Chicago has a unique opportunity to confront fundamental issues of racial justice as it debates a consent decree on police reform.
Several months after the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald on the streets of Chicago, and nine months before release of video footage of the incident precipitated a political implosion that continues to reverberate, I observed that the fate of McDonald had become entwined with that of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Three-and-a-half years later, this formulation is even more apt, as several processes set in motion during those turbulent days converge to create a fateful moment for the city of Chicago and its mayor.
The trial of Officer Jason Van Dyke for the murder of McDonald is scheduled to begin September 5 and promises to be a major media spectacle. It is all but certain that the city will await the verdict in the same state of collective tension that attended release of the video and with the same uncertainty about the consequences.
Concurrently, a consent decree negotiated by the Illinois attorney general and the Emanuel administration — a blueprint for police reform to be overseen by a federal judge — is moving toward being entered this fall. A draft of the decree was released on July 27. Although the period for public comment runs only until August 17, various provisions are destined to be debated for years.
A number of provisions in the consent decree were conditional on changes in the contract of the Fraternal Order of Police, which expired over a year ago. Under the terms of the decree, the city is to “use its best efforts” to negotiate changes in the collective bargaining agreement. The union is seeking to block implementation of the consent decree, which its president has characterized as “legally invalid” and “politically motivated.” So the prospects for constructive negotiations seem dim at best.
The next mayoral election is not until February 26, 2019 (and in the likely event of a run-off, April 2), but the campaign is fast gathering momentum. Among those challenging Emanuel are Garry McCarthy, his former police superintendent, and Lori Lightfoot, whom he appointed as chair of the police board and later, head of his Police Accountability Task Force. Given the presence of these two candidates in the field, policing and public safety issues will be central throughout the campaign.
Taken together, these developments ensure an extended period during which fundamental issues of racial justice will be intensely debated in multiple forums. A great deal turns on the quality of those debates. Will civil society and government voices sustain the public arguments necessary to realize the historic opportunity for fundamental change at hand? Or will the blood sport of the mayor’s race, the media circus of the Van Dyke trial, the complexity of the consent decree, and the intransigence of FOP yield a bruising, confusing public discourse that ultimately leaves Chicagoans more polarized, entrenched, and demoralized than they currently are?
The city where these parallel processes are unfolding is on edge. Over the weekend of August 3, 74 people were shot in the city, 12 of them fatally. And several weeks earlier, community members and police clashed in a South Side neighborhood following the fatal police shooting of a resident, prompting anxious speculation about what will happen if Jason Van Dyke is acquitted.
The spasm of violence in early August dramatized the fundamental tension that shapes the discourse about police reform in Chicago. Over the several years that the city has been focused on curbing police abuse, there has been a spike in homicides and shootings in particular low-income black and brown neighborhoods, giving rise to an ongoing argument between those who claim reform measures impede the police and those who argue that accountability is a necessary condition for the police to be effective.
All of this is playing out against the backdrop of the narrative that now frames Chicago’s civic life: the police killing of Laquan McDonald. The centrality of that story is in some respects a mystery. Why this particular incident? This particular victim? A partial explanation is that the horror of the incident was compounded by the institutional response to it — by the knowledge that the city knew what happened and withheld that information from the public for over a year, while maintaining a patently false official account of the shooting that ultimately collapsed, exposing the machinery of the code of silence.
Whatever the reasons, the public narrative of McDonald now bears comparison to that of another child of Chicago, Emmett Till. The footage of McDonald curled in fetal position on the ground as Van Dyke fires again and again and again — 16 times — is akin to Till’s open casket: a portal through which the mutilated body of a child becomes the focal point for perceptions of underlying systemic pathologies.
The public narrative of Laquan McDonald now bears comparison to that of another child of Chicago, Emmett Till.
The cascade of events that followed the McDonald revelations — the firing of the police superintendent and the head of the Independent Police Review Authority, the mayor’s appointment of a task force on police accountability, the electoral defeat of the state’s attorney, and the intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice — was animated by the widely shared recognition that what had been exposed was intolerable and that fundamental reform was imperative.
On December 9, 2015, at the height of the political firestorm following the video’s release, Emanuel gave a speech to a special session of the Chicago City Council. It was arguably his finest moment as mayor. Visibly traumatized, he spoke with emotion and moral urgency. Chicago, he said, faces “a defining moment on the issues of crime and policing and even the larger issues of truth, justice, and race.” He acknowledged that a code of silence exists within the Chicago Police Department. And he committed his administration to a sustained process of reform, asking, in effect, that Chicagoans — and history — judge him by that single measure.
Addressing a shaken city, the mayor evoked a crisis of the civil order that demands we break with business as usual. What is required, he declared, is that we embark on a process of becoming a different kind of society — one, as he put it, in which a black child would be treated no differently by the police than his own children.
The mayor has not consistently projected the sort of leadership he showed that day. Frequent wobbles and pivots have left him looking reactive and defensive. More often than not, he has appeared intensely tactical in the absence of a strategy. As a result, he has not told the story of reform in such a way that the public can clearly see particular measures as elements of a coherent larger plan.
