Media Practices Must Change with Chicago Police Practices

It is nearly impossible for the CPD to institute changes to their practices if the media doesn’t change their exploitative reporting practices.

doj sealThe federal civil rights investigation of the Chicago Police Department provides a moment in time to make real change to the deep-rooted problems that have plagued policing in Chicago for over a hundred years. These changes can only be realized if the Chicago media makes the equally necessary changes about how it reports on policing and criminal justice in our city. Chicagoans desperately need our news to be contextualized and rooted in trend analysis and a more sophisticated understanding of the systems at work – and for the media to abandon their fascination with exploiting urban violence for clicks.

Despite the chorus of Chicago media elites criticizing Pat Camden, the Fraternal Order of Police spokesperson, for what now seems to be telling wildly untrue tales about officer involved shootings, they should instead look internally when seeking to place blame for Camden’s falsehoods filling press accounts of these incidents. A recent article in the Chicago Reader strongly criticizes Camden’s practices but lets reporters and their news organizations off the hook for buying what he, a union rep with an agenda but no firsthand knowledge of any crime scene he showed up to, was selling. He wasn’t even part of the official investigations he was speaking officially about. Yet, Camden was able to spin his stories for almost four years with ease.

The media should also give itself a crash course in how Chicago’s police accountability systems work. In the wake of the Laquan McDonald video, even experienced reporters in this city seemed shocked to learn about the process followed by the Independent Police Review Authority, longstanding provisions in the police union’s contract that shield officers from certain investigative actions, and the fact that the police chief can’t simply fire an officer without due process, regardless of the seriousness of allegations against him or her. The McDonald case has exposed just how little the Chicago press as an institution actually knows about these systems after all these years.

Chicagoans are also in desperate need for news reports that cite statistics on crime and violence in Chicago to be placed in the proper context. Crime statistics are only useful when they are used to expose long-term trends that can then be used to drive evidence based policy and reforms. Comparing one month’s (or weekend) crime figures to the same time last year is great click bait for news organizations but has no real validity for use in driving criminal justice or public policy. Every sensationalized headline using these figures increases communities fear of crime and actually works to make the city less safe, not more safe. As community fear of crime increases their participation in their community decreases which makes us all less safe.

A great example is how the Chicago press deals with what if any impact weather changes from year to year have on violence and crime. Chicago usually enjoys the benefits of several very cold winter months that see reduce street activity and thus reduce street crime numbers. Unfortunately changing weather patterns have seen Chicago experience an occasional warmer winter, like this winter, which leads to significantly increases violence levels rarely if ever experienced in Chicago’s history. While this reality is tragic it is not unexpected. Media reporting should be contextualized to take the changing weather patterns in to account when reporting on crime statistics. It simply is not a surprise to anyone in policing that unusually warm winters will lead to increase street violence numbers to no fault of the Chicago Police.

We should expect strong resistance from the Chicago Police Department to the federal civil rights investigation and what everyone expects will be a forthcoming consent decree, which would effectively place the department in federal hands until drastic reforms are in place. You will hear about this resistance in all shapes of stories depicting low morale in the Department or calls for a return of the very policing tactics that helped get us here in the first place. The media’s job isn’t to ignore those things, but to provide the context that there are more choices than going back to the status quo. There is going forward, with a whole new set of possibilities.