a police vehicle, handcuffed and face down.

But the track record of the Chicago Police Department that led to this juncture goes back further, and deeper. It includes allegations—later found by special prosecutors to be credible—that Commander Jon Burge and the detectives under him tortured more than 100 mostly African-American men from 1972 to 1991 to coerce confessions from them. The abuse allegedly involved beatings, suffocation, burns and electric shocks. But in 2006, the prosecutors, who found the charges to be well founded, said that the statute of limitations for these crimes had “regrettably” passed. Burge was fired from the force in 1993 but continues to collect his police pension. He was prosecuted and convicted in 2008 on federal charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with his testimony about his activities in a civil suit against him.

More recently, in February 2015, the British newspaper The Guardian reported in its U.S. edition that a Chicago police undercover unit maintained a “black site” where suspects were detained and interrogated “off-the-books,” with no notice to attorneys or family members, even when they inquired about them. Detainees at this facility were reportedly beaten and shackled for prolonged periods. Those held without legal counsel for 12 to 24 hours included people as young as 15, according to the Guardian, which cited attorneys and individuals who said they had been detained at the warehouse site as its sources. The CPD denied these charges.

When the U.S. Justice Department’s Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, announced a federal probe into the Chicago Police, Interim Police Superintendent John Escalante tapped Buslik, a 36-year veteran of the force, to be the liaison between the CPD and the Justice Department. Buslik’s job is to facilitate the probe and ensure that the information is turned over smoothly and completely. (Since Buslik’s appointment Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has chosen a new interim police chief, Eddie Johnson, a 27-year veteran of the department whom Buslik speaks highly of, saying he’s “pleased with the Mayor’s pick.”)

Barely two months into his new position, Buslik said he’s finally figured out the job description. And it’s anything but simple. On one side are the feds, asking Buslik to help them hold the department accountable. On the other side is an anxious police force, looking to Buslik for answers, reassurance, explanations—and loyalty.

A self-effacing man with a bent toward self-deprecating humor, Buslik, 59, is the Police Department’s only Jewish commander and the president of the Shomrim Society of Illinois, a fraternal organization of Jewish law enforcement officers.

In the new office he enjoys, thanks to his new position, he is surrounded by knickknacks such as a personalized battering ram, a Captain America action figure and a photograph of Hilary Clinton displayed prominently on his desk. When we sat down there, he told me that taking the job, while high pressure, was an easy decision.

“It took me two seconds to decide,” he said. “What we do here, what we help the department do will have implications well into the future.”

His ultimate goal for the CPD, said Buslik, is “to make sure we are doing it right. Not because there is political pressure or social pressure, just because it’s the right way to do things.”

That might be bureaucratic boilerplate. But from Buslik, it might be the product of his own deep dive into the problems the federal investigation is probing; he is currently completing a doctorate in criminology at University of Illinois at Chicago with a focus on police accountability. For Buslik, the new gig is a testing ground for examining the issue he is studying in his own backyard.

“My research has led me to this place,” said the cop, who also teaches course on the subject at the university. “Looking at other cities’ consent decrees with the Justice Department. I’ve been doing that now as part of my research, so I am intimately familiar with the process and the results.” As the former commander of the city’s 14th District, on the city’s North Side, he also oversaw the city’s body camera pilot program.

Sipping from a can of peach-pear seltzer water, Buslik refers tersely to his appointment as liaison with the feds as “logical.”

What’s logical about a nice Jewish kid from Chicago’s upper middle class suburbs growing up to be a cop on the gritty streets of one of the country’s most segregated city, with rates of murder and violence that have earned it the sobriquet “Chi-raq,” is another thing altogether.

Buslik is a native of Highland Park, a well-heeled liberal enclave nearly 30 miles north of downtown Chicago. He was raised as a fairly observant Jew. But today he considers his Jewish identity more cultural than faith based. He now lives on the far northwest side of the city — city employees are required to keep their residence within city limits —and attends synagogue only on high holidays. (His wife is Catholic.) The name Buslik is Russian, reflecting the region of the Old Country from which from which his Jewish forbears emigrated in the late 19th Century.

After graduating from college at Northeastern Illinois University, Buslik planned to join the Peace Corps. But some of his Irish city friends convinced him to take the Chicago Police Department’s entrance exam, telling him jokingly that the force had a better pension plan than anything offered by the Peace Corps. His father, who owned a private detective agency, was less than thrilled with the decision. “I think he worried for my safety and wellbeing,” Buslik said. Buslik’s mother could not weigh in with her opinion. She had passed away by the time he joined the force in 1982.

“Marc was always a feisty kid. He was always scrappy,” said his brother, Gary Buslik, who went into business and now teaches English at University of Illinois at Chicago.

There are only two other Jewish cops on the force—both deputy superintendents—who are higher ranking than Buslik. But Buslik doesn’t shy away from making the argument for the Jewish cops, despite their rarity. “In many ways it’s actually a very obvious career choice because as Jews we are interested in justice; we are interested in protecting people,” he said.

When he was still in the academy a Jewish instructor told him about The Shomrim Society of Illinois, the oldest ethnic police organization in the Midwest, founded in the mid-1950s. (The name Shomrim comes from Shomer, the Hebrew word for protector.)