At each successive stage in the reform process, the mayor’s first impulse, his political instinct, has been to balk. Then, as political pressure builds, he ultimately moves forward. This is not inspiring leadership, but it is a reasonably predictable political dynamic that advances the process, so long as sustained public pressure is applied.
Substantial progress has been made over the last three years. Among other things, a new agency — the Civilian Office of Police Accountability — has been established to investigate police shootings and allegations of excessive force, and the Inspector General of Chicago has been empowered to monitor the police department. Yet the reform process has often seemed becalmed and adrift, making it hard to assess progress. There are no firm coordinates. The sensation is akin to swimming across a large body of water and not being able to see either shore.
That will almost surely change now that the draft consent decree has been released. The complex, 233-page document includes provisions dealing with use of force, crisis intervention, supervision, accountability, transparency, hiring and promotion, and officer wellness. (According to the parties, the one outstanding issue they have not yet been able to resolve is whether officers will be required to file a report when they point a gun at someone.)
In order to grasp both the promise of the consent decree process and the challenges it faces, it is important to understand its history.
After Donald Trump was elected, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice pushed to finalize the report on its investigation of the Chicago Police Department, releasing it a week before the inauguration. Once the new administration assumed office, it quickly became apparent that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had no intention of negotiating a consent decree on the basis of the report. He condemned such decrees as “politically expedient” measures “that will cost more lives by handcuffing the police instead of the criminals” and declared that Department of Justice would no longer enter into them.
Soon after the inauguration, Emanuel reached out to Sessions and sought to negotiate a nonbinding memorandum of agreement to govern police reform in Chicago. When word of the MOA negotiations leaked, it was widely derided as toothless, and the process ran aground.
The Chicago Police Department engages in an unconstitutional pattern and practice of excessive force, including deadly force, primarily against people of color.
In light of the new realities, civil rights lawyers at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University law schools developed a community-driven legal strategy for rebooting the consent decree process. In June 2017, they filed a class-action suit — Campbell v. City of Chicago — on behalf of a group of individual and organizational plaintiffs extending across the spectrum, from Black Lives Matter organizations to the NAACP and Urban League. They argued that their clients were at high risk of having their constitutional rights violated by the police and sought widespread injunctive relief and police oversight under the supervision of a federal judge. (Colleagues at the Invisible Institute provided statistical analysis for the Campbell lawsuit.)
The Campbell suit received immediate public support. It was endorsed by editorials in both Chicago newspapers and the New York Times and by various institutional players such as Chicago’s Inspector General. The American Civil Liberties Union subsequently filed a parallel suit seeking a consent decree on behalf of people with disabilities.
The Emanuel administration, however, declined the invitation to negotiate and sought to have the suit dismissed. It argued that the plaintiffs lacked standing and that a consent decree was unnecessary because the city was in the process of implementing the desired reforms.
That was the context in which, two months after the filing of the Campbell suit, Lisa Madigan, the state attorney general, sued the city seeking a consent decree on the basis of the patterns of unconstitutional policing documented in the DOJ report. And that was the context in which Emanuel took a step he had initially resisted and agreed to negotiate.
At that point, the process ceased to be public and became a matter of lawyers brokering an agreement behind closed doors. The Campbell and ACLU attorneys were not at the table, and so did not participate in crafting the decree. They did, however, succeed in securing a memorandum of agreement with the city and the attorney general under which their clients have a significant role in enforcing the terms of the decree.
The consent decree is a dense document. In assessing its provisions, it’s important not to allow the complexity of the prescription to obscure the stark simplicity of the diagnosis: The Chicago Police Department engages in an unconstitutional pattern and practice of excessive force, including deadly force, primarily against people of color. These patterns of unconstitutional police violence are enabled and shielded by systemic deficiencies in supervision, accountability, and training, and by the code of silence within the department.
That is the heart of the matter, the core problem that the array of reforms is designed to address. The sheer number of discreet measures invites a checklist approach that sees police reform as a matter of ticking off boxes on a long list. Such an approach fails to comprehend that some reforms have priority because they are foundational and must be securely in place for other measures to be credible and effective.
These patterns of unconstitutional police violence are enabled and shielded by systemic deficiencies in supervision, accountability, and training, and by the code of silence within the department.
One such area is use of force policy. Defining appropriate and excessive uses of force provides the basis for developing training, supervisory, and disciplinary systems. The section of the draft on use of force is a significant improvement over past policy and provides a sound foundation on which to build.
Equally fundamental to the operation of the decree is transparency with respect to the disciplinary process. Here the draft disappoints. Significant progress has been made in this area in recent years. The draft embodies those advances, but it misses an opportunity to go beyond them and build proactive transparency into the architecture, the DNA, of the reform process. The internal systems for managing disciplinary information are significantly improved. There is, however, no affirmative commitment to make that information publicly available. The public will be given aggregate numbers but not access to the underlying data.
This information is public under current law and can be accessed under the Freedom of Information Act. Why not then make it universally available? Against the background of the catastrophic suppression of public information in connection with the Laquan McDonald incident, a robust transparency regime of this nature would represent a dramatic institutional commitment to community participation in the reform process.
It is important to remember how we got here. The struggle for police reform has at every stage been driven by civil society energies moving against the undertow of official resistance. Central to that struggle has been the fight for access to information.
