Last week, the City of Chicago passed the most comprehensive change to the police accountability system since at least 1960, if not ever. The new ordinance created the Civilian Office for Police Accountability, a new group tasked with the investigation of civilian complaints against Chicago Police officers, overseen by the Deputy Inspector General for Public Safety. With the creation of these new offices, Chicago’s police accountability system joins a handful of cities from around the country like New York City, Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Jose to make significant upgrades to their police accountability systems. The question now becomes how effective this system will be, especially in changing the culture of the department and thus reducing misconduct.
The major changes that this ordinance have brought about are centrally focused on using deterrence as the main mechanism towards police accountability. The problem is that while these changes are necessary, they do not address the culture of secrecy within police departments. When thinking about this culture and how pervasive it is, it helps to reference the Van Dyke shooting case. When Jason Van Dyke murdered Laquan McDonald, there were several officers on the scene. All of them, within a very short period of time, made an individual decision to cover-up the murder by filling out official police reports with fraudulent accounts of what actually occurred. Only this culture of secrecy can explain how these officers chose course of action in the era of ubiquitous cameras, including those mounted to their own patrol car dashboards.
There is no doubt that Chicago’s previous accountability system was completely ineffective. Generally, an officer had a better chance of being struck by lightning that being found guilty of serious misconduct and losing their job or being suspended for a significant amount of time. Despite how weak the accountability system was in reality, Chicago police officers have a disproportionate fear of the system coming to get them for the slightest mistake. Their fear is significantly out of touch with the rate at which the accountability system held officers accountable for their actions.To see just how ineffective the police accountability system was you can read decisions from the Chicago Police Board for yourself on our website.
The real test of any police accountability system is to what degree it encourages good officers to turn in bad officers. Unfortunately, I see nothing in the new accountability system that addresses this problem whatsoever, a flaw that is seen in many other cities and departments across the country. You could say that the failure to address this problem is also state of the art in America. This reform, while significant, shows that City of Chicago is not interested in going beyond the limits of what other cities had already created, regardless of how ineffective those systems may be at dealing with the culture problems within their police departments.
I hope the press and alderman understand that the creation of these new agencies is only the easy first step. The future of the community and police relations lies in the over a 100 additional recommendations of the Mayor’s Police Accountability Task Force (PATF). If we stop at the doorstep of reform as we have so many times in Chicago, we will just be back here again in another eight or ten years. The creation of these agencies is only the beginning.
If Mayor was serious about really bringing change to the Chicago Police Department, he would have embraced the PATF report and issued a timeline for implementation of their recommendations. Instead we got a spattering of uncoordinated changes, only some of which – like the creation of COPA and the Inspector General for Public Safety – have actually come about.
In the Mayor’s horrific public safety speech, he announced the hiring of an additional 1,000 officers over the next two years, above and beyond the hiring that would continue to take place to keep up with attrition. In order to achieve this number, the Chicago Police Academy would have to graduate about one hundred cadets every month over the next two years. However, the academy is not even equipped to handle its current training load. Not to mention remember the Mayor’s announcement of his decision to bring in De-escalation training to the CPD. How in the world is the academy going to handle retraining some 12,000 officers on De-escalation at the same time it is training at least 100 new officers every month? This is clearly doomed to fail.
If the Mayor was serious, we would be six months in to the upgrading of the training academy or the construction of a brand new facility to bring state of the art training to all our officers. This would require the commitment of significant resources towards improving policing in Chicago for the long-term, and it seems this is not something the Mayor is committed to. We have been here before in Chicago and the way it is being done now it certainly seems like we will be back here again in another 10 years.
Should we have created these new agencies? Yes. Are they the answer to all of the problems within the CPD? Hardly. Would this have been an ok first step had the Mayor embraced the PATF report and created the holistic plan for changing policing in Chicago? Yes. Are these steps doomed to fail if the Mayor decides this is our only answer to the violence and police accountability issues in Chicago? Certainly.
CJP’s Role in New Legislation
In the interest of transparency. Over the course of the past several months, I was part of a group of civil rights organizations called the Community Renewal Society that been involved in recommending language for this legislation to the Mayor’s office and Corporation Counsel Steve Patton. During this time, I recommended to Community Renewal Society that they back the creation of this office, among other reforms. Despite my support of this office, however, I find it highly unlikely these changes will amount to significant improvements in the behavior of police in communities of color.