Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The city’s police union does not seem happy.
The city of Chicago has released hundreds of videos, audio files, and documents involving police officers who’ve fired their weapons at citizens or have been accused of other misconduct. Among the newly publicized records are videos showing, as DNAInfo Chicago has been reporting:
- Police shooting an unarmed, shirtless, African American accused of attacking people on a bus;
- Police punching an African-American man in the face after a woman filming the incident is heard shouting to people not to talk back to police but to record them on camera instead;
- Police shooting a man in 2014 as he appeared to be trying to flee a crime scene in his SUV. (NOTE: This is captured in the video below, which contains graphic language and violence.)
The massive release of information— perhaps one of the grandest gestures of police transparency of any large city—is the result of a few factors:
- Relentless pressure from grassroots activist organizations, like Black Youth Project 100 and Black Lives Matter, demanding greater police accountability;
- Aggressive investigative reporting and lawsuits filed by a number of media organizations—notably the Invisible Institute;
- The court-forced release of the video of police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting and killing the unarmed, African-American teenager LaQuan McDonald last November—a video that Chicago police hid from the public for well over a year;
- Massive calls for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to resign, under accusations he helped the police cover up the McDonald killing;
- Urgency from the Police Accountability Task Force, created by Emanuel in the aftermath of the McDonald controversy to reform the department
This new archive of police misconduct seriously dents, if not pierces, the almost impenetrable armor of the “Thin Blue Line”—the police culture that dissuades officers and officials from being forthcoming with the public regarding cases of police brutality or killings. Emanuel and the city’s lawyers recently admitted that such a culture exists among the Chicago Police Department. In its report to the mayor, the Police Accountability Task Force copied a statement from the Deputy Police Superintendent Eugene Williams who admitted to it as well. Reads Williams’ statement:
[S]ix months of academy training cannot stand up to a career of “on the streets influence” by veteran officers who are all too anxious to show the rookies how things are really done on the streets. The way it is done on the streets is to protect and cover for your partner at all cost, even at the expense of sacrificing every ounce of one’s integrity. This culture has been all too evident when we investigate thousands of allegations where the partner of the accused never sees, or hear[s] of any inappropriate conduct although they work in very close proximity of each other during their entire tour of duty. Yet, within this culture it is considered righteous to cut corners and embellish on the facts in a case report or arrest report to win a case in court.
It’s a culture that’s all but codified in the collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) between the city and the Fraternal Order of Police—the police union that has historically served as a graveyard for many effective police reforms. The Police Accountability Task Force flagged the role of CBAs and police unions in ruining not only attempts at reform, but also investigations into police violence. The report states that the union’s CBAs “make it easy for officers to lie in official reports” and “require officials to ignore and destroy evidence of misconduct.”
Reads the report:
Under some circumstances, the CBAs require that evidence of misconduct be ignored. For example, the CBAs forbid the investigation of complaints older than five years without permission of the Superintendent. There is certainly a place for consideration of an applicable statute of limitations, as it is harder to prove or disprove events that happened long ago. And it is reasonable to require good proof before disciplining an officer. It is not reasonable to impose strict limitations on what matters can even be investigated. …
Similarly, the CBAs require that in some cases where there is a finding that an officer engaged in misconduct, but the finding did not result in significant punishment, the information cannot be used against the officer after a short amount of time and must be removed from the officer’s record entirely in a few years. There is no compelling reason for these provisions. The CPD and the various police oversight entities should be able to draw on any relevant evidence and findings to identify potential patterns of misbehavior.
Following with the task force’s recommendations, videos of police involved in shootings or other acts of violence now must be released to the public within 60 days, with a few exceptions. Police can appeal to delay the release, but only for another 30 days. The task force also recommended a string of changes to the contracts between the unions and the city, notably calling for the elimination of any provision that requires the destruction of records.
The Chicago chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police seems unhappy, of course, with the city’s new maneuvers—especially the huge video release. In a public statement, the union said it met with the city the day before the announcement of the release.
“To say this meeting turned contentious would be an understatement,” reads the statement. “We sternly addressed our concerns about our members’ privacy, the length of the IPRA investigations, potential of violations of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and the possibility of an Unfair Labor Practice. The Lodge had absolutely no input in this process. We were notified less than 24 hours of the press release.”
This reaction reads like a complaint that the city is being less than transparent—and who might recognize such a thing better than Chicago’s police union?