Task Force Report Finds Chicago Cops Racist and Unaccountable. Now What Happens?

The latest task force report isn't the first to suggest major reforms to the Chicago Police Department, but it might be the first to result in real change.
by | April 28, 2016
Officers meeting in the Chicago Police Department. (David Kidd)

Earlier this month, a task force appointed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel concluded that major reforms to the city’s police department were needed to fix what it says is a “broken” system plagued by racism and a lack of accountability.

This isn’t the first task force to study Chicago police and publish recommendations. At least five other government-appointed groups have responded to some highly publicized scandal related to corruption, incompetence or police brutality. But Wesley Skogan, a criminologist at Northwestern University, believes the repercussions of this report could be greater because the U.S. Department of Justice is also looking into whether there's a pattern or practice of bias in use of force by Chicago police.

“It’s that overlap between the Chicago task force and the Justice Department investigation, working in concert, that is likely to make it different this time,” he said.

The federal investigation could result in a court-ordered contract in which city officials agree to institute changes and a federal monitor makes sure they happen. Both New Orleans and Seattle, for example, have had to adopt new use-of-force policies intended to limit the chance of a deadly encounter. Cleveland, another city under a consent decree, had to establish programs to identify and support troubled officers.

It looks like some federal arm twisting might be necessary to get Chicago leaders to act on some of the task force’s most impactful recommendations.

Initially, Emanuel said he hoped the task force report would help his administration reach homegrown solutions to the city's policing problems. Before the task force had even released the report, Emanuel had already launched a body camera initiative, replaced his police superintendent and changed a video release policy to increase transparency around police shootings. But, according to the report, none of these fixes are near adequate. Now Emanuel is using the federal investigation -- which could take a year to complete -- as a reason to wait on making large-scale structural changes.

What are some of those bigger structural changes? The task force provided Emanuel with a long to-do list, such as creating a new inspector general for public safety who would audit both the police department and the Independent Police Review Authority, an oversight body. The group also called for eliminating and replacing that oversight body, which had failed to fully investigate some 40 percent of complaints against police in the last five years. Other task force proposals include mandatory training around cultural sensitivity and bias; creating a deputy chief of diversity and inclusion; expanding the use of body cameras and reinvigorating community policing.

It’s unclear what exactly is next. But Emanuel's early response to the task report has drawn criticism for being underwhelming.

Last week, his office distributed a five-page memo that describes a series of steps the city is taking -- or intends to take -- to address the task force recommendations. The Chicago Tribune’s editorial board called his memo “hugely disappointing,” noting that the mayor wasn't acting on most of the task force recommendations and had ignored an important one -- eliminating and replacing the police department’s current review authority. (By contrast, some city aldermen have already introduced legislation to replace the review authority.)

To act on many of the task force’s recommendations, Emanuel would have to overcome opposition from the city's largest police union, which has so far rejected accountability proposals related to its collective bargaining agreement. For example, the task force calls for allowing anonymous complaints against officers and taking away officers’ right to amend their statements after reviewing video or audio recordings during an investigation.

Emanuel appointed the task force amid revelations that a video recording contradicted police officers’ accounts of how and why an officer shot Laquan McDonald to death. The official explanation was that an officer fired in self defense after McDonald lunged at him. Instead, the video shows that McDonald wasn’t moving toward the officer when he was shot and that the rest of the 16 shots were fired into his body after he lay motionless on the ground.

In the past two years, cities like Cleveland, New York City and Ferguson, Mo., have drawn criticism for officer-involved shootings like McDonald’s. The incidents feed into a national narrative that police are too quick to use deadly force, especially against black males.

The task force alleges a pattern of racial bias in Chicago, pointing to a few statistics about the city’s demographics and people’s interaction with officers. African-Americans make up about one third of Chicago’s population, yet nearly three-quarters of people shot by police between 2008 and 2015 were African-American. The task force also found that African-Americans were the targets of Taser discharges and traffic stops at disproportionate rates.

“We knew that there was a lot of anger and frustration” about discriminatory policing, says Lori Lightfoot, who chaired the Chicago task force. “The thing that was a tipping point for me was looking at the [Chicago Police Department] data on stops and shootings, showing a pretty significant disparity in the ways in which blacks and everybody else experience policing in the city. It’s pretty eye-opening.”

Much of the task force’s road map to reform echoes findings by President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Both, for example, describe the need for community-oriented policing as a core part of the entire police organization. In Chicago, the task force contends that it had become "a small, underfunded program."

Beyond those policy changes, Lightfoot said police need to repair their relationship with minorities who feel victimized by the very officers hired to protect them.

“Where reform must begin is with an acknowledgement of the sad history and present conditions that have left the people totally alienated from the police and afraid for their physical and emotional safety,” the task force concluded in its report. The Chicago Police Department “cannot begin to build trust, repair what is broken and tattered unless [...] it faces these hard truths, acknowledges what it has done at the individual and institutional levels and earnestly reaches out with respect.”

Any attempt to address racism in the department would have to happen while police also try to deal with a recent uptick in murders and gang activity.

“Chicago has this stubborn gang and gun problem,” says Chuck Wexler, director of the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum, “so police find themselves knee deep in that while trying to build community trust.”

Lightfoot acknowledged that the communities that feel most alienated by police have suffered decades of disinvestment by multiple institutions, public and private. In fact, the police department is one of the few institutions still operating in those neighborhoods.

“We have really forced the police to deal with a lot of challenges that are the manifestations of our neglect,” Lightfoot said. Low levels of education, untreated mental illness and substance abuse, and concentrated poverty “are all things that police department did not sign up to manage.”