Video footage of a police officer shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald sparked citywide protests in November 2015 and ignited Chicago’s ongoing movement for police reform, but the Chicago Police Department’s records show the gaping racial disparities in everyday use of force that played a role in creating the deep distrust in the city’s police department among communities of color.
The data shows not only police shootings, but also thousands of regular police uses of force over more than a decade — involving an average of 10 people every day — documenting cases in which officers tackled, tased, or used other types of force on civilians, nearly 90 percent of whom were people of color. The data provides a more detailed look at the pattern of unconstitutional force discovered by the Justice Department investigation that opened shortly after the release of the McDonald video.
In late July, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced their plan to fix the Chicago Police Department. The 225-page draft document provides a detailed proposal for police reform, to be overseen by a federal judge.
As the Chicago Police Department confronts a potentially decade-long reform process, a new trove of data obtained by the Invisible Institute, and presented as part of the Citizens Police Data Project, provides the one of the most comprehensive looks at a big city police department’s use of force. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the Invisible Institute obtained more than 67,000 “tactical response reports,” covering uses of force by Chicago police officers against adults between late January 2004 and April 2016.
Officers complete these reports after incidents in which an officer uses serious force, such as a firearm or Taser, to subdue civilians they perceive to be resisting arrest or threatening others, or when a civilian is injured or claims they were injured by officers. Less serious types of force, such as handcuffing a suspect, do not typically require a form.
A Stark Racial Disparity in Use of Force
The data shows the scope of the problem facing the Chicago Police Department as it pursues wide-ranging reforms under the oversight of a federal judge. Across Chicago, most victims of officer uses of force were African-American, even in several neighborhoods where the residents are predominately white. Young black men were about 14 times more likely to experience a CPD use of force than young white men.
The Invisible Institute’s analysis also suggests that Chicago’s use-of-force tracking — a central part of the proposed reform — is seriously incomplete. Both experts and the data provided by CPD suggest that police officers frequently underreport uses of force against civilians, a fact that could make it more difficult for the department to determine whether reform efforts are succeeding.
CPD’s data shows that reported force is applied unevenly across Chicago. African-Americans, Hispanics, and whites each make up about a third of the city’s population, but police report using force on these groups at sharply different rates. Between 2005 and 2015, roughly 72 percent of all CPD uses of force targeted African-Americans. A further 15 percent involved Hispanics, and 10 percent involved whites. Similar disparities exist in Taser uses and shootings, though most reports involve officers tackling, punching, or using open-hand strikes on civilians.
The racial disparities in reported uses of force are even more noticeable among younger people. African-American men between ages 20 and 34 experience police uses of force at a rate roughly 14 times their white peers. Black women in the same age range were about 10 times more likely to experience force than young white women and twice more likely to experience force than young white men.
The reported number of people who experienced force remained fairly steady between 2005 and 2015, rising from roughly 3,900 to about 4,200 in 2011 and declining to about 3,500 in 2015. The proportion of police force used against African-Americans remained steady even as black Chicagoans made up an increasingly smaller portion of the city’s population.
The racial disparities in the police department’s use-of-force reports exist across the city, including in largely white neighborhoods. The Jefferson Park police district on Chicago’s far northwest side is home to many city workers and includes some of the only precincts in the city to back Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. Although African-Americans make up only 1 percent of the district’s population, they comprise 14 percent of the people who experienced police use of force.
In Chicago’s Near North Side community area, home to high-rise apartments and dozens of night spots, African-Americans make up just 9 percent of the population, but make up nearly 60 percent of those subject to use of force.
The Violence Adds Up
These everyday uses of force add up. Researchers have pointed to daily police abuses and physical misconduct as a major element in creating community mistrust. Sam Walker, a policing expert at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, says that excessive force can have a huge impact on community relations, pointing out that “it doesn’t have to be serious uses of force, where some guy is hit with a billy club and there’s blood or something. I think it’s the little stuff, just shoving someone around, shoving some kid up against the wall, or throwing him to the ground, or up against a patrol car.”
