• IdentificationMSCA__10
  • TitleCitizens Alert records MSCA__10
  • PublisherSpecial Collections
  • RepositorySpecial Collections
  • Physical Description41.5 Linear feet
  • Date1967-2012
  • AbstractCitizens Alert was created in 1967 in Chicago, Illinois as an organization to help victims of police brutality. Since that time, it broadened its role into that of police watchdog group and sought to improve relations between the police and the communities they served.
  • OriginationCitizens Alert (Organization).

Citizens Alert is a police watchdog group based in Chicago, Illinois. Fred Glick, Jay Miller, Jack Korshak, Norman Lapping, and Reverend Stephen Whitehead created the organization in 1967 to "bring about better understanding between law enforcement agencies and the overall community, to the end that mutual respect shall characterize their relationship." (cited in "History of CA," p. 1) As an interracial, interfaith organization, Citizens Alert sought to place checks on police power and to advocate for better relations between the police and the communities they serve.

One of Citizen Alert's chief functions was to help victims of alleged police misconduct. Its volunteers recorded complaints from some of these victims, and these complaints ranged from accusations of racial profiling, to torture or police beatings and wrongful death in police custody. The volunteers advised the complainants of their options and rights, referred them to lawyers or organizations to help them further, and sometimes followed up with the police department on a complainant's behalf. The organization also spoke out against specific instances of police violence and sought restitution for the victims.

Another function of Citizens Alert was to monitor police activities. It sent volunteers or staff persons to police board meetings to take notes on what was discussed and to represent citizens' concerns, and it sent "court watchers" to monitor criminal cases to ensure they were handled fairly. The organization also furnished "neutral observers" to protests and marches in order to provide an account of the police response or any attendant violence or other disruptions.

Citizens Alert allied with likeminded organizations to further its watchdog role, such as the Alliance to End Repression and the Coalition to End Police Torture and Brutality. Citizens Alert created the latter organization to advocate for the prosecution of police officers who allegedly tortured suspects. In 1993, the coalition won a partial victory when the Chicago Police Department fired Jon Burge, a commander who it said "led his men in torture tactics to obtain confessions." (cited in Powers, "Citizens Alert Narrative," p. 1) In 2011, Burge was sentenced to more than four years in federal prison after a perjury conviction related to the resulting investigation.

Believing that being an effective watchdog also meant working with the police, Citizens Alert cultivated a relationship with Chicago law enforcement. It met with the superintendents of the Chicago Police Department and other city officials on issues of concern to minorities and to other people who believed the police treated them unfairly. It commended individual police officers when it observed them helping citizens or exercising restraint in difficult situations. Although it sometimes ran into opposition from some city officials, it also won praise from others. At a conference sponsored by Citizens Alert in 1984, Fred Rice, Superintendent of Police for Chicago, stated that "(a)ny paramilitary organization needs a civilian counterpart to monitor its activities." (cited in Powers, "N-COPA: The First Decade")

Citizens Alert sought and won reforms in the way police departments operated. It extracted a promise from Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1971 "to expand the Chicago Police Board from five to nine members to provide broader ethnic and geographic representation," although it took the city eight years for the city to make good on that promise. ("History of CA," p. 1, 2, quotation from page 1) From 1970 to 1976, it waged a successful campaign to replace the Cook County Coroner's Office with an "Office of Medical Examiner," a change it believed necessary to ensure proper investigations of deaths that were caused by police or that occurred in police custody. In 1984, Citizens Alert convinced the police superintendent to place restrictions on "hot pursuit" car chases. The organization believed that such chases, if left unchecked, caused unnecessary injuries and deaths to innocent third parties and tended to end with police beatings of the person or persons arrested. In the early 2000s, it continued to voice support for reforms, seeking, for example, to require the videotaping of all police interrogations.