Just as information control is a tool of power, transparency is a way of redistributing power and so enabling community members to monitor the reform process and engage in joint problem-solving. To put the point another way, a measure of democratic renewal is essential, if we are to realize this historic opportunity. Only a process that exemplifies the qualities it seeks to institutionalize will establish true accountability and restore institutional legitimacy. In that sense, process is reform.
Whatever its strengths and limitations, the consent decree is a watershed. Christy Lopez, the lawyer in the Civil Rights Division who led the investigation of the Chicago Police Department (as well as the police departments in Ferguson, New Orleans, and a number of other jurisdictions), has hailed it as “a police reform milestone of unprecedented promise for Chicago” and “a beacon for people across the country who care about police reform and are discouraged by the federal government’s current refusal to protect people from abuse.”
If this promise is to be fully realized, both the public and police must engage with and invest in the effort over a period of years. The process thus hinges on two great questions.
What is the role of the public — especially the communities most affected by patterns of abuse — in police reform?
It is critically important that the institutionalization of reform via the consent decree not sideline participation of civil society, that the bureaucratic process not derail the political process. If Chicago can be said to be in the midst of a prolonged crisis of the civil order — reflected in the loss of legitimacy of key institutions, public distrust of civil authority, an intolerably high homicide rate, and an abysmally low police clearance rate in homicides and shootings — then the consent decree is best seen as an opportunity to reconstitute the relationship of Chicago residents to their government and its agents.
From one perspective, the document reflects this aspiration. Its central theme is “community policing.” Yet it is relatively silent on two critical conditions for effective community involvement in the process.
First, it affirms the need for some form of civilian oversight, but provides no parameters on what a civilian oversight board might look like and how it would be selected. This is a vexing issue that has divided activists. More guidance would have been welcome.
Second, to return to a theme touched on above, robust transparency is a necessary condition for community members to participate fully in the process. The consent decree draft falls short in this respect and so misses an opportunity for a paradigm shift in the stewardship of public information.
The years since the Laquan McDonald implosion have seen a remarkable upsurge of civic engagement with fundamental issues of racial justice in Chicago. Civil society — community groups across the spectrum, civic and religious organizations, philanthropy, and, of course, the civil rights bar — has mobilized on multiple fronts. It’s sometimes hard to see this in proper perspective, because engagement takes the form of challenging and criticizing each other, as well as the embattled Emanuel administration, which is precisely the point in a democratic polity.
There is now an opportunity for these energies to cohere around the consent decree process — for necessary arguments to advance within the framework it provides. If, however, the process does not make good on the promise of community inclusion, it will only deepen alienation in the neighborhoods most affected by both police abuse and violent crime, while inducing other concerned and mobilized Chicagoans to disengage. Moving forward on the long slough of reform under the consent decree, civic morale is a precious and highly perishable resource.
What impact will the stance of the Fraternal Order of Police have on the reform process?
It is essential that police reform, if it is to be effective, have buy-in from the police. Yet the FOP’s posture is one of blanket opposition to accountability measures as impediments to effective law enforcement.
In an effort to derail the consent decree process, the FOP has filed a motion to intervene in the case and a second motion challenging the role of the Illinois attorney general. Offered a memorandum of agreement granting enforcement powers such as the Campbell plaintiffs and the ACLU entered into, the union declined. When the attorney general’s office, in the course of developing the consent decree, reached out to officers to take part in focus groups, FOP discouraged them from participating.
Assuming the FOP is unable to legally block the consent decree process, it retains power to veto the implementation of certain provisions. The collective bargaining agreement — to use an unnerving verb in this context — trumps the consent decree. A number of desirable reforms in the draft decree can only be implemented if the FOP agrees to changes in the relevant provisions of its contract.
Perhaps the most disheartening thing about the FOP’s scorched-earth approach is that it denies the process the benefit of the perspectives, insights, and suggestions of the rank-and-file officers the union purports to represent. The effort to institute realistic, workable reforms would be greatly enriched, if those voices were audible, but they are largely displaced by the megaphone wielded by FOP’s leadership.
The public voice of the union is on a rhetorical offensive — demonizing Black Lives Matter groups, attacking the civil rights bar as the “wrongful conviction industry,” and assailing the press as purveyors of “fake news.” It is utterly uncompromising and projects an air of confidence that it’s on the right side of history. In May, Trump, for whom Chicago has long been a favorite target, tweeted support for a demonstration against Emanuel organized by FOP:
Chicago Police have every right to legally protest against the mayor and an administration that just won’t let them do their job. The killings are at a record pace and tough police work, which Chicago will not allow, would bring things back to order fast...the killings must stop!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 25, 2018
In view of Session’s open hostility to police reform, it’s not inconceivable that the Department of Justice will intervene in the consent decree case on behalf of the union. Whether or not that happens, the terms of engagement have been set. The argument is not over how best to address an acknowledged problem; it’s over whether a problem exists at all. Considered in light of massive documentation by the Obama DOJ and others of grave constitutional harms, the position the FOP — and the Trump administration — are pressing, though they wouldn’t phrase it quite this way, is that the only form of effective policing is unconstitutional policing.
