“Justice” in the police accountability system in Chicago?

In a recent conversation with a colleague about the police accountability system in Chicago and all of its failings, we stumbled upon a question that I cannot get out of my head:  how to define “justice” within the police accountability system in Chicago? I believe that those who bring forward legitimate complaints to the accountability system here are seeking it, but I am not sure those who set up the system or run it can define the justice they are supposedly trying to deliver to these people, or even that their definition matches that of those who are bringing complaints forward.  It seems to me that any accountability system that is set up to hold agents of the criminal justice system to accountable would have a clear sense of how it will deliver justice to those that were in some way harmed by the agents of the system.

CPD Patch & GavelThe very sad reality is that for a large portion of the complaints which come into the police accountability system in Chicago, there is little chance that any accountability system built on proving definitive guilt or innocence will ever deliver those that are harmed an ounce of justice.  Why?  Because the complaints I am talking about deal with officers that use foul language, are generally rude or disrespectful, and use language that demonstrates their intolerance for the individual’s sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, gender, etc.

From my experience talking with community members throughout Chicago – both prior to my work with CJP and as part of CJP’s Community Listening Tour – it is clear that citizens in Chicago continue to be frustrated with the impotence of the accountability agencies (the Independent Police Review Authority, the Chicago Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division, and the Chicago Police Board) to deliver them the justice they believe they are due.  I believe that fundamentally this failure is a structural one that cannot be overcome by switching the leaders of these agencies or their agents, but instead must be a part of the basic DNA of all three organizations, not to mention what needs to be done to the culture within the Chicago Police Department.

One of the biggest obstacles affecting the accountability system in Chicago is that the members of the Chicago Police Department are indoctrinated into a system that pits the officers against the community.  With all the wars the CPD is supposedly fighting – like the drug war or the war on gangs – it is easy to see how this mentality is created and replicated into a culture.  The simple fact is that the vast majority of calls for police service in this country (including Chicago) require police officers to be service providers that bring to the situation their unique ability to de-escalate tensions.  Now, of course, the officers in these scenarios would then need to have a unique ability to de-escalate tensions; this is not a trait that most Chicagoans would believe Chicago Police Officers to be equipped with.

In Chicago the accountability mechanisms sustain allegations against an officer for misconduct somewhere between 3-5% of the time.  This measly amount of sustained allegations is due in large part to the fact that the police accountability system in Chicago is looking for “definitive guilt” before they decide to engage the officer in the proceedings.  This is one of the most glaring flaws in how Chicago, and most other large cities in America, conducts their accountability system.  The reality is that with most of the types of misconduct outlined above, there is little to no way to prove definitive guilt.  The officers that often engage in this type of behavior know this from experience, and thus have little incentive to halt their abusive behavior.

FOP jpgThe Chicago accountability system needs desperately to move most, if not all, of the complaints (that are absent physical abuse from an officer) into a separate track that is built exclusively from a “restorative justice” perspective.  Restorative justice is built on the idea that through a mediation process that allows the harmed individual to inform the perpetrator of the impact of their actions in person and, in a structured process, the harmed individual is made whole while the perpetrator gains a better understanding of the results of his/her actions.  This process would have to include the officer’s superiors so that they can be made aware of their officer’s actions and keep track of how often their officers are going through this process.  This process would also have to include a requirement that the offending officer apologize when they are wrong.  This is not something the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the union representing the patrol officers, is about to let happen.  Hell, they just spent over $1 million paying for Jon Burge’s defense.  Saying they are sorry is not something the FOP is really keen on.

Moving to a restorative justice process would allow community members to get the piece of justice they are seeking:

  • Being able to participate in a legitimate process that takes their complaint seriously
  • Allows them to tell their story in an official proceeding
  • Allows them to inform the perpetrator of the harm they caused.

This is exactly what most people who file complaints against officers are looking for, but unfortunately the accountability system in Chicago is not built to deliver this.

Instead, regardless of what the authorities in the city and the Chicago Police Department name the agencies or who is in charge of them, the results stay the same.  This sad reality has been replicating itself over and over again since the creation of the Chicago Police Board back in 1960.  I will admit that transparency has increased over the last few years, but just because the agencies are better at telling us they suck does not mean we shouldn’t look for alternative systems that will be better at delivering community members what they need.  The added benefit is that with the great decrease in the number of cases, the much less burdened accountability system should actually have the time and resources do something it never has in Chicago – monitor units and districts for patterns of misconduct.  Well, maybe that is just too much to hope for.