Chicago’s Brutal Example

A new Department of Justice report shows that Chicago police have proven immune to reform.

Chicago, IL. Bobbi Bowers / Flickr

Only days after Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was questioned at a raucous Senate confirmation hearing about what his views on systemic police violence would be as US attorney general, the civil rights division of the Department of Justice issued its official report on the Chicago Police Department.

In official findings that should surprise no one that has lived in Chicago over the last several decades, the report was a scathing ninety-thousand-word indictment of the CPD. It first broadly found that the CPD “engages in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional use of force. ”

The report is worth quoting at length for what it claims about the department. It found the CPD

Uses Deadly Force in Violation of the Fourth Amendment and Department Policy;

Uses Less-Lethal Force in Violation of the Fourth Amendment and Department Policy;

Does Not Effectively Use Crisis Intervention Techniques to Reduce the Need for Force;

Fails to Accurately Document and Meaningfully Review Officers’ Use of Force, thereby Perpetuating a Pattern of Unreasonable Force, and that

Video Evidence Suggests a Broader Pattern or Practice of Unconstitutional Use of Force.

The report then went on to condemn, in rich detail, the systemic failures of the CPD in the interconnected areas of discipline, training, supervision, and control. Together with a pervasive police code of silence, in the report’s words, all “contribute to the CPD’s pattern and practice of unconstitutional conduct.”

In the crucial area of police discipline, the DOJ found that

the City has put in place policies and practices that impede the investigation of officer misconduct;

investigations that CPD does conduct are neither complete nor fair;

insufficient staffing contributes to [the Independent Police Review Authority]’s investigative deficiencies;

investigations lack timely resolutions, undermining the quality of investigations and credibility of the process;

CPD and the City do not take sufficient steps to prevent officers from deliberately concealing misconduct;

the City’s discipline system lacks integrity and does not effectively deter misconduct.

The DOJ also found that the CPD’s programs to identify and monitor problem officers, particularly those who are repeatedly accused of police misconduct — known in police parlance as an “early warning system” — were, in practice, effectively nonexistent. It also underscored the CPD’s lack of transparency, particularly in the areas of the use of force and police discipline, and its backward and counterproductive approach to how it “collects, organizes, analyzes, tracks, and reports on available data and data trends.”

Most significantly, without ever using the term, the DOJ report, in a characteristically understated manner, also described the entrenched racism, both individual and systemic, that still defines the CPD and its day-to-day interactions with the communities of color and the criminal justice system. Couched in its overriding finding that the CPD should institute true and effective “community policing” to combat the escalating murder rate in Chicago’s poor communities of color, the DOJ found that

raw statistics show that CPD uses force almost ten times more often against blacks than against whites. As a result, residents in black neighborhoods suffer more of the harms caused by breakdowns in uses of force, training, supervision, accountability, and community policing.

Additionally, the DOJ found that the CPD “has tolerated racially discriminatory conduct that not only undermines police legitimacy, but also contributes to the pattern of unreasonable force,” and that its “review of complaints of racially discriminatory language found repeated instances where credible complaints were not adequately addressed.”

The DOJ underscored the impact that this entrenched police racism has had on Chicago’s communities of color:

The CPD must recognize the extent to which this type of misconduct contributes to a culture that facilitates unreasonable force and corrodes community trust. We have serious concerns about the prevalence of racially discriminatory conduct by some CPD officers and the degree to which that conduct is tolerated and in some respects caused by deficiencies in CPD’s systems of training, supervision and accountability. In light of these concerns, combined with the fact that the impact of CPD’s pattern or practice of unreasonable force fall heaviest on predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods, restoring police-community trust will require remedies addressing both discriminatory conduct and the disproportionality of illegal and unconstitutional patterns of force on minority communities.

Of course the existence — and even the recognition — of these and other related problems within the CPD is far from new.

In the past half-century, Chicago police violence and cover-up began with Mayor Richard J. Daley’s infamous “shoot to kill” order against African-American “looters” during the uprising after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr in April 1968 and the police riots later that year during the Democratic National Convention.

The police assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton came the following year, and the next four decades are marked by the Jon Burge torture scandal, a scandal so broad and deep that it has now been shown to involve the entire command structure of the Chicago Police Department, two Chicago mayors, and at least one state’s attorney of Cook County.

Bringing this history to the present, we have the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald, exposed for all to see by a video that the CPD, the Cook County prosecutor, and perhaps Mayor Emanuel himself suppressed for a year. The video, which shows the black teenager being shot by CPD officer Jason Van Dyke sixteen times, speaks volumes about all the other untold numbers of unjustified police shootings and beatings that were covered up by the department and its code of silence before the current era of videotaped police atrocities.