That is the charged setting in which the trial of Jason Van Dyke for the murder of Laquan McDonald will take place. In the protracted run-up to the trial, we have seen previews of the defense team’s strategy, which will be to portray the murder charge against Van Dyke as the result not of his actions, but of an anti-police media campaign. (I figured in one of those previews, when the defense served me with a subpoena in an effort to compel me to reveal a key source for my reporting on the incident.) Thus, for a period of weeks, the FOP worldview will be presented by the defense and amplified by media coverage intent on maximizing the melodrama of the trial.
It’s all but certain that tension and polarization will build in the city as the trial proceeds toward a verdict. For many, the only true measure of progress in police accountability will be a guilty verdict. If that verdict is not forthcoming, the city will face a test under the pressure of the centrifugal forces released by an acquittal or a hung jury. Will the center hold, as it did after the release of the video in 2015, when activists channeled outrage into inspired Black Friday demonstrations in the Michigan Avenue shopping district, and the police protected the exercise of their First Amendment rights?
As I have tried to bring the state of the city at this fateful moment into focus, my mind has returned again and again to a scene described to me by a friend.
On July 15, a police officer shot and killed Harith Augustus, a neighborhood barber, on 71st Street, a major commercial street in the South Shore neighborhood. The officer who shot him was on foot patrol with other officers in response to neighborhood concerns about gun violence. According to a CPD spokesperson, they observed a man “exhibiting characteristics of an armed person” and questioned him, at which point — note the passive tense — “a confrontation ensues and he is shot.”
Almost immediately, alerts went out via social media, and protesters appeared at the scene. My friend, a young African-American woman who grew up on the South Side, was alerted to the shooting by a text message from the Black Youth Project 100, an organization of which she is a member, and immediately went to the site of the shooting.
She described a tense scene, as demonstrators faced off with police. Standing opposite a cordon of officers, many of them black, she and others shouted out questions. “Why are you all doing this?” “What’s the name of the officer who did this?” “Shame on you. We don’t want you here. Why don’t you leave?”
She noticed two officers, both black, standing side by side. One was pumped up, handling his baton with keen anticipation like a batter in the on-deck circle. He would later strike a female protester. The other had tears streaking his face.
For me, this scene encapsulates the promise and peril of the current moment in Chicago. The officers on foot patrol to prevent gun violence who ended up committing gun violence — perhaps justified, perhaps not. The demonstrators who mobilized in a matter of minutes to bear witness. The police on the scene to preserve order, but also to protect the First Amendment rights of the protesters. The officer for whom what couldn’t be expressed issued as tears. The razor’s edge between violent disorder and civic dialogue.
The situation on 71st Street, a close observer of the South Side later remarked to me, was “one thrown bottle away from a riot.” No doubt. Such an outcome is all too easy to imagine. Can we also imagine a society in which those frozen in this tableau could sustain a conversation with each other, could argue with each other and learn from each other, a society in which their exchanges could enrich the larger discourse? It’s up to us, at this defining moment, to claim full citizenship in that society.
The Invisible Institute, in partnership with The Intercept, investigates the corruption, racism, and violence of the Chicago Police Department.
The long effort by the Invisible Institute to gain access to internal police files is an important chapter in the struggle for civil rights in Chicago.
Today the Invisible Institute, in collaboration with The Intercept, releases the Citizens Police Data Project 2.0, a public database containing the disciplinary histories of Chicago police officers. The scale of CPDP is without parallel: It includes more than 240,000 allegations of misconduct involving more than 22,000 Chicago police officers over a 50-year period. The data set is complete for the period 2000 to 2016; substantially complete back to 1988, and includes some data going back as far as the late 1960s.
The decadelong effort to gain access to this information is an important thread in the history of the struggle for civil rights under law in Chicago. It is also the story of how a style of on-the-ground reporting that Studs Terkel once characterized as “guerrilla journalism” matured into the Invisible Institute, a journalism production company based on the South Side of Chicago that has assumed the function of curating this category of public information on behalf of the public.
During the final chapter of high-rise public housing in Chicago — from 1994 until the final demolition in 2007 — I was a daily presence at Stateway Gardens, a development centrally located in the massive concentration of public housing along a three-mile stretch of South State Street. I had several roles there. I created a program of “grassroots public works” aimed at providing alternatives for ex-offenders and members of street gangs. I served as an adviser to the resident council. And with two colleagues — David Eads and Patricia Evans — I published occasional human rights reports on conditions in public housing under the title “The View From the Ground.”
The name “Invisible Institute” was first uttered in jest. Working out of a vacant, five-bedroom unit in a doomed public housing high-rise with an open-air drug market outside the door, we announced in the first issue of The View that it was published under the auspices of something called the Invisible Institute.
The name stuck. It came to refer not to a formal organization, but a loose network of collaborators and a certain style of inquiry, exploration, and relationship-building. From the start, the Invisible Institute created capacity through collaboration. A prime example is our partnership over the last 18 years with civil rights attorney Craig Futterman and his students at the Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic of the University of Chicago Law School. Over time, the Mandel Clinic brought six federal lawsuits on behalf of public housing residents abused by the police.
Among the major stories we published on The View was a 17-part series titled “Kicking the Pigeon” on the case of Diane Bond, a Stateway resident repeatedly assaulted — physically, sexually, emotionally — by a team of gang tactical officers known on the street as the “skullcap crew.”