Buslik recalls attending his first Shomrim function: “Here, there are people like me. I wasn’t really alone,” he recalled. As Buslik climbed the ranks, from patrol officer to lieutenant to deputy chief to commander, he stayed close with the Shomrim and has been the group’s president for the past six years. He said it connected him to others Jews in the department and made him feel empowered by his cultural heritage.

Bruce Rottner, a past president of the Shomrim and a retired deputy chief with the Chicago Police, had never seen a Jewish policemen before he joined the force and started attending Shomrim meetings. “I immediately felt conformable,” he said. “Here are other Jews doing the same thing I am doing, and some of those relationships have lasted my whole life.”

Rottner and Buslik estimate there are about 300 active members in the society, roughly two-thirds of whom come from Chicago Police. Today, the numbers are growing faster than ever.

“In the last five years I have seen more Jewish people coming into the Society than I did in the past 20 years,” Rottner said. He thinks the economy has something to do with it, pushing younger recruits into the stability the department offers

What’s more, Buslik sees his Jewish background as an asset in his new job, especially when it comes to the persistent trust issues between the African American community and the police. “My faith and cultural experience bring to the table an appreciation for being victimized by those in power,” he said. “I think as a Jew there is considerable empathy with the underdog.”

Buslik’s typical day is filled with conference calls and meetings in which he and his three-person team are fielding the more than 80 inquiries the Justice Department has sent their way since the process began. The requests comprise everything from CPD’s disciplinary and appeal process to copies of all the department’s policies concerning the recruitment hiring and promotion of CPD employees.

Shuffling papers on his desk Buslik pulled out a request from the Justice Department asking for data on the CPD budget. Such requests seem to trickle in almost daily. Once he gathers the information he sends it to be vetted by the law firm hired for the probe, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr, in Washington, DC. When they approve it, he sends the response on to the Justice Department.

While gathering in this information and providing it to the feds, Buslik must also assuage the fears of the various unions—captains, sergeants, Fraternal Order of Police—about what this probe could mean for their ranks.

“I don’t know how we ran a police department before email,” he exclaimed.

Dean Angelo Sr., president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said rank-and-file officers see Buslik as the right man for the job. “He has an academic background that few people have,” Angelo said. “That separates him from the pack and allows him the ability to play the dual role quite well.”

Then there’s keeping the Police Commissioner as well as the city’s Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, in the loop. “I talk to the Mayor’s office, frankly, more than I’d like to talk to the Mayor’s office,” he said. He quickly added, “Although I most certainly do not feel like they are interfering with what we are doing.”

Buslik expects the probe to last between 12 to 18 months, adding that City Hall would like it to be completed by November. He is highly doubtful of that timeline. Once it’s concluded the Justice Department will return with their findings. The best possible outcome, Buslik tells me, is a negotiated settlement involving an internal monitor for anywhere between five or 10 years. The worst is a consent decree, in which a federal judge will oversee the city as it works to comply with the DOJ’s demands. In the latter scenario the city could also face onerous sanctions. Buslik believes the probe will end with a settlement, though he admits not everyone feels so sanguine.

In mid-April a police accountability taskforce appointed by Emanuel released a scathing report that found racism has factored into a long pattern of failures by the Chicago Police Department that include the mistreatment of residents, a breech of trust between police and communities of color and a lack of operational oversight.

An eternal optimist, Buslik believes that an outside eye will only make the police department and it’s policies better. “Police policy should be like the Constitution. It should be a living entity that is always being evaluated, always being tested and always open to interpretation and change,” he said.

What is already under review for an overhaul is the department’s use of force policy—the directives outlining the amount of force police can use to mitigate an incident, make an arrest, or protect themselves or others from harm.

“What we want police officers to do is start thinking about not just what can I do here, but what should I do here. What really is the more just way to do things?” Buslik tells me. He concludes his point with a ubiquitous post-Ferguson phrase among police accountability circles: The sanctity of human life. Buslik loves the saying. “You will see more and more police policies embrace that term, including our own,” he added.

Back at the 14th District, explaining what the investigation looks like thus far, Buslik aimed for transparency, something the department has fallen short on in recent years.

“It’s not a cliché to say this is an opportunity,” he said. Adding that the department will finally get resources they’ve been asking for—more training, more equipment, more sergeants, more hands on deck for mental health calls. “Get ready because you’re going to be spending a lot more time at the academy. Training is going to be a very big piece of this,” he said. (Buslik estimates it could cost the city roughly $130 million to comply with the probe.)

He tried lightening the mood with a joke: “I have learned in the last six weeks just how much I don’t like attorneys.” It was met with silence. And no hands were raised when he asked for questions.

It’s a tough week to for Chicago to hear news about a federal inquiry. The CPD is facing surging crime levels, with murders double what they were at this point last year and shooting incidents are up 120% over the same period. Just two days earlier a CPD news release circulated that citied the rise as “unacceptable.” Many blame it on police worrying that they may become the next viral video.

Still, Buslik tried to set the officers at ease. “They are not interested in the activities of any individual police officers,” he told them, referring to the DOJ. “It’s about the organization. Which frankly, isn’t as perfect as I would like.”

How A Top Jewish Cop in Chicago Wound Up Managing Its Explosive Police Scandal

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