Evidence and findings that parallel those made by the Justice Department have been repeatedly set forth in court decisions, jury verdicts, lawsuits, expert reports, and official and unofficial investigations that also span the past five decades. In 1972, Congressman Ralph Metcalfe conducted an investigation of racist police violence in Chicago that led to the establishment of the Office of Professional Standards, the failed precursor to the police disciplinary agency that was so roundly castigated by the DOJ in its report.

After the US Supreme Court paved the way in 1978 with a decision that permitted private civil rights lawsuits to challenge unconstitutional police patterns and practices, lawyers at the People’s Law Office, where I work as an attorney, brought numerous suits spanning the next two decades that uncovered the detailed evidence of systemic police wrongdoing that the DOJ updated with its exhaustive current investigation.

In the early 1990s, police practices expert Lou Reiter, a former police lieutenant, filed a pattern and practice opinion in a police brutality case that mirrored the findings of the DOJ in the areas of code of silence, racially biased policing, “repeater beater” cops, and failures to adequately discipline, supervise, train, and monitor officers who had engaged in wrongdoing, and concluded that these systemic failures led to a pattern and practice of unconstitutional use of force.

More recently, a federal jury found that the CPD operates under a code of silence in which officers do not “snitch” on each other over matters of wrongdoing, the city admitted that the CPD had engaged in repeated acts of torture and awarded reparations to nearly sixty of its victims, and two reports commissioned by the city — one before, one after the McDonald video — made many of the same findings that the DOJ has now set forth in more comprehensive detail.

Victims of police violence, community activists, and veterans of the never-ending battle against systemic police violence have posed some questions: why did it take so long? Victims of police abuse and police reform advocates have been clamoring for a DOJ investigation for nearly twenty years, but found the door barred until the McDonald video broke it down.

Why did the investigation not address related issues to those that it did address — most particularly the epidemic of racial profiling in arrests, stops, and searches — and in the thousands of illegal detentions and frequent police violence taking place at the CPD’s secret interrogation site known as Homan Square?

And why did the DOJ focus only on community policing and not on the pressing issue of community control of police and a truly independent citizens’ review board to control police discipline?

Beyond these questions loom several larger ones. While the report is exhaustive in its documentation of the abysmal state of the Chicago Police Department, and makes ten pages worth of detailed recommendations, nothing is assured with regard to implementation beyond a brief agreement in principle that Mayor Emanuel and the head of the DOJ’s civil rights division signed that they would jointly “negotiate in good faith” “reforms to ensure sustainable, constitutional, and effective policing,” which would “include reforms of the CPD’s use of force practices, and accountability mechanisms, as well as its training, community policing, supervision, data collection, officer wellness systems and promotion practices.”

This agreement would be enshrined in a “comprehensive settlement in the form of a consent decree” that would be entered as a federal district court order and would be monitored by an independent third party. Beyond that, there was no assurance that any of detailed DOJ recommendations would appear as part of the consent decree.

More important is the good faith of the parties to make good on this agreement. At the helm of the DOJ, we will now have Jefferson Sessions, a great grandson of the Confederacy who is on record as opposing pattern and practice investigations because, in his view, they unjustly condemn an entire police department for the sins of a few “bad apples.”

Sessions is a trusted friend of police unions, which, with their reactionary and racist attitudes, have always stood as a primary roadblock — both in Chicago and nationally — to meaningful and lasting reform. The only question seems to be how drastically oppositional President Trump’s Department of Justice will be when it comes to combating systemic police violence.

On the other side of the coin is Mayor Emanuel and the CPD. How committed will they be to the recommendations of the DOJ report absent the hammer of a Justice Department that is committed to using the power of the Constitution and the federal court to compel the city to fully comply with its recommendations?

To date, they have acted only in response to the pressure of a mass movement lead by Black Lives Matter and the spotlight of the media. There is little confidence in their resolve to make the fundamental reforms that are required to change the police culture absent the DOJ hammer.

But this raises a question: is police reform doomed from the start?

As one anonymous person aptly noted to DOJ investigators, Chicago police officers act like they are an “occupying force” in Chicago’s poor and marginalized communities of color. Is this an aberration, or the actual purpose for the men in blue?

It is clear that an organized, racially diverse movement led by young people of color can make a real difference in the struggle to transform this entrenched police culture. But in the end, maybe the demand of Black Lives Matter is the only long-term solution: defund the police and devote the money to services and education in those communities where the police more frequently “harass and terrorize” than “serve and protect.”