By this point, we had been documenting individual instances of human rights abuse for several years. Having experienced in the most direct and visceral way what impunity looks like on the ground, a question formed: What sorts of institutional conditions would have to exist for the patterns of abuse we had documented to be the case? Thus began the ascent of an analytic ladder — from human rights reporting on the abuses inflicted on particular victims by particular officers to the systems that enable and shield such abuse.
In the case of Diane Bond, we pursued that question via litigation. Futterman and his students brought a civil rights suit in which the city of Chicago and the police superintendent, as well as the individual officers who committed the abuses, were named as defendants on the grounds that the city had a de facto policy of “failing to properly supervise, monitor, discipline, counsel, and otherwise control its officers” and that top police officials were aware that “these practices would result in preventable police abuse.”
This framing of the case enabled Bond’s lawyers, in the course of civil discovery, to request documents that would shed light on the Chicago Police Department’s systems for monitoring, investigating, and disciplining officers. These included not only the complaint histories of the defendant officers, but also lists of officers with more than 10 complaints over a five-year period. This information was provided under a protective order — a judicial order under which the parties can freely share information with each other, but not the public.
In 2007, as the Bond case moved toward settlement, I formally intervened before Judge Joan Lefkow and asked her to lift the protective order on the grounds that it withheld public information from the public. Two categories of documents were at issue:
In an eloquent opinion, Lefkow ruled in my favor. “Without such information,” she wrote, “the public would be unable to supervise the individuals and institutions it has entrusted with the extraordinary authority to arrest and detain people against their will. With so much at stake, defendants simply cannot be allowed to operate in secrecy.”
The city immediately moved to stay her order pending appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. On appeal, my position was joined by a majority of the Chicago City Council and major media organizations.
In 2009, a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit overruled Lefkow in a harshly anti-press decision. She had erred, they ruled, in allowing me to intervene at all. They did not, however, reach the merits of the argument regarding public access to police disciplinary files.
A footnote in the opinion stated that their decision did not bar me from seeking the same documents under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. Represented by Loevy & Loevy, the People’s Law Office, as well as the Mandel Clinic, we took the court up on the invitation. Over seven years, we waged a legal campaign that culminated in the 2014 decision of the Illinois Court of Appeals in Kalven v. Chicago, holding that documents relating to allegations of police misconduct are public information in Illinois.
Following the decision in Kalven v. Chicago, the Invisible Institute incorporated as a nonprofit organization, engaged in sustained fundraising, and staffed up, in order to respond to the historic opportunity presented by the release of information long hidden behind a wall of official secrecy.
In contrast to many news organizations that would have treated such a trove of information as proprietary and harvested it for stories, our commitment from the start was to make the information universally available to the public. In one sense, we could have fulfilled that commitment by posting Excel spreadsheets, but that would have only served a small number of users.
The court had articulated a principle: Police disciplinary records belong to the public. That principle, however, was not self-executing. The Invisible Institute undertook the task of operationalizing transparency. For the last few years, a team of programmers, designers, and data scientists, coordinated by my Invisible Institute colleague Rajiv Sinclair, has been pursuing that objective. The result is the Citizens Police Data Project.
Soon after the Kalven decision came down, we were confronted with a legal counterattack by the police unions — the Fraternal Order of Police representing rank-and-file officers and several other unions representing supervisory personnel. They sought to block the city from releasing the police disciplinary documents on the grounds that such a release would violate their contracts, which provide that all files related to investigations of misconduct will be destroyed five years after the date of the complaint. A judge sympathetic to the union position imposed a temporary injunction limiting the city to releasing police disciplinary data for the previous four years.
Constrained by the injunction, we launched a limited preview of CPDP in 2015. Almost immediately, journalists, researchers, and lawyers made use of the data for their purposes. Beyond its utility to particular sets of users, CPDP served as a biopsy of the system, a statistical portrait of impunity, and a demonstration of how the Chicago Police Department goes about not connecting the dots about patterns of human rights abuse they have the means to identify.
Two weeks after the launch, the city released the video of the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. In the political firestorm that ensued, CPDP provided critical context in the political firestorm that ensued, demonstrating with the police department’s own data how deficient the systems for investigating misconduct complaints are.
The impact of CPDP was not a matter of “big data” that promises to yield an algorithm for curbing police abuse. Rather, it resided precisely in its publicness. It served to disable the rhetorical use of official secrecy (“If you knew what we know … ”) and create the conditions for the ongoing debate about police reform in Chicago to be conducted with reference to a common body of evidence.
After a two-year legal battle, we ultimately prevailed over the police unions. Although it delayed release of the data we are making public today, that legal controversy also served to consolidate the precedent of the Kalven decision. We recognize, though, that this will be an ongoing struggle. We do not take the level of transparency that has been achieved for granted. We expect renewed legal and legislative attacks.
This litigation history has implications for efforts to achieve comparable transparency elsewhere, notably New York. For decades, the city of Chicago, the police department, and the police unions argued that various horrible consequences would ensue if officer names were made public — officers would be targeted, their families harassed, the security of police operations undermined, etc. In the three years since we made the first limited release of police disciplinary information, nothing of that nature has been reported.
