Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The U.S. Justice Department’s recently released findings of its investigation into the Chicago Police Department shows how one city obstructed its own paths to law enforcement accountability.
If there was any doubt about whether Donald Trump as president would pursue the truculent police culture he campaigned on, it was erased during his inaugural address on “American carnage.” Soon after, all mentions of police reform on the White House’s website were replaced with new Trump-ian language decrying the “dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America.”
Many people are fearfully awaiting what this will translate to on the ground under a Trump presidency. However, it’s important to note that when it comes to instigating reckless policing, many cities don’t need any help—they are doing bad all on their own. And that’s been happening under Big-D Democratic mayors in metros that did not vote for Trump.
Exhibit A: The findings from the U.S. Justice Department’s 13-month investigation into the Chicago Police Department, released on January 13. The report reveals a different kind of dangerous policing atmosphere, one created by a culture of impunity for abusive police officers. This culture is referenced numerous times throughout its 164-page report. Some examples:
- “The failure to review and investigate officer use of force has helped create a culture in which officers expect to use force and not be questioned about the need for or propriety of that use.“
- “We also found that investigations foundered because of the pervasive cover-up culture among CPD officers, which the accountability entities accept as an immutable fact rather than something to root out.”
- “Under CPD policy, supervisors are obligated to report information regarding misconduct by subordinate officers. Yet, CPD culture discourages supervisors from reporting the misconduct of subordinates.”
The DOJ makes clear that much of the behavior described above was enabled by the city’s own administration: The Chicago Police Department rarely investigated shootings and excessive force incidents, and it was able to get away with that due to concessions the city made to the police union. There are three major ways the city interfered with police accountability, according to the DOJ:
1. The city signed off on a policy that requires a person who has filed a complaint against a police officer to meet in person with a badged investigator and sign a sworn affidavit, under penalty of law, to validate their accusations. The city would launch no official investigation into any complaint without this.
This might seem like a benign ask, but law enforcement experts say that this can have a chilling effect on those filing complaints. As former Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza once explained:
Complainants, whether they are victims or witnesses, may not know where to go to file a complaint. They may have difficulty communicating due to language barriers, or they may be met with hostility by officers who do not wish to receive a complaint about a colleague. They may be dissuaded from filing a complaint through threats or other techniques. Officers receiving complaints may ask questions that reveal they do not believe the complainant, or they may ask about the complainant's criminal history or charges that may be pending as a result of the arrest that gave rise to the alleged abuse incident.
In an average year, 40 percent of Chicago police complaints are denied an investigation, because the complainant didn’t sign the affidavit. This is not inconsequential: The Justice Department found that most of the police misconduct lawsuits that led to settlements or verdicts against the police were based on complaints that were never investigated due to lack of affidavit. Meanwhile, there was no initial disciplinary investigation conducted in over half of the police misconduct cases since 2004 that led to the city paying out over $500 million to victims.
This requirement to meet personally with a government agent and sign an affidavit is not applied across other Chicago government agencies. It’s not required, for instance, when filing a sexual harassment or discrimination complaint with the city’s Diversity and Equal Employment Opportunity Division. Perhaps this is because it’s understood how intimidating it can be to meet with people who are working in positions of power over you, for any reason, let alone accusing their colleagues of malpractice.
A complaint that's filed anonymously should not automatically be undeserving of further inquiry. The “code of silence” among police departments is alone reason enough why anonymous complaints merit review, as the Justice Department report notes. That code wasn’t acknowledged in previous collective bargaining agreements between the city and the police union, but it likely will come up in the new round of negotiations this year. As Chicago’s Police Accountability Task Force wrote in its report to the mayor last April:
The Task Force has found that the code of silence is not just an unwritten rule, or an unfortunate element of police culture past and present. The code of silence is institutionalized and reinforced by [Chicago Police Department] rules and policies that are also baked into the labor agreements between the various police unions and the City. These impediments to identifying potential misconduct must be eliminated if CPD and the City are to end this persistent challenge.
2. Investigations into many police uses of force are discretionary, at best—and the city’s concessions to the police union make it that way.
Some police complaints are fortunate enough to gain consideration for further examination. But many of those investigations can be clipped before a single police officer is questioned—even in cases of alleged excessive force and weapons discharges.
