Ellen Hao

Content warning: Discussion and images of police violence

After clashes between protesters and police on Saturday, May 30, the attention of the city’s politicians and media quickly focused on images of burning CPD cars and damaged businesses. Chicago’s new police superintendent, David Brown, praised his officers in the aftermath, saying, “Chicago police officers showed professionalism, restraint, and patience. CPD made Chicago proud last night.” Despite Brown’s words, protesters alleged that CPD responded to the protesters with excessive force, escalating the confrontation.

Over the last week, the Invisible Institute has begun a project to understand how CPD used force on May 30 and at protests since. We received over forty submissions from those present at the protests. [Click here for a timeline of police actions against protesters on May 30.] Our analysis of dozens of videos and written accounts of the May 30 protest suggests that a substantial number of CPD officers used serious force in ways that appear to violate the department’s use of force rules. In particular, videos show officers hitting protesters with batons as they run away, kneel on the ground, or are restrained by other officers, potentially violating CPD rules that put heavy limits on baton use. The rules governing the use of batons were recently strengthened as part of the CPD consent decree with the Attorney General’s office requiring sweeping reforms in CPD. The monitor installed by the consent decree announced on Friday she would be investigating CPD’s use of force during the protests.

The Invisible Institute chose to focus on CPD’s use of batons due to the high volume of videos and the strict rules around the use of batons. CPD rules state that striking a person with a baton requires that they be classified as an “assailant,” someone “who is using or threatening the use of force against another person or himself/herself which is likely to cause physical injury.” The CPD rules note the seriousness of baton strikes, explaining that “although batons are considered less-lethal weapons, they can cause serious injury or death.”

The Invisible Institute reviewed eleven videos that showed officers using their batons. Nearly all of the videos show actions that appear to violate department rules. 

In two separate videos, officers swing their batons at Black men without apparent cause. In one video, an officer apparently arguing with a man on the side of the street suddenly swings his baton at him, causing onlookers to scream. In another video, an officer approaches a man slowly riding a bike away from a line of police and swings his baton at the man’s back, hitting the back of the bike.

Another video shows an officer repeatedly hitting a person with the end of his baton while several other officers hold him to the ground and dozens of other officers stand nearby.

Other videos show police using force as they push into crowds of protesters. One video shows police moving into a crowd of protesters near the Wrigley Building. While most officers use their batons or arms to push protesters, one officer swings repeatedly into the crowd, hitting a person already being brought to the ground by another officer. A similar video shows police forming a line at the intersection of State and Kinzie Streets. While most officers maintain the line, one officer charges out to strike a protester who appears to be backing away from him. [Click here to view video.] These incidents highlight the variable response from other officers. In the first case, fellow officers make no move to stop the officer, handing him back his baton when it escapes his grip. In the second, police help pull their fellow officer back into line and protesters also attempt to de-escalate.

In a handful of other videos, protesters take actions toward police that do not seem to warrant use of an impact weapon. In one video, a woman splashes some water onto an officer. He then grabs her head and hits her in the side with a baton. According to the person who took the video, he continued to hit her after she fell to the ground. In another video, a person appears to try and pick up what appears to be a tear gas canister. Officers converge around them and one begins to beat the person, who is squatting on the ground, with a baton.

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Only one video shows officers using force on a clear assailant, as defined by CPD rules. In that video, as officers push into a crowd, one attempts to punch a protester. Another protester then approaches the officer and swings his fist at him. The officer then hits the protester on the head with his baton. This use of force also raises concerns. Baton strikes to the head are even more heavily restricted, limited only to “when deadly force is justified,” which requires that the assailant is taking actions that “are immediately likely to cause death or great bodily harm.”

Beyond videos, the Invisible Institute received six written accounts of similar incidents, with protesters alleging that police struck them without warning and in situations that would not justify use of a baton. Several included photos of bruising from alleged police baton strikes.

The uses of force by CPD officers raise troubling questions, though they also appear to show less systematic police brutality than events like the infamous 1968 “police riot,” when teams of officers beat protesters with their batons in full view of television cameras. The videos reviewed by the Invisible Institute show that individual officers struck protesters with batons while the majority stood by or used less serious types of force. In some cases, officers pulled back those using batons, while in many cases they simply stood by and did not intervene.

The Invisible Institute will continue to analyze police use of force over the coming weeks and we welcome video or stories from anyone who has seen or experienced a police use of force since the start of protests in late May. You can email reporter Andrew Fan at andrew@invisibleinstitute.com.

Additional reporting by Emma Perez, Invisible Institute

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Andrew Fan is a reporter at the Invisible Institute. He last wrote for the Weekly in March about the criminal justice system’s response to COVID-19.

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