How Should the Federal Government React to Policing and Crime in Chicago?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: May 3, 2017

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PoliceThe violent crime rate has declined by 50% since the early 1990s, but the homicide rate in a few cities spiked in 2015. It is too early to tell whether that increase represents a trend or an aberration.

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump often spoke about violent crime in Chicago, making a campaign pledge to do something about it. On his first day in office, President Trump put a new page on the White House website urging the public to “stand up” for Chicago’s law enforcement community.

The page reflects a dramatic shift in tone from the White House, given a scathing Justice Department report, released about a week before President Trump took office, that condemns the use of excessive force by the Chicago Police Department (CPD). The investigation upon which the report is based was prompted by the shooting death of Laquan McDonald. A Chicago police officer shot McDonald sixteen times, prompting outrage after a dashcam video of the shooting was released.

Officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder for the unprovoked shooting. An alleged attempt to cover up the shooting prompted the police superintendent to initiate the termination of Van Dyke and four other officers. The city’s Office of Inspector General recently recommended the termination or discipline of more than a dozen officers in connection with the cover-up.

The Trump administration’s new web page might be seen as a rebuke of the Obama administration, which aggressively pursued investigations of abuse by local law enforcement. The web page and the Justice Department report raise serious questions about criminal justice policy and the appropriate role of the federal government with regard to local law enforcement agencies.

Competing Crime Policies

The Justice Department report and the Trump administration’s call for Americans to stand up for the police highlight the tension between competing views of the best way to combat crime. Nobody objects to supporting the police when they put their lives on the line to stop violent crime, provided that they obey the laws they are sworn to enforce. On the other hand, no American who supports the Constitution should support law enforcement tactics that violate civil rights, particularly when the victims of police abuse so often turn out to be innocent.

The report is the product of a year-long investigation. During that year, gun violence increased in certain South- and West-side Chicago neighborhoods that have been plagued by violence for decades. The Justice Department determined (and Chicago’s mayor agrees) that solving the problem will require the police department to rebuild the trust of the people it is supposed to serve. That bond of trust has been broken, the report observes, “despite the diligent efforts and brave actions of countless CPD officers,” because Chicago police officers who break the law have systematically been allowed to escape accountability.

The report is based on a review of CPD records, interviews with police leadership and officers, ride-alongs with officers, meetings with representatives of the local police officer union, interviews with academics and lawyers who have studied Chicago policing, meetings with representatives of community organizations, discussions with use-of-force experts, and interviews with neighborhood residents, including family members of individuals who were killed during encounters with CPD officers.

Report Findings

The report drew a number of startling but well-documented conclusions, including:

  • CPD officers engage in a pattern and practice of using unreasonable force, including unnecessary and avoidable shootings.
  • The unreasonable use of force by CPD officers unnecessarily endangers officers and innocent bystanders.
  • Poor tactical choices too often result in CPD officers shooting unarmed individuals, shooting individuals who pose no immediate threat, and shooting at vehicles “without justification and contrary to CPD policy.”
  • CPD officers have often used nonlethal force, including Tasers, against people who posed no threat. Some of their victims have been children.
  • Excessive force is particularly prevalent in black and Latino neighborhoods.
  • The CPD has failed to provide officers with adequate training or guidance to help them understand how and when to use force and how to effectively control and reduce dangerous encounters in ways that reduce the need for force.
  • The CPD routinely fails to hold officers accountable when they use force that is contrary to CPD policy or commit other acts of misconduct.
  • CPD officers often fail to report their use of force, as policies require, and their reports are too infrequently investigated to verify their accuracy.
  • Officers routinely lie about their improper use of force and their falsehoods are supported by other officers. Officers disable dashcams so that no video evidence of their misconduct will be available.
  • Officers who should be relieved of duty as the result of misconduct are allowed to stay on the job. Some of those officers continue their pattern of misconduct.
  • The city fails to investigate the majority of the complaints against police that the law requires it to investigate. When the city does investigate, the investigation often consists of nothing more than interviewing the officer, without talking to witnesses or the citizen who complained. Investigations are biased in favor of the officer and no serious effort is made to discover the truth.
  • The “code of silence” among Chicago police officers assures that they will not report officer misconduct, and encourages officers to lie and to conceal evidence of wrongdoing.
  • These failures to uphold the law “send a dangerous message to officers and the public that unreasonable force by CPD officers will be tolerated.”

The report recommends changing CPD’s policies and training, adopting independent watchdogs to hold the Department and its officers accountable, requiring officers to wear bodycams, and mandating an investigation of each use of force that results in death or that raises suspicions of misconduct. Ultimately, the report notes the need for CPD to change its culture so that officers will be expected and encouraged to behave reasonably and lawfully in their interactions with Chicago residents.

Responses to the Report

The city government and CPD officials have pledged reform. Some of the recommendations in the Justice Department report are being implemented. Patrol officers will be wearing bodycams by the end of the year. The city has agreed to negotiate an order, enforceable by a judge, that will govern training, accountability, and the use of force.

Whether the order will have teeth is a serious question. The Obama administration obtained a similar order in Baltimore, but incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions has opposed Justice Department efforts to reform police practices. President Trump has advocated a “forceful response” to crime without acknowledging abuses or civil rights violations committed by police officers. The president’s assertion that police officers are the “most mistreated people in this country” overlooks the victims of abusive police practices that are documented in the Justice Department report.

Individuals who have been abused by the police have the right to sue for civil rights violations. Many lawsuits against the CPD have been successful. If the federal government does not push for meaningful reform, the continuing threat of large civil judgments against the city might provide a meaningful incentive to improve training and accountability. At least in Chicago, the Justice Department’s report may offer victims of police abuse evidence that they can use to hold the city accountable for police misconduct.

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