"I'm very much a proponent of trying to change the warrior mentality into that of a guardian."

The following is an interview with LEAP speaker and Commander Marc Buslik, who has spent the last 39 years in the Chicago Police Department. He talks about how far policing has come in building better relationships with communities and the work that still needs to be done.

Roshun Shah: What drew you into police work, and why did you join the Chicago Police Department? 

Commander Marc Buslik: When I was in college in the mid-1970s, my plan was to graduate and go into the Peace Corps. I grew up in Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago along the north shore of Lake Michigan — an upper middle class, Jewish community. 

A couple friends told me they were going to go take the test to become a Chicago police officer. I really had no interest, but they convinced me it was a changing time, and the police department had a better pension plan than the Peace Corps. So, I wound up doing that and met a lieutenant in the police department, who was also one of my professors. He got promoted to deputy superintendent and talked me into applying for a position as a civilian investigator in the old Office of Professional Standards, a civilian staffed body. They investigated complaints against the police. Initially I took the job there, and then exactly two years later, I entered the police academy.


What is your current role, and what does that entail?

I'm currently a district commander, which is a command-level position in charge of one of the 22 patrol districts here in the city. I describe my district as the nine square miles around Wrigley Field. Those who are not from the Chicago area, I just tell them, I've got a big block of land along Lake Michigan, a few miles north of downtown.

Downtown Chicago
Source: Wiki Commons

You've been working with Chicago law enforcement for nearly four decades. In that time, you've seen the murder rate in the city, particularly in the South Side, skyrocket to the point where some people in popular culture began referring to Chicago as “Chiraq.” Based on your experience, why do you think Chicago has a much higher murder rate than cities like New York and Los Angeles?

Almost exclusively our street-level violence is related to gangs. Number one, it's related to the drug trade. While we're not unique, this is different than most other large cities. The gangs are so intertwined with the drug trade. We talk about the racial divide in the drug market. Like many other things, it's a generalization, and it's simplistic, but it's about the white drug user, the Hispanic transportation, and the African-American street level sales, but that kind of sets the background for the violence. What it means is most of the victims of street-level violence, certainly firearm violence, are from the African-American community, because that's where the street-level drug sales take place. And much like McDonald's versus Burger King, or Mobil versus Shell, there's competition at the street level. No, McDonald's is not shooting Burger King customers, but that's what happens with the drug trade. 

Next, unlike other cities, particularly New York, you don't age out of the gang. This is not like West Side Story. Gangs are a cultural affectation here. Gang membership is multigenerational.

There's a fairly static description of drug territories in Chicago, so we track it closely. I can generate a map showing this area is gang A, the other side of the street for three blocks is gang B. And because of that, the gang membership is so ingrained in some communities, and it's all about protecting that community. So, when we talk about people not cooperating with the police in shooting investigations, it's less about them not trusting the police than it is about protecting the gang culture. So, we have to work at both of those things: improving relationships which have historically been poor, as well as trying to counter that gang culture.


The murder rate has dropped substantially in Chicago recently. Why do you think that is?

We're approaching it from two different angles — from the more traditional side, and the less traditional side. On the more traditional side, we've improved intelligence gathering. We've gotten better at targeting the individuals responsible for violence. We've been able to do some good preventative measures using predictive analytics. We are more visible in the hot spots, because people are less likely to shoot each other if the police are there. We've improved those more traditional measures — doing more of it and getting better at it. On the less traditional side is community outreach, community interactions, and improving relationships from both sides — not just the police having a better understanding of the communities that they're working in, but communities understanding the police role and becoming more supportive of what the police are trying to do. They work hand in hand, and they need to.


What is the source of the distrust between the communities and law enforcement? You have used this phrase before, “a crisis of legitimacy.” What do you mean by that?

We could get very high level and just talk about it in certain communities, particularly African-American communities, and the abuse of those communities by the police. I'm not proud of it, believe me. I think one of the greatest things, in the almost 39 years I've been with the police department, is that we've worked on pushing that behind us. But the actual reality— unless we talk about it, things don't change — is that we can't pretend the history isn't there. I'm not going to give a history lesson of the police, but we all know that's been the case. It's not universal. It's not applicable in 100% of communities, but we know it's happened. We're doing a pretty good job in policing, in acknowledging and trying to counter it. We still have a ways to go. I am so pleased that the people who get hired to be the police today just don't have that same kind of baggage. Today's young people see the world differently. I'm very happy about that.