In addition to its advocacy in Chicago, Citizens Alert reached out nationally, most notably through its "National Coalition for Police Accountability," or NCOPA. Created around 1991, the NCOPA project sponsored annual conferences attended by scores of "grassroots leaders" from "cities and rural communities." Beginning in 1994, it published a newsletter, "Policing by Consent," that kept members informed of new developments of interest to police watchdog groups in the United States.

Since its founding, Citizens Alert has survived on funding from a large number of foundations and from contributions from its members and interested citizens. It has also relied on the labor of a board of directors, a few paid staff members, and volunteers, including Mary Powers, who as of 2012 had devoted more than forty years to the organization. As of that year, Citizens Alert continues its mission to monitor police activity, advocate for the civil rights of victims of excessive force and abuse, build coalitions, recommend policy changes, and educate the public on criminal justice matters.

Works Consulted:


"History of CA," in "History," undated, box 1, folder 8, Citizens Alert records, University of Illinois at Chicago Library.

Powers, Mary. "Citizens Alert Narrative," 2002, in "CA—Description / History (dated)….," 1974-2002, box 1, folder 14, Citizens Alert records, University of Illinois at Chicago Library.

-----. "N-COPA: The First Decade," in Policing by Consent, premier issue (December 1994): 3, in (National Coalition for Police Accountability—NCOPA—Newsletter), 1994-1999, box 29, folder 489, Citizens Alert records, University of Illinois at Chicago Library.

"Risper, George," 1994, box 37, folder 627, Citizens Alert records, University of Illinois at Chicago Library.

Warren, James. "Burge Case Ends with a Prison Sentence and No Little Bit of Wondering." Chicago News Cooperative. 22 January 2011. http://www.chicagonewscoop.org/burge-case-ends-with-a-prison-sentence-and-no-little-bit-of-wondering/ (accessed 30 October 2012)

This collection contains the records of Citizens Alert. These records include minutes of meetings, correspondence, fundraising applications, press releases, reports authored by or for Citizens Alert, publications issued or collected by citizens alert, newspaper clippings, citizen complaints about police misconduct, and medical examiner reports.

The collection is organized into five series and several sub-series:

Series I, "Administrative and Office records," 1967-2010

Series I, sub-series 1, "General Office files," 1967-2010

Series I, sub-series 2, "Meeting Minutes," 1970-2008

Series I, sub-series 3," "Correspondence," 1970-2009

Series I, sub-series 4, "Fundraising," 1970-2009

Series II, "Activism and Outreach," 1970-2010

Series II, sub-series 1, "Projects and Activities," 1970-2010

Series II, sub-series 2, Organizations and Coalitions," 1970-2009

Series II, sub-series 3, "Files on Government," 1970-2009

Series III, "Newspaper Clippings," 1970-2010

Series III, sub-series 1, "Clippings on Individuals," 1971-2004

Series III, sub-series 2, "Clippings Grouped by Subject," 1970-2010

Series III, sub-series 3, "Miscellaneous and Unorganized Clippings," 1970-2010

Series IV, "Complaints," 1970s-2009, bulk 2000-2009

Series V, "Medical Examiner Reports," 1970s-2010

Some files in this collection are restricted. These include one file from Series I (found in folder 1276, box 74), and most of the files in Series IV, "Complaints." No reproductions of any kind, including photocopies or photographs, may be made of the contents of any restricted files.

For restricted files, patrons must sign a confidentiality agreement in which they agree to refrain from making any public or private discolsure of identifying personal information for the subjects contained within restricted portions of the collection.

Citizens Alert records, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Illinois at Chicago

  • Names
    • Citizens Alert (Organization).
    • Citizens Alert (Organization). -- Archives
  • Subject
    • Chicago Community Organizations.
    • Civic improvement.
    • Crime.
    • Police brutality.
    • Police-community relations.
    • Politics and government.
    • Prison reformers.
    • Social advocacy.
    • Social justice.
  • Geographic CoverageIllinois--Chicago.