Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
In New Orleans and Chicago, police officials continue to butt heads with independent monitors while the NYPD takes some steps toward accountability.
Another chapter in the saga of who gets to police the police is coming out of Chicago, where the civilian-led agency responsible for investigating police-involved shootings has been enlisted to attend some questionable trainings. As WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio outlet, reports, the city’s Independent Police Review Authority will undergo a five-day training led by Bill Lewinski, a psychologist who specializes in helping cops who’ve been implicated in shootings get exonerated in court.
Chicago led all major cities in the number of police-involved killings between 2010 and 2014, according to the Better Government Association. The city created the Independent Police Review Authority in 2007 to create civilian oversight over matters in which police use force. Meanwhile, its new trainer, Lewinski, has a track record that shows he’s been more invested in getting cops off the hook for shootings than holding them accountable for them, as this August New York Times profile of him illustrates.
Lewinski has been involved in dozens of court cases where police defendants had shot and killed civilians, many of whom were unarmed. He’s been able to wiggle many officers out of convictions by testifying that police often are overtaken by “inattentional blindness” in high-stress situations. This theory posits that a person’s judgement can be so compromised in such situations that encounters can escalate to officers using unnecessary force or even killing the person they are engaging with. This is exactly the kind of police oversight that civilian oversight seeks to address.
As New York Times reporter Matt Appuzo wrote in his Lewinski profile:
In the protests that have followed police shootings, demonstrators have often asked why officers are so rarely punished for shootings that seem unwarranted. Dr. Lewinski is part of the answer.
Many jurors and judges have bought Lewinski’s argument, but the science behind his take on police psychology is shaky. The New School professor Arien Mack, who came up with the term “inattentional blindness,” denounced Lewinski’s interpretation of it for police in the WBEZ story. Lewiniski’s self-styled research on justified police killings has likewise been criticized by the American Journal of Psychology and the U.S. Department of Justice for lacking academic rigor.
However, the city of Chicago will now pay Lewinski $50,000 to train its Independent Police Review Authority.
Chicago lawyer Melvin Brooks, who’s faced Lewinski in court, told WBEZ that when dealing with the police psychologist, “Neutrality goes out the window.”
The question at the heart of this is who gets to look over the shoulders of the people who are looking over the shoulders of cops. Law enforcement associations have agreed in principle to civilian oversight. But in the case of Chicago, law enforcement is seeking to control who gets to perform that kind of police monitoring. WBEZ reported last December that the Independent Police Review Authority is increasingly falling under the influence of ex-cops.
As CityLab previously reported, the Independent Police Monitor of New Orleans is also caught in a struggle over independence and authority. The city’s inspector general wants their chief monitor, Susan Hutson, fired after he accused her of not complying with her orders—mainly around releasing information about police violence to the public. Said Hutson in a press release response Thursday:
“The quality of my work and service is not the true issue. The OIPM's independence is. I know that the Police Monitor's Office was created out of public demand to stop the abuses people had suffered from NOPD. One of the IG's primary arguments indicting my service is about my willingness to release information to the public. I understand that the public demand is my office's raison d'etre and I understand that the most successful police reform efforts entail high levels of community involvement. I have shaped this office and its approach to emphasize transparency with the public, fairness to all parties and accountability to the community we serve. When my accountability to the community conflicts with the IG' s desires, I will continue to err in favor of the community.”
One of the earlier rifts between New Orleans’ police monitor and its inspector general was a disagreement over who could conduct an external review of the independent police monitor’s office. As The Lens* recently reported, the inspector general handed a group called the Police Assessment Resource Center (PARC) a no-bid $75,000 contract to do the review. Hutson objected to this selection and was instead negotiating having the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) do it.
PARC is led by Merrick Bobb, who serves as counsel for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and who’s helped orchestrate independent oversight of the Los Angeles County’s Sheriff’s Office. That did not go well. These were the same county sheriffs that colluded with town mayors and local police to harass and intimidate Section 8 families, as CityLab reported in July. The Los Angeles Times’ editorial board criticized independent oversight efforts there in an op-ed this past summer:
The supposedly independent overseer either is absorbed into the sheriff's world, as with the Office of Independent Review, or becomes an agent of the Board of Supervisors, ineffectual ... or else too easily ignored … There is an urgent need for a new model that does not replicate those that so utterly failed during the jail abuse scandal. The oversight body must have sufficient independence from both the board and the sheriff, sufficient access to department documents to perform its task, sufficient standing to apply political pressure in cases when the sheriff refuses to cooperate, and sufficient professionalism and restraint to avoid becoming a runaway tribunal.
There is an urgent need for a new model if law enforcement officials can’t get a grip on the reforms that are supposed to be getting a grip on shady police practices. One new model, announced Thursday for the New York Police Department, will have officers there document “virtually all” incidents where they employ weapons or force in what are called Force Incident Reports. These will be analyzed and released to the public via annual reports.
NYPD Chief Bill Bratton said in a press conference: “What we’re developing here could become the national template for how do you not only investigate all levels of use of force, but how do you report it in a way that it is transparent?”
Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, Hutson is hoping she can remain in office to also influence what the new standard should be for police accountability in that city. As she wrote in her statement:
“Although these continued obstructions of my office's ability to fulfill its mission are frustrating, I am hopeful. Now, we can address the dysfunctional structure that places the Police Monitor function at a disadvantage. New Orleans is already ahead of the national curve for creating a powerful IPM mandate. If we correct this model and give the IPM the independence and funding to exercise power, we can be on the cutting edge of police reform and re-envision equitable policing.”