There are other pieces to the legitimacy puzzle — understanding the role of government in people's lives, the police being the most visible representation of government. The need to not be so law-and-order focused. I'm very much a proponent of trying to change the warrior mentality into that of a guardian. There's a time when the SWAT team is needed. But that average beat officer doesn't need to be thinking like that as they go about their day interacting with community members.


You spoke a bit about what you want to see in the future – expanding on that a little bit: for the future of the Chicago PD, what are some positive things you are seeing in the works that you would like to see more of?

I would like to see more interaction with the community in a non-response role. I want more interaction, and in different settings. For over 25 years, we've been doing what we call beat meetings, which are essentially local community meetings. They are fabulous because they give an opportunity for the community to talk to their local police officers in a different setting. They give officers an opportunity to hear their day-to-day concerns. Then we can start to do some problem solving. We just got through a series of meetings with each of the districts. I'd like to see more of that.

When I talk about legitimacy, I have this theoretical model. One of the pieces of this model is that it doesn't matter how good we do something in policing, if it doesn't matter to the community, it doesn't have value. We need to know what matters to them. Some communities are more concerned about law and order, and they want us out there. Other communities say they don't have a lot of crime, and they don't want us just arresting people, they'd rather have us doing something else. So, we need to understand that is a valid part of the equation. We're trying to get that that dialogue is a regular thing, not just something special, or the action du jour. 

And we need to continue to refine our actual crime fighting methods. Predictive analytics are important. We have to be careful that we really are targeting the bad guys, and not just people who might look like bad guys. Our methods are improving.

Frankly, we need to do a better job getting the community to understand what police officers do and who we are. Policing, certainly in a big city like Chicago, probably has the most diverse workforce of any government body. In my district, you name it, I've got it. That's not going to be as universal in rural areas or certain parts of the country, but I want people to understand it. I want people to understand we're not the boogeyman. When we do things, we need to do a better job of expressing to the community why we've done them. Then we need to be willing to hold ourselves accountable when we make mistakes – quit circling the wagons.

I think we’re on a good path. We’ve got good street signs telling us where to go, we just have to follow them.


We've been talking a lot about the relationship between the Chicago PD and the community. I want to talk a bit about the CPD internally. With officers often having to respond to situations of extreme violence, what kind of mental health services are available?

We have a fairly robust employee assistance program. We've just added about a half a dozen additional clinicians to support our officers. We also have a peer support program to provide ready and very empathetic access to support services. Do these solve our dilemma? No. There are stressors you don't know. Being a police officer has a lot of different kinds of stressors, and we try to intervene on those known stressors. But we can't know everything that's going on in people's lives. We just try to get it out there that services are available, and they can and will help. We have a moral obligation to take care of each other.


In your experience, do officers often take advantage of those services? And if not, why would they not?

I think they do. Probably not as much as we would like for everybody to. It could be a variety of things. People are concerned about confidentiality, which is somewhat ironic, because it really is a very private matter. We are currently working with the state legislature to get a law passed that would extend confidentiality to the peer support system, because they're not licensed clinicians.

As a practical matter, sometimes it's not convenient to people, particularly households where both parties are police officers. We have a lot of police couples. Scheduling is difficult with or without children, but with children, it's very difficult. That's one of the reasons why we've hired additional clinicians, so we do have support staff available when they're needed. I'd like to think that we've dramatically reduced the stigma attached to seeking mental health care and support. It has certainly changed since I first joined the police department. We're simply more open to getting that kind of care. The country, in general, is more accepting of mental health care now, and we just have to continue that, but there's some hesitation.

There's some concern about work. Will they be forced to use medical time? Will they be able to continue to work? What if they get put on medication? Those are not the problems that they once were. We recognized it. We recognize you can be on certain medications and still be working, and they're not going to affect your behavior or performance in such a way that you're not safe. So those are very practical things that may get in the way at times, but it's better. I think it's just a question of making sure everybody understands what's available.


What do you see is the future of the Chicago PD? What’s something people can look forward to?

I think a good way to try to understand it is to look at the recent consent decree. There's a lot in it, but I think it will help people understand the direction we're headed. We're working very hard to convince people of why we think those things are important. It's not just that we've been forced into this and we have to sign off on it. No, we sincerely believe that these things will help us transform into an agency that will meet the needs of the city now, and for many years to come. It centers on changing the relationship between the police and the community on both sides.


Commander Marc Buslik has been with the Chicago Police Department since 1980 and became a LEAP speaker in 2019. He's an expert on dozens of policing issues, including police-community relations, police training and mental health, body-cameras, arrest quotas, procedural justice, homelessness, and accountability and transparency. 

Roshun Shah is the speakers bureau associate for LEAP. 

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