The greatly expanded data set we release today powerfully corroborates three major patterns that emerged from the more limited data we released in 2015:
First, the data reveals a system pervaded by racial bias. Virtually anywhere you enter the data, you encounter sharp racial disparities. For example, those filing complaints are predominantly black, yet black people are dramatically underrepresented in cases of proven abuse. Perhaps most telling, racial disparities in the use of force have significantly increased over the last decade, even as Chicago’s black population has declined.
Second, excessive force complaints rarely result in discipline. Out of more than 8,700 excessive force claims from January 2007 to June 2016, investigators sustained only 1.5 percent of complaints. Nearly 74 percent of these complaints were filed by African-Americans.
Finally, it’s important to note that police abuse is a highly patterned phenomenon. Among officers who served at least a year between 2000 and 2016, 57 percent have fewer than five complaints, and 78 percent have fewer than 10. The 22 percent of officers who have 10 or more complaints account for 64 percent of all complaints during that period. Yet officers with the most complaints are less likely to be disciplined.
Articles by Rob Arthur and Andrew Fan published today describe other takeaways from the data. In the coming weeks, we will publish stories on individual officers and groups of officers that will demonstrate the power and utility of CPDP in the service of investigative reporting.
The expanded data set allows for new forms of analysis. It makes it possible to follow individual officers and cohorts of officers through their entire careers and do network analysis. In our excitement about these possibilities, it’s critically important to also recognize the limitations of the data — as the forensic statistician Patrick Ball puts it, “the silences in the data.” There is a large ghost phenomenon of individuals who feel they have had an abusive encounter with the police, but do not file a formal complaint. Recognizing the necessarily fragmentary nature of the data is the key to making effective use of it and developing strategies for investigating that which it does not reveal.
Central to the practice of the Invisible Institute is attention to the human context of the data. The patterns that emerge from the aggregate data are most illuminating when joined to other knowledge acquired through on-the-ground reporting. CPDP is thus best understood not only as a database but as a human rights archive — a collection of stories that Chicago residents, mostly from marginalized communities, told government officials in seeking redress for what they felt to be abuses of power. Every data point is a story.
The Invisible Institute, in partnership with The Intercept, investigates the corruption, racism, and violence of the Chicago Police Department.
While more than 95 percent of all Chicago police officers never fired their gun from 2004 to 2016, 130 officers have done it more than once.
From Michael Brown to Laquan McDonald, the names of victims of police shootings have become rallying cries for police reform across America. Reporters have uncovered vital information about these victims — their educational, work, and criminal backgrounds, as well as their family circumstances and mental health — and those facts have shaped a debate about the significant racial discrepancies in police use of force that is still ongoing.
Yet there is little public data about most officers involved in fatal shootings, thanks in large part to the dedicated efforts of police unions. New data obtained by the Invisible Institute reveals that nearly a third — 29 percent — of Chicago’s shootings between January 2004 and March 2016 were committed by only 130 officers. Compared with a random sample of 1,000 CPD officers, these cops often exhibited troubling patterns of behavior before their shootings, including increasing counts of citizen complaints and uses of force. About 23 percent of those shootings could be predicted — and potentially prevented — by software widely used among police departments.
In 2009, the Invisible Institute sued the city of Chicago to obtain information on selected, high-complaint officers. After a long court battle in which the Fraternal Order of Police stepped in to raise objections, the court sided with the Invisible Institute, establishing a precedent that the data should be made publicly available. Subsequent requests acquired a complete duty roster of all officers in the department, their complaint histories, and use of force reports from January 2004 to March 2016.
Previous press reports from VICE News and the Washington Post have shown that police shootings are extremely rare for most officers. “If you have two in a 20- or 25-year career, you’re already an outlier,” said Mark Iris, a former member of Chicago’s civilian oversight board. In cities with lower rates of police shootings like New York, a roomful of officers might contain only one who had been involved in a shooting. But the Invisible Institute’s data reveals that for a handful of officers, shootings are all too common.
According to the Invisible Institute data, while more than 95 percent of all Chicago police officers never fired their gun from 2004 to 2016, 130 officers have done it more than once. At the upper extreme, 24 cops have participated in three or more shootings.
“It is important to not equate officer-involved shootings … with misconduct,” wrote Scott Wolfe, a professor of criminology at Michigan State University. “The officer may be placed in assignments or called out to particular situations because his/her colleagues know he/she is capable of handling dangerous situations.” But a large number of shootings can be indicative of problematic conduct. “When we have officers that have a high number of OIS compared to their colleagues, it provides reason to look deeper at the behavior,” Wolfe said. Many of the officers involved in two or more shootings also show troubling indicators in other ways. The 130 officers in this group tended to have citizen complaints filed against them at about twice the rate of other cops. And while any individual complaint may not be indicative of misconduct, these officers were also the subject of civil lawsuits requiring payouts twice as high as other officers, according to data gathered by the Chicago Reporter.
