Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and other top brass at city hall would have you believe that Chicago’s policing and police oversight are the standard of excellence.
They say that police and community relations have improved, the Superintendent just finished a “community listening tour,” the newly-created Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) is holding police accountable for misconduct, and the Police Board has fired the “bad cops.”
But that’s not the whole story. And more than that, it’s not even an accurate account of the story they’re trying to tell.
Chicago Police Department
Let’s start with the Chicago Police Department. Chicago police officers are using unnecessary physical force at a much higher rate than police departments across the county. Since September of 2007, a staggering 10,508 complaints for excessive force have been filed against Chicago police officers.[i] Over that time period, Chicago has employed an average of approximately 12,500 sworn officers each year, which comes out to 10.7 excessive force complaints for every 100 officers on a yearly basis. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report, the national average is 6.6 complaints per 100 officers. Chicago police officers garner excessive force complaints at more than 1.5 times the national average.
People of color are more likely to be killed by police officers in Chicago. Over the same time period, Chicago police officers shot 393 civilians, including 123 who were killed by police. Based solely on population demographics of Chicago, you would expect those 393 shooting victims to be fairly evenly distributed between whites, blacks, and Latinos. However, the reality is that 291 of the 393 victims (74%) were black. That is despite the fact that African Americans make up only 32.9% of Chicagoans. A mere 34 shooting victims (8.7%) were white while whites make up 31.7% of Chicagoans. All this adds up to mean that over the past 8 years, African Americans have been 8.25 times more likely to be shot by a Chicago police officer than whites. Latinos are roughly 1.75 times more likely to be shot than whites.
Independent Police Review Authority
When there are allegations of police misconduct or officer-involved shootings, we rely on the Independent Police Review Authority to investigate and make a determination as to whether the alleged misconduct happened. Since its inception in 2007, IPRA has investigated 10,508 separate allegations of excessive force. According to the same report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics mentioned above, the average sustain rate for excessive force is 8% nationally. In other words, a civilian who files a complaint against an officer for excessive force should expect an 8% chance that their complaint will be upheld and the officer disciplined. Yet IPRA has sustained the allegation of excessive force in a mere 1.2% of cases.
IPRA recommends discipline when cases are sustained and sufficient evidence is found to support the complaint. In the 127 sustained cases, 137 officers were found to have used unnecessary or excessive force (a few cases sustained complaints against more than one officer). In determining discipline for 137 officers found to have violated the department’s use-of-force policy, IPRA recommended no suspension for 9 officers (6.6%), a suspension of 30 days or less for 82 officers (59.9%), a suspension of more than 30 days for 10 officers (7.3%), and separation for 36 officers (26.3%).[ii]
Chicago Police Board
The Police Board is responsible for reviewing and making the final decision in all cases in which separation or a suspension of more than 30 days is recommended. Since 2008, based upon IPRA recommendations for discipline of officers with sustained complaints for excessive force, we should expect the Police Board to have made decisions for 46 such officers. However, the Police Board has recorded outcomes on only 8 cases of excessive force. The Police Board has discharged 4 officers, suspended 3 officers, and reported that 1 officer resigned voluntarily before a decision. That leaves 38 “missing” cases—38 officers for whom IPRA recommended separation or a suspension of more than 30 days that the Police Board has apparently never addressed. The most plausible explanation for what happened to those 38 cases is that the Police Superintendent refused to concur with IPRA’s disciplinary recommendation and the IPRA Chief Administrator accepted a negotiated compromise for less discipline. The outcomes of these closed-door negotiations are unknown, and IPRA has denied a Freedom of Information Act request to release the information. Remarkably, the Police Board hasn’t fired a police officer for excessive force since 2009.[iii]
In 2014, the Police Board decided on 16 cases in which the Superintendent recommended discharge. The Police Board discharged only 6 officers (37.5%). The remaining officers were either found not guilty or given a lesser penalty of suspension or reprimand. Overall, the Police Board has overturned nearly half of the Superintendent’s recommendations for discharge since 2008.
Chicago’s system of police accountability is broken at every step along the way. Our police officers are resorting to force far more often than necessary and shooting black and brown Chicagoans at alarmingly disproportionate rates. The Independent Police Review Authority—the very agency created to hold police accountable for misconduct—is sustaining excessive force complaints against officers at a rate more than 6 times below the national average. And the most severe sustained cases of excessive force never make it to the Police Board. Of those that do, the Police Board often overturns recommendations for discharge and allows an abusive officer to continue to wear a CPD badge.
So what do all three components of Chicago’s broken police accountability system have in common?
The Mayor of Chicago has the power to appoint the leaders of all of them. The mayor appoints the Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, the Chief Administrator of IPRA, and all nine members of the Police Board.
It’s time for some independent police oversight. Read Part 2 to find the way forward.
[i] All Chicago data cited in this section was obtained from public records on the Independent Police Review Authority’s website, or from records obtained from IPRA through Freedom of Information Act requests.
[ii] These totals—the number of sustained cases for excessive force, the total number of officers, and the disciplinary recommendations in each case—were gathered by reviewing the abstracts of each of the 655 investigations that IPRA has sustained since it was established in September, 2007.