David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in racial profiling, points out that force disparities can have corrosive effects on communities. “If you are a black person or a Hispanic person, you know you’re disproportionately likely to face a use of force, [and] you’re going to actually hesitate to call the police in the first place — and you need them — which of course makes the whole neighborhood, the whole area, more dangerous.”
Harris cautions that Chicago’s racial disparities in force reports do not prove police discrimination on their own, warning that “disparities by themselves do not necessarily equate to, or are not the same as, discrimination.”
The Justice Department investigation of the Chicago police placed racial disparities in use of force in the context of other problematic policing it uncovered in Chicago’s minority communities, declaring that “the impact of these widespread constitutional violations, combined with unaddressed abusive and racially discriminatory conduct, have undermined the legitimacy of CPD and police-community trust in these communities.”
The racial divides exposed in the police department’s own data are a major factor in efforts to reform the police department. Yet policing experts and an analysis of the data also suggest that the CPD’s own reports provide an incomplete picture of when officers use force.
Multiple Justice Department investigations have uncovered serious underreporting of use of force in departments around the country, including in Cleveland, Seattle, and Baltimore. The department’s review of the Newark Police Department found that officers did not fill out force reports in 30 percent of incidents in which they described themselves using force in another form.
Experts agree that underreporting force is a concern. Walker warned that “officers aren’t necessarily either filing reports at all, or are filing reports that seriously misrepresent what happened.” Philip Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University, pointed out that uses of force involving arrests or serious injuries are harder to hide, since they usually require police to work alongside hospital or jail staff, but he added that when officers underreport or misrepresent their uses of force, “it’s not Taser stuff that I think is the stuff that they fudge, it’s just the run-of-the-mill, routine police violence.”
Chicago police officers nearly always arrest the people they use force on. Officers reported arresting a person after using force on them roughly 94 percent of the time.
Data from Chicago’s stop-and-frisk program raises questions about the reported rate of use of force in cases without arrests. A 2015 survey of 1,450 Chicagoans, conducted by Northwestern University professor Wesley Skogan, found that 14 percent of African-Americans and 20 percent of Hispanics who were stopped and frisked but not arrested by Chicago police officers went on to report experiencing force, including being shoved or pushed around. In 2014 alone, internal CPD records, obtained by the nonprofit Lucy Parsons Labs, show that the department stopped more than 445,000 African-Americans and more than 102,000 Hispanics who were not arrested. Projecting the rates from Skogan’s study onto the CPD’s data, that equates to roughly 62,000 stops involving African-Americans and 20,000 stops involving Hispanics where the police used some level of force. Although not all instances of shoving and pushing require an official use-of-force report, those figures are vastly higher than the CPD’s force records. In all of 2014, Chicago police officers reported using force on about 170 African-Americans and 50 Hispanics who they did not arrest.
The proposed reform agreement between Emanuel and Madigan outlines major changes in the department’s use-of-force reporting, requiring officers to report any force “that is reasonably expected to cause pain or an injury,” versus current rules that require reporting for clear injuries but not for causing pain. These changes would bring Chicago closer to other cities whose departments have undergone intensive reforms overseen by a judge.
The proposed reform plan also requires the department to audit its use-of-force reports for inaccuracies and to search for trends in the department’s force data. The plan does not explicitly require the department to search for underreporting or missing use-of-force reports, beyond asking officers to notify a supervisor if a fellow officer does not file one.
Harris argues that missing and inaccurate uses of force are a vital concern as Chicago tries to gauge the impact of a wide range of use-of-force reforms. “It should be top of mind, absolutely top of mind in any agreement, and any agreement should include consideration of how well the current system is or is not working,” Harris said.
The 2017 Justice Department report sharply criticized the Chicago police, calling out a “culture in which officers expect to use force and never be carefully scrutinized about the propriety of that use.” Now, as Chicago’s leaders prepare to confront that entrenched police culture, they face not only the challenge of tackling the gaping racial disparities in CPD’s reported use of force, but also the question of whether those reports even capture the true scope of force used by the department’s officers.