On Friday, as a sort of criminal justice swan song for Barack's Obama administration, the feds unveiled a scathing report about policing in the president's hometown of Chicago. Given the Windy City just saw its most violent year in decades—with over 750 people killed by gun violence in 2016—and was rocked by protests over police killings of people of color, the report's conclusions didn't exactly come as a shock. But it will be left to the Trump administration, and a Justice Department likely helmed by Alabama US Senator Jeff Sessions, to compel any changes in how Chicago cops treat their fellow citizens.
The feds' attention was drawn in large part from the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager, by white police officer Jason Van Dyke in October 2014. Van Dyke has been charged with murder, but cases like his—where a police officer actually sees criminal indictment for killing unarmed civilians—remain the exception to a macabre national rule. And even when officers do get charged, they are extremely rarely convicted, as last month's mistrial in the North Charleston, South Carolina killing of Walter Scott made excruciatingly clear.
For some perspective on how Chicago police are responding to the litany of accusations against their department, and what officers on the beat expect in terms of federal enforcement from the next administration in Washington, we reached out to a nearly 20-year veteran of the Chicago PD's Bureau of Patrol. The officer, who asked to remain anonymous as cops are not typically allowed to speak to the press, has mainly been working the city's violent south and west sides. He deals daily with some of the grave challenges faced by police in the city, often bringing closure to families by solving homicides and other murders, and at times working his contacts on the streets to help prevent further bloodshed.
The officer spoke with VICE about the Justice Department report, general crime trends in Chicago, and what Donald Trump means for his city.
VICE: This has been an especially violent year in Chicago, leading some to speculate that officers are taking a hands-off approach to crime prevention in the wake of the release of the Laquan McDonald video and related protests in the city and across America. We've heard that a fair amount from police leaders, union officials, and even FBI Director James Comey. Is there any truth to it?
Veteran Chicago Cop: Certainly, but it's not as simple as that. Officers have found themselves under increased scrutiny for several years, with public and political expectations growing beyond reason. With every action taken by officers available for slow motion and repeated review, encounters that unfold in seconds can be be examined again and again for hours.
The overwhelming majority of officers are acting in good faith, performing their jobs to the best of their abilities and training. The rapidity of these actions—the speed at which they occur and at which officers must observe, interpret, and react—must be considered. This is why the standard of "reasonableness" exists. When the findings of these reviews [of individual acts of use of force] are not reasonable, officers are left confused and wary. Add to this the fact that the promotional process beyond lieutenant is largely a political one, and many bosses are not willing to risk their careers to defend their officer's actions if those actions are questioned. If officers feel that their own department will not defend them, especially for the sake of political expediency, they question whether it is wise to act beyond that which is minimally required at all.
Finally, this is a city and department that will nickel and dime itself to death. There are not enough cars for officers, and half of those that we do have have holes in the floorpans, missing parts, wires hanging out of the dash, non-functioning air or heat, half the car's paint missing, or are missing computers. We receive no training outside two-minute-long roll call videos. There is a distinct sentiment of: Hey, this department doesn't care about me or give me the minimum tools I need—and they expect me to use—to do my job. Why should I go out of my way to give back my all to them?
OK, but how did you and fellow officers react to the Justice Department report that accused cops of using wildly excessive force in a systematic way?
Many of the officers I've spoken with have expected this outcome, so they are not shocked or angered beyond what they already were. The city and the department do not provide us with the tools, equipment, or manpower to be effective, and cases that reach a courtroom are thrown out or are negotiated down so that even the arrests we do manage to make are dismissed time and time again. Those that do receive convictions serve ridiculous portions of their sentences, like 18 months of a seven-year bid. Who is at fault here? It's the city, the county, and the department. They have done everything in their power to weaken our ability to be effective law enforcement agents and they have systematically destroyed morale.
Besides your belief that some offenders are getting off too easy and the issues you raised about resources and morale, what else can explain this year's uptick in violence?
Vocal elements within the community have demanded a more "hands off" approach from police. Decreases in arrests and street stops is not just some angry reaction from police in light of recent criticisms—though that does certainly play a part. Within this city alone, we've seen calls for the elimination of cash bonds and the wholesale disbanding of the police—the Reader even ran disbanding the police as a cover story. The newly elected State's Attorney, in the midst of the highest murder tally in almost 20 years, has not said that decreasing violence and increasing public safety are her top priorities, but rather it's the investigation of police. What message is being sent to Chicagoans? It's that the police are the bad guys and that the criminals are poorly treated across the criminal justice system. Does anybody reasonable believe that such a posture does not serve to embolden the criminal element? It's possible to do both: to hold police and criminals accountable for their actions. It's what the citizens of Chicago—and every city and town—should be demanding of their governments.
But some of the videos released in the past year show officers engaging in what many people agree is highly questionable use of lethal force. Don't you think that makes some of the anger towards the department and its officers justified?
There's an expression in law enforcement that says "awful but lawful." It's the recognition that the use of force is never pretty. This is not an excuse for officers who engage in use of force outside department guidelines or the law, but rather the recognition that just because it's violent, that doesn't mean it violates policy or the law. The public doesn't understand, to a large degree, what the use of force policy is and why it's crafted the way it is. This is a failing of the city and the department, who should be working much harder at engaging the public on this issue. As far as "highly questionable," this is a subjective term and the reason why use of force incidents are investigated.
Gotcha. But Chicago Police consulted with the public in drafting a new use of force policy. Is that new policy any clearer than the previous one?