The most frequent shooter identified by the Invisible Institute’s data was a Chicago beat cop primarily assigned to the South Side 7th District named Gildardo Sierra. Sierra shot a record six people over the course of his 13 years in the department, a rate of fire almost 100 times higher than the departmental average. Two of those shootings attracted widespread media attention and later drew significant payouts from the city, totaling more than $7 million. In one case, Sierra admitted to drinking before his shift, during which he shot and killed an unarmed man named Flint Farmer. Sierra later resigned from the Chicago Police Department and subsequently took a job as a police officer in a nearby suburb’s parks department.
Sierra did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Cops like Sierra are often exonerated by oversight boards. The Chicago Police Department suspended Sierra for a grand total of six days for the 46 different allegations against him in seven separate complaints, finding that his actions conformed to departmental policy in every instance but two. Iris said that officers like Sierra can often skate by because the board could only consider each incident in isolation, without examining an officer’s past history, thanks to union and departmental regulations. Without that information, evaluators focused on a single instance may miss a troubling pattern of behavior. “In investigating police misconduct, the general pattern is to look at the tree, not the forest,” Iris said.
The Fraternal Order of Police insisted upon a provision in its most recent contract with the Chicago Police Department requiring the destruction of complaint records after five years to prevent their use in disciplinary hearings. Previous contracts have contained similar provisions. (The Invisible Institute prevailed in litigation requiring the department to turn over past complaint records despite those provisions.)
Like other repeat shooters, Sierra’s incidents occurred in a cluster. The two shootings for which successful civil suits were filed were separated by only five months. He was involved in a third shooting just three months before he killed Farmer.
Patterns like Sierra’s are common among police shooters. Prior to a shooting, officers typically register complaint rates about twice as high as their colleagues, according to the Invisible Institute data. They are three times more likely to have been involved in another shooting in the last year, and more likely to have been in an incident requiring a payout from the city because of a civil lawsuit.
Police supervisors are charged with detecting runs of bad behavior like this and taking the affected cops off the streets. Research from the University of Chicago has shown that an officer under pressure, be it familial, professional, or otherwise, may be at greater risk to use unnecessary force, including lethal force. “These are things that good supervision could find and try to correct,” said Sam Walker, a professor emeritus of criminology at the University of Nebraska and a frequent consultant to police departments.
Immediate supervisors are sometimes biased or lack the time to track officer behavior, so 73 percent of large police departments use computerized systems to flag officers with unusually high levels of complaints or use of force. If a cop exceeds some threshold defined by the system — for example, a certain number of complaints in a six-month span — he is flagged by the system and sent to have counseling, training, or a conversation with a supervisor. The number of departments using systems like these has rapidly increased in the last two decades, in part because the Department of Justice recommends them. “Most large and mid-sized cities have early intervention systems of some kind, but many departments do not use them well,” Walker said.
The most advanced early-warning systems use dozens of variables measuring each officer’s behavior. Police might be at greater risk for trouble if they suffer a rash of citizen complaints against them, or if they make arrests that are later dismissed in court. Indicators ranging from a cop’s personal life to their financial history can predict their behavior, and good departments take everything possible into account to develop accurate methods to predict misconduct.
But Chicago has a long and troubled history with these kinds of programs. An early effort to implement such a system was met with resistance from the police union and scrapped within two years because of due process concerns. Later on, the police department tried again, but according to a Justice Department investigation in the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting, the new early-warning procedure was riddled with flaws. In many cases, the system simply failed to flag problematic records. In 2007, a study cited by the DOJ investigation concluded that the algorithm failed to identify 90 percent of officers with multiple complaints. Sierra, despite his extensive record of previous shootings and complaints, never triggered one of Chicago’s early-warning algorithms, the “Behavioral Intervention System.”
Even when departments do receive warnings that an officer may be at risk, managers often fail to act on those warnings. A Department of Justice investigation concluded that Chicago’s “supervisors do not understand what they are supposed to do” when an officer is flagged by the early intervention system. Another supervisor characterized the system as “garbage going in so you got garbage going out.”
Even when an intervention system provides a supervisor with clear evidence of a pattern of misconduct, lieutenants and sergeants sometimes recommend no more than an in-person conversation with a supervisor, rather than a formal program of counseling or investigation into the officer’s fitness. Between the lack of accuracy in the system and the lack of action on the rare occasions it is triggered, it’s easy to see how repeat shooters might escape notice. “The system was designed not to work,” Walker said.
It’s impossible to know whether an automated system could have prevented the shootings these officers committed, but many cops displayed clear warning signs in advance. A relatively simple system, based on whether an officer had two or more complaints or three or more uses of force in the prior year, could have flagged about 23 percent of the officers as high risk before their shootings. Those officers could have been sent to counseling or otherwise prevented from being in a position to shoot.
Early intervention systems feature prominently in the draft consent decree released on July 27. The document gives the police department two years to implement an advanced early-warning system, one that considers indicators like complaints, uses of force, and prior shooting incidents. Given Chicago’s checkered history with such systems, it’s too soon to say whether the new reform effort will yield a functioning algorithm. The court will task an independent monitor with making sure the police department upholds the requirements of the decree. If that monitor can succeed in helping the Chicago Police Department build an effective early-warning system, it’s possible that hundreds of shootings could be prevented.
The Invisible Institute, in partnership with The Intercept, investigates the corruption, racism, and violence of the Chicago Police Department.
Internal Chicago police files document thousands of police uses of force over more than a decade. Nearly 90 percent were against people of color.
