REUTERS/Jim Young

The city has a new task force on police accountability. But how will it function in the current union climate?

Chicago’s new task force on police accountability, announced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel on December 1, will look at creating an early-warning system to identify potentially abusive cops before they go rogue. Someone in the press-conference audience noted that the Chicago police department already has an early warning system.

Indeed, it does. But it is “woefully ineffective,” says Craig Futterman, a professor in the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic of the University of Chicago Law School. Futterman aided the legal fight to force Chicago police to release the video of Officer Jason Van Dyke killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, and is also behind an ongoing effort to publicize citizen complaints of police misconduct.

The early-warning system the Chicago police department currently has, explains Futterman, is to identify stressed cops who might require professional counseling. It does not, however, identify police who’ve had multiple complaints lodged against them for verbal and physical abusive. When Futterman’s legal research team compared a list of the Chicago police officers with the most misconduct complaints with a list of those enrolled in the current early-warning program, they found that less than six percent of those officers had ever been enrolled.

But cops who are repeatedly reported for abuse don’t need counseling, says Futterman, they need to be investigated. And that’s the problem: Police have been repeat offenders in the eyes of many Chicagoans, but they rarely are disciplined. The city’s new police accountability task force must address a “fundamental issue here, which is [that] you have groups of officers abusing the most vulnerable among us with near impunity,” says Futterman.

From the limited data he’s been able to wrangle from the city on police misconduct, Futterman has shown that it’s not difficult to spot who the problem officers are. Officer Van Dyke had 18 complaints filed against him and was involved in two shootings before he killed McDonald.  

“So when Officer Van Dyke got complaint number 11, as a matter of practice and policy [the Chicago police department] won’t look at his other complaints or investigations, but instead look at [that complaint] as an island unto itself,” says Futterman

The Chicago police union has filed a motion to allow the department to erase any complaint record of police misconduct that’s older than four years. The union is asking for this right just as the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times have filed in court for the right to data on police misconduct complaints going back to 1967 —which the city already agreed to fork over in an earlier consent decree. It will be interesting to see how the city can forge a new early-warning system if it can’t actually track early warnings from years back.

Futterman and Jamie Kalven, the journalist who filed the FOIA request that brought the Laquan McDonald video out to the public, head to court on December 3 to make their case for preserving the misconduct complaints dating back to 1967. Kalven’s FOIA work is the primary reason why the public has access to any police misconduct data at all. But they’ve had to fight for years to get it from people in city hall, and from a police union that is perhaps afraid of what these records could reveal.

“I think that’s part of the reason why the city hasn’t wanted to expose them,” says Futterman. He sets up a hypothetical example of four police officers who made 200 arrests in the past year that led to felony convictions, who are then revealed to have numerous abuse complaints against them. “That could undermine maybe 200 felony convictions. That means 200 potential lawsuits. It raises political questions about who’s been minding the store. And if we say it's easy to identify bad officers like those four, then we’ve been letting them go on for five or six years doing this kind of stuff.”

Mayor Emanuel said that the primary function of the new police accountability task force, and the new police chief, is to restore the public’s trust and confidence in the police. Futterman believes this is possible.

“If you want to build trust, it starts with honesty,” says Futterman. “Incidents will still happen. Even in the best police departments there will be incidents where police abuse their power. The trusted departments start with being honest. It’s not circle the wagons, it’s not denial and secrecy, it’s keeping people informed.”

It’s not evident, however, that this is possible in the current “Blue Wall” code-of-silence police culture. Especially considering recent tragedies and the Black Lives Matter zeitgeist, which is fixing the public gaze on police killings of African Americans in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland and beyond.

“’Restore’ may not be the right word,” says Futterman, “particularly when talking about large segments of the black community. ‘Restore’ means there was confidence there to begin with.”

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