By Dan Cho
Associate Editor, Vol. 21
Contributing Editor, Vol. 22
Last December, after the release of a dash cam video showing Jason Van Dyke, a white Chicago police officer, shooting Laquan MacDonald, an unarmed black teenager and in the midst of the subsequent protests, Mayor Rahm Emanuel created a task force to “review the system of accountability, oversight and training” in place for Chicago Police, and “recommend reforms to the current system.” The task force co-chairs included former federal prosecutors, a former public defender, and a former Deputy Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department. On April 13, 2016, the task force released its report.
It’s official: The Chicago Police Department has a serious problem with race.
“The community’s lack of trust in CPD is justified. There is substantial evidence that people of color—particularly African-Americans—have had disproportionately negative experiences with the police over an extended period of time,” the report states. “There is also substantial evidence that these experiences continue today through significant disparate impacts associated with the use of force, foot and traffic stops and bias in the police oversight system itself.”
The report backs up its findings with hard statistics. Despite African-Americans making up only a third of the city’s population, between 2008 and 2015, they made up 74% of the people shot or hit by Chicago police, 76% of the people shot with tasers, 46% of traffic stops, and 72% of on-foot stops that did not lead to arrests.
Naturally, Dean Angelo Sr., the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Chicago’s largest police union, discounted the qualifications of the task force, and claimed the report was one-sided and biased.
The task force focuses on the contemporary problems facing the police department, but historically, the Chicago Police Department has had a disturbing history as well. In 1969, the Chicago Police raided the apartment of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, at four in the morning and shot him as he slept. Between 1972 and 1991, Jon Burge, a detective, detained and tortured over a hundred black men with cattle prods and telephone books to elicit confessions.
As the push for police reform continues nationwide, the question arises: How effective are these types of reports and recommendations? One seeming success reformers point to is Cincinnati.
In 2001, Cincinnati was roiled in protests after a white officer shot Timothy Taylor, an unarmed 19-year-old black man—the fifteenth black victim of a police shooting in five years. The then-mayor invited a Justice Department investigation of the Cincinnati police department’s use-of-force policy and procedure. The Justice Department investigation’s scope expanded beyond just the use-of-force policy, and resulted in consent decrees outlining reforms to the city’s general policing strategy. Since the institution of the reforms, there have been drops in felony and misdemeanor arrests, as well as the general crime rate.
Could the successes of Cincinnati be imported into Chicago? Possibly, but the process would be difficult. The push for reform in Cincinnati was contentious and extended, spanning years. In the initial years following the institution of the reforms, homicide and violent crime rates actually rose, and the police did not “buy into” the measures until a new mayor had been elected. Any analogous reform in Chicago would have to contend with the recalcitrant police department, the infamously dysfunctional local government, and the already high rates of violent crime in the city.
This is not to say that reform is not a plausible or necessary goal in Chicago. It’s hard to read through the report and not realize that there is something deeply wrong in the Windy City. However, reform will require more than just recommendations; it will require a concentrated and unshaken push toward justice.