Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown recently announced plans to create a permanent, “anti-gang” mobile unit as a response to ongoing gun violence this summer. He faces a daunting challenge as new police chief: 2020 has already seen 353 homicides, compared to 254 during the same period last year—an increase of thirty-nine percent, CPD statistics show. To staff a new citywide unit, CPD will deplete the “gang, gun, and saturation” units of each of the department’s five Police Areas and assign them to a centralized unit. But his new plan to address the gun violence crisis is a failure of imagination and a denial of a violent history.
The history of past roving units weighs heavily on the proposed new division of CPD. CPD Former Supt. Garry McCarthy disbanded the mobile strike force—the most recent iteration of a roving unit—in 2011, and its predecessor, the Special Operations Section (SOS), was likewise disbanded in 2007 after evidence of abusive policing and corruption surfaced. Supt. Brown tried to distinguish the proposed unit from previous ones by emphasizing police officers’ expected role in the community, such as mentoring young people or helping senior citizens. As a means to overcome the strategy’s violent history, this reassurance is empty—particularly to those who have suffered the trauma of being “jumped out” on or “shaken down” by specialized law enforcement. Simply put: roving, anti-gang units encourage officers to use their power and subjective judgement to the fullest extent, exacerbating abuse with impunity.
According to Supt. Brown, adding a community-oriented component would make this plan “not your father’s citywide unit.” He’s right; it would make it worse. First, a plan that puts children and police officers together in a community service or mentoring setting, increasing the interactions between them, only serves to further criminalize children and mocks the notion of community policing. In our work with the Invisible Institute’s Youth/Police Project, we have learned from multiple generations of students that cops-and-kids programs carry an undercurrent of deceit and uneven power dynamics. Where kids might see an officer not wearing a badge and uniform, playing basketball or chess, as an off-duty cop who can’t get them in trouble, the unstated reality to the kids and community is that those officers hold all the same power as they would with a badge on in their encounters—to detain, to arrest, to shoot. Anything a kid says or does can inform an arrest, and information a kid shares in a false sense of confidence can be used to criminalize them.
This unit is not to be confused with the Summer Mobile Patrol Unit, a force of up to 200 officers that was just unveiled in May and during summer months is deployed to crime hot spots, according to police spokesman Luis Agostini. Supt. Brown used the same community rationale to announce that unit. “We’re adding a component… to do some type of community service project as part of their workweek,” he said. “We don’t want them (to be) perceived, or in actuality, a strike force, or something that’s not connected to the community,” the Tribune reported.
Roving citywide units have a history we cannot revive in any iteration in good conscience. Some of the most corrupt and abusive CPD officers came from this very kind of unit. Consider the Special Operations Section (SOS) of the CPD formed in 1998. SOS operated through the late 1990s and early 2000s as a response to elevated rates of crime and violence in the city, much like Brown’s proposed unit. SOS was meant to target narcotics dealers and traffickers. They were given broad deference to roam across the city to seize drugs and weapons in the name of public safety. With a blank check to reduce crime through whatever means necessary, SOS terrorized Black and brown neighborhoods in Chicago.
On top of being indiscriminate in their persecution of Black and brown people, officers in SOS were corrupt. They shook down suspected drug dealers and bystanders alike and raided peoples’ homes without warrants, pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars and contraband. Some of our city’s most notorious officers racked up dozens of complaints during their time in the Special Operations Section. Most of these complaints were for use of force or illegal search. These official complaints likely only represent a slice of the individual acts of harm caused by these officers.
SOS was able to operate undetected for many years, in large part because roving, citywide units face very little scrutiny from the CPD. The scandal blew up because lawyers from the State’s Attorney’s Office informed the CPD that SOS officers were consistently missing court appearances. The investigation was not triggered by the CPD, but by the State’s Attorney’s intervention.
Because they are centralized units, the task of overseeing divisions like SOS often falls through the cracks of CPD’s supervisory structure. As evidenced by the high volume of complaints against officers in SOS, few of which resulted in disciplinary action by the department, CPD turned a blind eye to abuse from SOS reported by citizens.
Consider the “jump-out boys.” In 2003 CPD created an Enhanced Foot Patrol Unit, known colloquially, and notoriously, as the “Jump-Out Boys,” to patrol high-crime neighborhoods. The official unit was closed soon after, in 2004, but a similar “jump-out” initiative was created in 2013 under Supt. McCarthy’s Operation Impact. The jump-out boys concentrated their efforts in Black and Brown neighborhoods, stopping primarily young men through use of force.
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) published its findings that described the “jump-out” tactic. Officers in plain clothes or unmarked cars will often suddenly drive toward a group of pedestrians in a high-crime area, and then an officer is tasked to chase or “zero-in” on a fleeing person. According to the DOJ report, “Some of the most problematic shootings occurred when that sole officer closed in on the subject, thus greatly increasing the risk of a serious or deadly force incident.”
In a complaint made to the Office of Professional Standards (OPS) in 2004, for example, one Chicago resident alleged that her nephew was beaten in the alley outside her West Side house by ten police officers. According to the complaint, they jumped out of their squad cars, held him down, beat him with batons, stomped on him, arrested him, and put him in the paddy wagon, where they continued to beat him as they drove away. The complaint contains 141 pages of evidence and investigatory documents. The OPS, headed at the time by current Mayor Lori Lightfoot, found that evidence insufficient and ruled the complaint was unfounded.
A specialized unit would give officers nearly unfettered access to random passersby, empowering them to stop, frisk, and criminalize Black and brown people. Even without such a unit, officers do so on a regular basis by entering names into the flawed gang database. If CPD were to send officers into communities of color and task them with stopping as many “suspicious” looking people as possible, based on superficial markers like clothing or proximity to a hot spot, the gang database would be more overrun with the names of Black and brown people, including many innocent people, than it already is.
Headlines recently lamented the loss of seven-year-old Natalia Wallace and fourteen-year old Vernado Jones to gun violence. The loss of any life, and particularly a young life, is heartbreaking and frightening. In moments of fear for our safety, society often turns to what it knows: police and violence. But Supt. Brown’s plan to address gun violence is an overplayed strategy that is doomed to fail, much like its predecessors. Brown has already attempted to quell the summer violence by putting 1,200 additional cops on the street. “Flooding the zone” is a tactic employed every year in the summer heat, and yet, our gun violence persists. Embracing an old strategy that has proven to lead to police abuse and impunity will worsen, not prevent or stop, violence in Chicago.
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An uptick in gun violence and shootings of children points more towards urgent, desperate mental health and economic crises that need immediate attention and funding. This crisis cannot be solved by police officers, whose objective is to put more suspects in jail. The roving, citywide police unit’s directive is antithetical to the response needed to endemic street violence, as policing leads to a revolving door between poverty and jail that exacerbates gun violence. Creating a community service-themed reprisal of the “jump-out boys,” emboldened to criminalize based on their instincts, will not lead us to a safer future, but a more fearful and violent one.
Correction, July 23: The image accompanying this article has been revised to remove one figure and obscure the identities of the officers pictured.
Emma and Maira work at the Invisible Institute, a journalism production studio on the South Side of Chicago. Maira and Emma last wrote about the treatment of detainees in Cook County Jail during the pandemic.