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Hollow Reforms and Growing Outrage in Chicago Policing Scandal

Citizen pressure is likely the only force that could really drive meaningful reforms within the Chicago Police Department.

Frank Latin runs a youth and community media project on Chicago’s West Side, the large swath of the city home mostly to African-Americans and economically devastated by white flight, racist real estate policies and lack of investment. In such neighborhoods, residents say they experience police harassment and violence on a regular basis. Latin hears the stories all the time from participants in the West Side Writing Project, and he himself has been harassed by police even while wearing a business suit coming from his job.

So when embattled Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced policing reforms amid snowballing fallout from the release of the video showing a white officer gunning down Black teen Laquan McDonald, Latin like many others was not impressed.

“I could have almost told you what the reforms would be before they were announced – a task force, more training, more sensitivity – that’s a bunch of bullshit,” Latin said. “It’s really just a joke because the bottom line is that it’s not going to change what’s been going on for generations. The Laquan McDonald incident, as unfortunate as it was, has really just brought to light something that people have known about and spoken about and tried to bring to light for years. But we were never believed.”

Frank Chapman is a Chicago-based leader of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, which has long called for citizen oversight of police, building on demands of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s. Like Latin, he sees little value in the reforms.

“It’s rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” Chapman said. “Those people who have been involved in covering up police crimes, from the mayor on down, need to be investigated and prosecuted by the Department of Justice. We’re not talking about consent decrees and community partnerships, what we’re talking about is investigating and prosecuting those who have participated in covering up a heinous crime – the murder of a 17-year-old child.”

The reforms call for more training and scrutiny of officers who fire their guns, and also wider distribution of Tasers – 1,400 instead of the current 700 – with the idea they offer an option for non-lethal force. The reforms put officers on desk duty for at least 30 days after they fire a gun, compared to the previous 72 hours. Emanuel also promised to increase the number of officers trained in dealing with mental health crises, through a program called Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training administered by mental health professionals.

Advocates and officers themselves have long been calling for more CIT training. And increasing scrutiny and time off the streets for officers who fire a weapon is clearly a positive development.

The call for more Tasers has been questioned and condemned however, since in Chicago and nationwide officers have often been accused of misusing Tasers which can also cause death or serious injury. One of the multiple Chicago policing controversies that have gotten new attention since the McDonald video release is the 2012 death of University of Chicago graduate Philip Coleman, who was repeatedly Tasered in police custody while apparently suffering a mental health crisis.

“Tasers inflict pain, and can kill or inflict serious injury,” noted Craig Futterman, an attorney who fought a year-long legal battle to force the city to release complaints and investigations of police misconduct. “They are a helpful alternative to guns, when someone may be threatening another with, for example, a knife. But there has been lots of abuse of Tasers. They can also be another tool for further abuse.”

The bottom line is that it is not the specific Chicago police department tools and policies that are the problem but rather the culture and lack of accountability that allow officers to ignore and defy even existing policies.

Under current policy, officer Jason Van Dyke should not have shot McDonald as he staggered away from police, armed only with a knife; and dashcams that captured the shooting should have included audio; and the so-called Independent Police Review Authority should have thoroughly investigated and decided the shooting was unjustified within a reasonable time period.

Existing policy should also theoretically have prevented the double fatal shooting of a college student and a 55-year-old community activist on Dec. 30.

Quintonio LeGrier was reportedly inside a building wielding only a baseball bat when an officer responding to a domestic disturbance fired multiple shots from a distance outside the building, killing LeGrier and downstairs neighbor Bettie Jones, who had been celebrating Christmas with her family.

LeGrier, who had reportedly struggled with mental illness and recently been hospitalized, was described by police as “combative.” But it appears clear he didn’t present the kind of danger that would justify deadly force under existing policy. Meanwhile, LeGrier’s father reported that as his son was dying he himself was treated as a criminal, held in a station and prevented from leaving until he gave a statement that satisfied officers.

It’s safe to assume that in hundreds of situations where citizens alleged misconduct by police, including other fatal shootings, existing policy was not followed and officers were subject to no meaningful scrutiny to determine whether indeed they had violated policies.

Of 409 complaints of misconduct and brutality it reviewed since its formation in September 2007, the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) has found officers were unjustified in only two of them.

IPRA was founded amid another public relations crisis for the police department, after drunken off-duty officer Anthony Abbate was caught on video pummeling a diminutive female bartender because she refused to continue serving him. Before IPRA, abuse complaints were handled by the department’s own Office of Professional Standards, which among other things failed to stop decades of systematic torture of Black suspects led by former Commander Jon Burge, eventually jailed for lying about the practice.

Many think the task force that Emanuel convened in the wake of the McDonald video release will just be more of the same, especially since three of its five members are former prosecutors and one is a former Chicago police official.

“If the past is any prologue, what’s going to happen now is not any different than what’s happened before when these issues bubbled up,” said Flint Taylor, co-founder of the People’s Law Office, which has led the fight for reparations for Burge’s victims. Payments of $5.5 million were made the first week of January. Emanuel authorized the reparations fund in April, the very same week his administration made the $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family to ensure the video was suppressed.

Taylor noted that People’s Law Office warned when IPRA was formed that it would not be adequate, and the office has long been asking for a federal Department of Justice investigation of the type now being launched.

Similarly, mental health experts, pastors and some officers have for several years been demanding more CIT training, but the department and city council resisted not only offering more classes but even reporting to the public how many officers were trained.

And though Emanuel in his speech to City Council after the video release acted as if he were surprised by the existence of widespread police brutality and a code of silence, advocates have for years been fighting for information about complaints and discipline of police officers.

A trove of records finally made public last year thanks to the legal battle of attorney Futterman and independent journalist Jamie Kalven showed sweeping impunity and also racial bias in the review and disciplinary process.

It remains to be seen whether the public will have continued access to such records, as the Fraternal Order of Police has taken legal action to block their release. Transparency – which the mayor and other city officials have typically fought tooth and nail – is crucial to determining whether the recent reforms actually make a difference, and whether they are fully implemented.

Emanuel has been greatly weakened politically since the release of the McDonald shooting video, with even his one-time friend Republican Governor Bruce Rauner denouncing him. And even at his most powerful, Emanuel could not have single-handedly reformed the Chicago Police Department.

Chicago police rank and file have a long history of rebelling against directives from City Hall and their own superintendents. So the citizen pressure that has welled up since the video release – and that was simmering long before – is likely the only force that could really drive lasting change.

Taylor thinks the current wave of outrage is more sustainable and organized than the outcry over Black Panther Fred Hampton’s murder by police in 1969 and any moments since. Chapman, a veteran of the Black Liberation Movement, is also feeling confident.

“The movement has some momentum now that it hasn’t had in years,” Chapman said. “The police are doing what they’ve always done, but now the people are responding. I’m excited about the fact that these rascals finally got caught and the people are not going to let them go.”

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