For example, the Independent Police Review Authority [IPRA] (which will soon be replaced by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability) can flat-out reject any complaint involving a police officer accused of handcuffing someone too tightly, or who aggressively tackles someone during an arrest. Which means if a situation such as this, where a 26-year-old African-American teacher was slammed on the ground by a police officer in Austin, happened in Chicago, her complaint may have never found an audience.
Forget about verbal abuse complaints against police—those get tossed in a bin for “non-disciplinary intervention,” according to the DOJ report. While perhaps it’s prudent to exercise discretion in non-lethal force cases, the Justice Department notes that there’s still no system in place in Chicago for vetting complaints to determine whether a full investigation is necessary.
When it comes to Tasering, the city is required by local ordinance to investigate every time a police officer deploys a Taser gun, whether they hit someone or not. The IPRA is responsible for these investigations, but as of 2010 stopped looking into “all but a few of the Taser uses,” reads the report. Meanwhile, Chicago police have been firing them roughly 600 times on average annually, a rate that’s likely to expand now that every Chicago police officer is trained to use them.
The IPRA says they don’t have the resources to probe every Tasering, but DOJ says this is no excuse in its report:
By placing responsibility for investigating Taser discharges in IPRA, and then failing to ensure that IPRA did so, the City created a system in which no one assesses whether Tasers are being used appropriately or effectively. This, in turn, prevents the City and CPD from uncovering the potential need for retraining or additional policy refinement, and of course from deterring future misuse of Tasers by holding officers accountable for abuse.
The city also doesn’t investigate when police fire their weapons but report missing their targets. These so-called “no-hit” shootings probably should be investigated, though, says the Justice Department, if for no other reason than to confirm that no one actually was hit. Because there’s nothing in the city’s contract with the police union that requires it, these incidents don’t get investigated.
The incoming Civilian Office of Police Accountability is slated to have expanded powers that enables it to investigate when police discharge their firearms “in a manner that could potentially strike an individual” and after Tasering discharges that result in “death or great bodily injury.”
3. For investigations where evidence of police misconduct does surface, the city allows police officers to plea down to lesser charges to avoid punishment.
So, let’s say a person filing a complaint does meet with an investigator, signs the sworn affidavits, and the action is serious enough that neither the IPRA nor the police department can simply ignore further examination per the methods outlined above. There’s a good chance that the complaint still won’t be investigated because of an over-utilized tool called “mediation” that allows the accused police offer to walk off with no meaningful punishment—even if the victim feels their grievance is not settled.
Under mediation, an accused police officer can simply agree to a less-serious charge related to the complaint in exchange for avoiding the most serious penalty—it’s essentially a plea bargain. According to the DOJ report, there has never been a mediation that was initiated after an investigation into the complaint was completed, and the person who filed the complaint is “generally excluded” from the mediation process.
As a result, approximately 65 percent of all complaints between 2013 and 2015 were waived off via mediation—50 percent of those mediated were for domestic violence or excessive force claims. One of those cases is described in the DOJ report:
We reviewed one complaint where an officer fractured his girlfriend’s nose during a domestic dispute. In this case, investigators recognized the seriousness of the allegations and requested an affidavit override after they could not secure the victim’s agreement to participate in the investigation because the victim feared retaliation from the officer and his friends within CPD. It is laudable that the investigators recognized the seriousness of the offense and pursued the investigation without the victim’s agreement to participate in the investigation. Yet, in the end, the investigators still sent the case to mediation, and the officer received only a five-day suspension.
If there are police officers who have acquired a history of such complaints—mediated, verified, or otherwise—it’s difficult to know because the city has conceded that most of these claims can be erased from an officer’s personnel file after five years. This complicates any efforts for identifying which police officers might be the most problematic. Chicago is far from the only city that allows this kind of history scrubbing.
What impact, if any, will the incoming presidential administration have over federal efforts to rein in urban law enforcement practices? Beyond matters of funding, it’s not certain that Trump will have that much control. His Attorney General could, and likely will, de-prioritize conducting the kinds of investigations into police departments’ practices that led to the Chicago findings. But regardless, those investigations—important as they are—are only responses to patterns of corrupt police behavior, and they’re usually delivered only after a lot of damage has already been done, as seen in Chicago.
The real work on police reform remains within the cities themselves, to clean up police departments before a federal intervention is needed. And that work should include an audit of how cities have enabled the very behavior that they often expect the federal government to come in later to clean up.