Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released the results of its probe into the Chicago Police Department. It found CPD’s excessive use of force in violation of the Fourth Amendment and has taken steps toward establishing a consent decree with the department. This means the CPD will continue operating (though unconstitutionally) while working with the DOJ on a list of recommendations over the coming years. The report found that the lack of strong investigative agencies to discipline CPD officers—as well as poor training overall and a lack of direction, supervision, and support for its officers—has led to a pattern or practice of excessive and unconstitutional use of force within the department. In short, CPD officers can do whatever they want with almost no fear of repercussion. The conclusions reached by the DOJ can be grouped into two recommendations: first, that stronger penalties need to be put in place to deter police misconduct and unconstitutional use of force, and second, that further resources need to be provided for police when it comes to accountability, training, supervision, officer wellness, data collection and transparency, and community policing. For those who are rightfully wary of the CPD to begin with, the idea of granting further resources to the department is a hard pill to swallow.
Though the report is ultimately a project of reform, much of its content reveals the immense damages suffered by Chicagoans at the hands of the CPD—content so disturbing that it could be used as effectively to advocate for police abolition as for reform. The report identifies four forms of violence the CPD perpetuates with particular clarity: domestic abuse, violence against children—particularly students in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), civil rights violations, and racism.
To understand the pattern of domestic abuse prevalent in the CPD, it is necessary to first understand the “mediation” that is practiced by the departments responsible for disciplining errant officers. Usually, “mediation” denotes the practice of putting a person accused of a crime into conversation with the victim in an attempt to achieve reconciliation. But for the CPD, mediation is really a plea bargain system: the accused officer pleads guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for more lenient punishment. And while it’s true that mediation is never advised in domestic abuse cases in the first place (it is rightfully seen as questionable to ask a survivor of abuse to sit down with the accused to come to a settlement), the gross affront to justice that is CPD’s mediation is even more odious, effectively acting as a way for officers to get away with domestic abuse with no repercussions.
From 2013 to 2015, roughly fifty percent of the cases settled through mediation by the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), the primary agency responsible for investigating CPD officer misconduct, were for allegations of domestic abuse. The report contains stories of an officer who broke his girlfriend’s nose and through mediation received only a five-day suspension. Another officer verbally and physically assaulted his wife in public and, after investigation, received no punishment at all. In a case settled through mediation, an officer who attacked her brother and verbally abused her mother before stealing her Social Security check and her credit card information was allowed to plead guilty only to “scratching her brother’s face and neck” and received a two-day suspension. That the punishments for serious cases of domestic abuse are so light is not only shocking, but in the words of the DOJ report, “it is unclear why the City believes that an officer found to have engaged in some of these offenses should remain on the police force at all.”
The pattern of excessive use of force against children highlights two disturbing trends. First is the willingness of officers to use excessive force (including Tasers, attack dogs, and verbal and physical abuse) to harm children as young as twelve years old. Second is the tendency of officers stationed in CPS schools to use excessive force on students. This trend is particularly disturbing considering that CPS primarily serves black and Latinx children from relatively poor households; excessive force in this context takes on connotations of racist and classist oppression, making CPS the place where many students are first introduced to racist forms of violence.
Civil rights violations perpetrated by the CPD include filing false assault charges against civilians and a practice referred to as “guns for freedom,” in which officers detain civilians for minor infractions, promising release only if the civilian in question brings them a gun. Similarly, Chicagoans recounted being picked up by CPD officers and questioned; if they failed to provide answers, they were dropped off in rival gang territory and told: “Better get to running.”
The report also uncovered the use of racially discriminatory language and racist language and imagery on public social media forums, causing Mayor Rahm Emanuel to release a recent statement saying racist Facebook rants by police officers will not be tolerated, according to DNAinfo. Additionally, there is significant racial disparity in the likelihood that civilian complaints are “sustained” (found to have sufficient proof). The DOJ found that complaints by white Chicagoans are three and a half times more likely to be sustained than those filed by black Chicagoans, and two times more likely than those filed by Latinx Chicagoans.
Altogether, it’s not a wild stretch to say that the CPD takes on many aspects of a terrorist organization able to abuse Chicagoans with impunity (well, near-impunity: IPRA did impose disciplinary action in one percent of the 30,000 complaint cases it received in the five years investigated by the DOJ). While reading through the report, the question, “What are the police for?” comes to mind often, and it is difficult to come up with a satisfying answer.
The DOJ’s recommendations ultimately operate within the realm of reform: their framework takes a larger view of the problem, showing that many areas of the police department are lacking in resources that would help them be more effective. This is dangerous because, on one hand, it distracts from the fact that there are demonstrably bad cops within the department who display racist and excessively violent behavior—foreclosing discussions centered on more rigorous screening procedures for would-be cops. But on the other hand, this structural approach rightly prevents a more limited approach to reform that simply rests on the “a few bad seeds” response (i.e., fire some fall guys and then go back to business as usual).