The previous policy was not unclear, and the use of force model was not unique to Chicago; it's a model widely used by other agencies. When officers act outside this policy, they should be disciplined—it's that simple. The type and scope of that discipline should take into account both the circumstances and the officer's intent. One of the issues, in my mind, is that we've given officers so many tools—a good thing—that we've begun to expect them to make judgement calls between exceptionally similar tools that they should not be expected to make: You used your taser, why didn't you use your [pepper] spray? You used your [pepper] spray, why didn't you use your baton? You used your baton, why didn't you use your taser? Again, we are talking about incidents that can unfold in seconds.
We are left with two options: provide a multitude of tools and allow for a spectrum of force responses that recognize equivalency between many tools, or take tools away and have far fewer options. As far as the new policy, it serves only to confuse matters. Police officers work in the profession of law enforcement. When offenders violate the law, we are mandated and trained to enforce the law by taking an offender into custody. Officers should be—and always have been—required to use the least amount of force necessary to take an offender into custody, and we are provided that wide range of tools and force spectrum to do so. A duty to retreat, however, runs absolutely counter to our mandate. If officers are expected to retreat each time an offender engages or is likely to engage in violence to our arrest attempts, what will happen?
Fair enough, but the Chicago PD's history includes sustained allegations of torture of black suspects and a strong code of silence, which it's fair to say have eroded faith in the system. Shouldn't cops in Chicago be held responsible for that chasm of trust? And shouldn't it be up to them to fix it?
Mistrust in police has been a huge issue in the national discussion about law enforcement over the past few years. When officers engage in unlawful or unethical conduct, that mistrust is earned. Law enforcement, as a profession, must do a better job of identifying officers who engage in such conduct and prosecuting or firing them. At the same time, we must guard ourselves against labeling all police officers as unworthy of public trust. Again, a more proactive approach at identifying and firing those officers demonstrably unsuited to remain police would make tremendous strides toward re-establishing trust with communities. Do mistrust of police and decreased perceptions of legitimacy affect crime clearance rates? Of course they play a role. However, claiming that these are responsible for increases in violence is inaccurate and incomplete. There is a distinct difference between a citizen's lack of trust in and failure to speak with police, and young men and women shooting each other in our streets. Those young men and women don't engage in violence because they don't trust the police—they do it because they are in rival gangs, or because of something said on social media. They do it because they don't know another way to resolve their conflicts, or properly manage their emotions. We do them—and ourselves—a disservice when we reduce violence to simply a lack of trust in police.
President-elect Donald Trump has at times been vocal about violence in Chicago, calling out Mayor Rahm Emanuel directly, and during the campaign assailing a vague policy of being "not tough." The Justice Department report seems to show the opposite—that cops are very aggressive, unlawfully so, in Chicago. So I put it to you: Can the city's gun violence really be helped simply by more heavy-handed police work?
I disagree that the report shows the opposite. "Tough" does not necessarily mean "heavy-handed." The national discussion in recent years regarding law enforcement has demanded transparency and accountability from police. I think we need to go further—we need transparency and accountability for the criminal justice system. Cook County uses the felony review process, so that most crimes that are clearly felonies are not ever even charged as such if an [assistant state's attorney] can figure out some way to avoid it. Those cases that do make it to court—felony or not—have shamefully low conviction rates. When someone commits a crime, where is the accountability for those actions the criminal chose to engage in? Why are certain cases dropped? Why are convictions so hard to secure? Why are people serving such short portions of their sentences? When those people commit violent acts again, who is held accountable?
This is not a question of more "heavy-handed" policing, it's a question of making sure that those arrested are held accountable and serve the time they should serve, and holding politicians and judges accountable when they do not.
Check out this VICE News report on how 2016 was Chicago's most violent year in decades.
Can you tell us more about what, specifically, officers are saying about Trump, and whether they think Justice Department will actually force major changes on CPD as it has in other cities under the Obama administration?
The Chicago Police Department is comprised of a multitude of individuals, each subscribing to his or her own political beliefs. It's wrong to paint with a broad brush and suggest there is an overwhelming sense of joy or relief at Trump's election. I've spoken to just as many officers who are unnerved by his win or wary of his presidency, and for a multitude of reasons—national defense, possible economic policies—not just criminal justice policy.
Among those who are pleased with the election's outcome, there seems to be a hope that, as far as criminal justice policy goes, there will be a return to accountability that flows both ways: that while officers are held to greater scrutiny and made accountable for their actions, those people who choose to engage in criminal activity will be held accountable for their actions. Over the past several years, there has been a concerted effort to move from that accountability to a culture of excusing. Those who engage in criminal acts are not responsible for their actions because of "X."
But what concrete changes are cops expecting after federal intervention?
I believe many of the findings in the report are accurate, but that many of the redresses will be focused in the wrong places. Officers don't write policy, they don't hire, they don't set budgets, and they don't sentence offenders or release them early. Financial priorities—or lack thereof—have cut department budgets across the city. The promotional process, despite what the DOJ report asserts, remains a clouted process; those who have the clout get most of the "merit" promotions. Those same bosses shield those officers who have done wrong from appropriate discipline. None of these decisions or actions are undertaken by the working police, who are striving each day to provide the best service that they can in the above-described environment.
If the DOJ wishes to insert itself, it can do so most effectively in two places. First, it needs to address the above: the well known, often joked about, and unacceptably accepted "Chicago political machine." Second, it needs to put one of its feet on the same side as the police and say, "The city and its police department have issues that will be addressed, but there are issues in the community that need to be addressed as well." A culture of violence that rides a wave of blame will eventually consume itself and everything around it. If we're talking about addressing policing issues, we need to also be talking about fixing those issues that surround and drive it, too.
One thing the report said that I imagine you agree with is that morale is very poor among most cops in the city. Does that square with your experience?
Morale is low, of course.
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