Racial Justice Expert Says Department of Justice Report on Chicago Police Is Not Unique

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The release of a report by the Department of Justice on the practices of the Chicago Police Department has re-opened the debate on reducing implicit racial bias in policing. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the long-awaited results of the DOJ probe into the practices of the Chicago Police Department on Friday, Jan. 13, and, as expected, the findings are disturbing.

Lynch said the department’s 13-month investigation uncovered a “pattern of excessive force” within the police agency and found that officers had routinely discriminated against African-Americans and other nonwhites. She noted that such practices, which included the use of deadly force, were systematic violations of citizens’ civil rights.

“The systems and policies that fail citizens also fail officers who risk their lives to serve and protect Chicago,” Lynch said at the news conference. “Those officers are proud to wear the badge but recognize they lack support from community and city to do their job.”

The critical 164-page report cited the Chicago PD’s failure to adequately train officers in de-escalation techniques as the reason for the excessive use of force. It also pointed to the department’s failure to carry out “meaningful investigations” into the nearly 30,000 use-of-force complaints filed over the past five years. According to the report, less than 2 percent of the complaints were sustained, with 98 percent of officers going undisciplined.

Despite these findings, the DOJ stopped short of calling out the CPD’s need to address the issue of racial bias among its officers. Alexis McGill Johnson, executive director and co-founder of the Perception Institute in New York, which uses race, gender and ethnic research science to create solutions aimed at reducing bias, said she was not at all surprised by the results of the DOJ report, especially as it pertained to bias toward Blacks.

“This is a story of time and memorial, particularly for African-Americans,” Johnson told Atlanta Black Star. “African-Americans are more frequently connected to the criminal justice system through disparities in [use of] force and arrests in the way policing is done. And it’s much easier to have police officers out in the streets rather than policing the suburban homes of white suspects.”

The probe also revealed “egregious uses of deadly force” by Chicago police officers who shot at suspects who posed no immediate threat. Officers’ use of nonlethal force was troubling as well, as they discharged stun guns on suspects who were not a threat and wielded “unreasonable” force against children and individuals suffering a mental health crisis.

The majority of these use-of-force incidents fell heavily in predominately African-American and Latino communities, according to the report. Moreover, the DOJ found that CPD officers used force against African-Americans almost 10 times more often than they did against whites. This was evidence, according to the report, that Chicago’s Black residents disproportionately suffered the harms of poor police training and lack of officer accountability as a result.

“Our investigation found that CPD has tolerated racially discriminatory conduct that not only undermines police legitimacy but also contributes to the pattern of unreasonable force,” the report stated. “The pattern or practice of unreasonable force, coupled with the recurrence of racially discriminatory conduct by officers, further erodes community trust and police effectiveness.”

Johnson added that the issue of implicit bias is not unique to the CPD, however, the alarming rates of violence and homicides in the Chicago are, putting officers at their “wit’s end.” Still, she said that’s no excuse for officers to wield excessive force against nonwhite suspects.

The DOJ’s scathing report on the CPD was the result of a federal investigation launched more than a year ago following the deadly shooting of Laquan McDonald, 19, by white Chicago officer Jason Van Dyke. Disturbing footage of the shooting, which showed Van Dyke firing 16 shots at the teen as he walked away, sparked nationwide protests.

The Chicago Tribune reported that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the DOJ have since agreed on a court-ordered consent decree, which would require the CPD to make sweeping reforms to address deficiencies within the department. As part of the agreement, the police agency also will be overseen by an independent monitor.

“The failures we identified in our findings, that we heard about from residents and officers alike, have deeply eroded community trust,” said Vanita Gupta, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, at Friday’s news conference. “But, today is a moment of opportunity, where we begin to move from identifying problems to developing solutions. I know our findings can lead to reform and rebuild community-police trust because we’ve seen it happen in community after community around the country over the past 20 years.”

Johnson agrees that reforms are possible, “For the most part, many police departments across the country have had very good training in reducing bias and been focused on this as an issue,” Johnson said. “In many cases, chiefs of police have opened up their departments to research this as a challenge … because there’s a correlation between use of force and high degrees of racial anxiety among police officers.”

Johnson went on to say that the solution to reducing racial bias among cops is not to focus on the “bad apples, but instead to focus on systems and practices and understanding what might be unique to that environment.

 

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