One result of the structural analysis performed by the DOJ is the shocking image it presents of the cops themselves, who come off as pathetic victims of a broken system. The report paints a picture of relatively young people who spend eight months at the dilapidated police academy attending unengaging and outdated lecture and PowerPoint classes. One particularly egregious example: the video the academy uses to teach when use of force is appropriate is thirty-five years old and contains tactics that are neither legal nor reflective of CPD’s existing policies on use of force. The teaching is ineffectual, and soon-to-be cops come out of it knowing little more than they came in with. They are then given a gun, and before they are assigned a field training officer (FTO) to help them develop necessary real-world skills, are sent to neighborhoods with the highest crime levels in a poorly conceived attempt by the CPD to increase police visibility. Undoubtedly they build unhealthy coping habits, develop false bravado, and experience stress knowing that they are being used by the CPD to signal latent force (while also failing to develop a connection to the neighborhood they are placed in). It sends a bad message to the neighborhood—that they are being surveilled—and the wrong message to cops: you are not here to build community relations, but to keep “dangerous” neighborhoods in check.
According to the report, when new cops do finally get assigned an FTO, the officer often tells them “to ‘throw out’ what they learned at the academy because the FTOs will show them how to ‘be the police.’” The supervisors of Chicago’s twenty-two police districts are often bogged down in administrative work, and their rotations are such that they are rarely with the same cops twice, making it difficult to build strong relationships or provide mentorship to young officers.
But it should be noted that this focus of the report does much to gloss over the individuals within the CPD who are racist, sexist, and corrupt, as well as the failure of the police department to screen out these people. The empathy for the police that exists within the report thus renders its solutions somewhat suspect, suggesting that rectifying an admittedly stunning lack of resources—whether by fixing funding shortfalls or providing better training—would also, somehow, cure certain officers of their tendencies toward prejudice and graft.
The lack of healthy mentoring relationships and emphasis on community policing is exacerbated further by the culture of masculine bullying within CPD, which stands on three pillars: the department’s code of silence, the lack of ability to discuss mental health crises among officers, and the high esteem in which tactical teams are held.
The phrase “code of silence” refers to the tendency of the CPD to close ranks against civilians and would-be investigators, choosing to ignore, falsify, or cover up evidence and lie in testimony rather than admit wrongdoing and accept fair penalties. It has been discussed at length recently: Mayor Emanuel has acknowledged its existence multiple times, and lawyers for the City have mentioned it in federal court.
As for mental health, the report states that more CPD officers die from suicide than in the line of duty, but the DOJ reports that it is still considered a sign of weakness to try to seek medical help. A result of this stigma is that alcohol and substance abuse, as well as domestic abuse, are more pervasive in the CPD than in the general population.
Lastly, while important mentorship positions are undermined or seen as “a path to nowhere,” the report relates that violent specialized units such as saturation, gang, and tactical teams are held in high esteem. These teams, whose members wear plainclothes and drive unmarked cars, often receive the most complaints by Chicagoans because of their use of intimidation and coercion in the neighborhoods they operate in. In such conditions, which reward violent behavior and overlook community-oriented policing, it is hard to see how anyone could become a “good cop” (though the DOJ report insists such good cops exist).
To any Chicagoan, it is perhaps surprising that the report presents such a beleaguered image of the CPD—we know that compared with other civil servants, police officers receive a large piece of the city funding and resource pie. What is apparent, however, is that these resources are going toward military-grade gear, Tasers that no one knows how to use because they haven’t been trained how to use them, and expansions of the police force superficially aimed at combatting increased violence. The reform the report advocates for involves increasing resources for improving police training, building up community policing models, streamlining data collection and online resources, increasing transparency, and expanding civilian investigation departments that hold police accountable for their actions.
While the DOJ’s recommendations might be promising, if the CPD is to change, the flow of money and resources needs to change, and the department needs to stop hiring officers that it can’t afford to train. If there is one shortcoming in the recommendations made by the DOJ, it is that the report is not explicit enough in its aims, and fails to tie its reforms to the CPD’s operating budget. Perhaps most disappointing are the toothless recommendations on community policing, especially considering that the report makes it clear that a department with a record as abhorrent as the CPD would have to radically rethink what it means to be a police department if it were ever going to regain the public trust.
It is incumbent upon Chicagoans to pay close attention to the CPD’s reform attempts and put public pressure on them to make more than nominal changes. This means, for example, holding Mayor Emanuel accountable for his statements regarding officers’ racist posts on social media sites, continuing to denounce the CPD’s use of unconstitutional lethal force, and advocating for grassroots organizing around policing that groups like Black Lives Matter, BYP100, We Charge Genocide, Assata’s Daughters, and others have been doing for years. After all, it was the actions of these groups, in the wake of the murder of Laquan McDonald, that prompted the DOJ probe in the first place.
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