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.
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.
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.
Because Chicago's police complaints can list multiple officers at once, it’s possible to build a giant social network of police interactions.
From 1972 to 1991, a Chicago detective named Jon Burge led a group of police officers in torturing confessions out of suspects. They called themselves the “Midnight Crew,” and their behavior eventually resulted in the jailing of Burge and the creation of a reparations council to pay the victims. More recently, the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force was found to have planted evidence, assaulted innocent citizens, and committed overtime fraud.
Many of the most egregious examples of police misconduct arise from tightly knit groups of officers like these. That’s no accident. Recently released data from the Chicago police department shows that misconduct spreads from officer to officer like an infectious disease. And the same behavior that leads cops to violate the rules often predicts whether they will participate in a shooting.
In 2009, the Invisible Institute sued the city of Chicago to reveal in-depth information on the complaint histories of selected Chicago police officers. After a drawn-out legal battle, the Invisible Institute prevailed and acquired the complaint histories of all officers since 1988. They then processed, standardized, and augmented that data with information on police shootings, uses of force, and a complete duty roster of all officers. In total, the data covers more than 30,000 officers and almost 23,000 complaints between 2000 and 2018.
Because complaints can list multiple officers at once, it’s possible to determine that more than one cop was present at the scene at the same time. Complaints listing multiple officers link those cops together, and by assembling thousands of officers across tens of thousands of complaints, it’s possible to build a giant social network of police interactions.
About 1,300 of Chicago’s cops fall into clusters of linked police officers who together have been the subject of at least 100 citizen complaints against them. The list of police within this group reads like a Who’s Who of Chicago police misconduct: From Jerome Finnigan, who led a corrupt unit of cops and plotted to kill a fellow officer, to Raymond Piwnicki, who harassed black citizens using racist language. Officers within this group show not only higher rates of complaints, but also participate in more uses of force and even more shootings. On its own, such a pattern could simply mean that these particular officers are more likely to be street cops or assigned to high-crime divisions. But these central officers are also more than five times as likely to figure in an incident that results in a civil payout by the city for misconduct, according to data on lawsuits involving police officers gathered by the Chicago Reporter.
Within police departments, it’s often well-known that some cops break the rules. In the Chicago Police Department, it was an “open secret” that Burge and his crew extracted confessions using illegal means. Far less serious conduct, such as a reputation for pushing the boundaries, can also get around. Seth Stoughton, a former police officer turned college professor at the University of South Carolina, said “I learned that some, maybe one or two officers when I was [on the force], tended to do things right at the edge of what is acceptable procedure.”
Reputations like Stoughton’s colleagues in turn attract or repel other officers. For example, complaints tend to list officers with more similar use of force rates than if you were to pick officers at random from the department. That could be a result of cops seeking out assignments with others like them. Cops at the center of the Chicago network of 1,300 problem officers were about six times more likely than the department at large to work in one of Chicago’s gang units. Other cops who transferred to those units showed more use of force and greater total civil suit payouts than randomly selected officers. “It’s like magnets. And good officers don’t want to work with [bad ones], because they’ll get in trouble themselves,” said Sam Walker, a professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska and consultant to many police departments. Because high-complaint officers attract like-minded colleagues, they tend to be surrounded within the network by others like them.
Officers prone to misconduct do more than draw in others like them. The data shows that they also may be teaching their colleagues bad habits. Using the Invisible Institute’s data I picked out all the more than 12,000 officers with low complaint rates before 2008 (the year the Independent Police Review Authority, a new police oversight board, became operational). Then I split those cops into two segments: the 863 who had been listed on a complaint with officers at the center of the network, and 12,815 who hadn’t. The officers who had been exposed to the contagious, misconduct-prone cops at the center of complaint networks went on to show complaint rates nine times higher over the next ten years than those who hadn’t.
Their behavior often escalates beyond complaints to more serious violence. The same cops who are exposed to other high complaint officers go on to be listed on four times as many uses of force per year in the next few years. They also commit shootings at rates more than five times higher than their colleagues who weren’t exposed to misbehaving officers.
Stoughton credited part of the infectious quality of misbehaving officers to the process of training young cops. While officers learn the rules of policing at the academy, the probationary period provides hands-on training in the first few months on the job. In that time, many of the procedures they were told to follow in the academy get discarded. “On their first day, every cop hears some variation of ‘Forget everything you learned at the academy’,” Stoughton said.
Bob Verry, a retired police chief and current internal affairs investigator in New Jersey, likened the process of learning misconduct to the “broken windows” theory of policing, in which small violations escalate to larger and larger crimes. “Officers start out with minor things — forgetting their tie clip — and then that becomes forgetting to shine their shoes. … They get away with one punch during an arrest and it just goes on from there,” Verry said.
The data is rich with examples of young officers whose trajectories bent toward misconduct after exposure to bad influences. One rookie cop joined the department in 2001 and was assigned to the 9th police district, on the South Side of the city, after training. In his first three years, he received two complaints; both times, he was exonerated.
In 2004, just after completing his third year on the job, that officer was accused of using excessive force. He was listed on the complaint with four other officers, two of whom had multiple other complaints to their names. From that point on, his complaint rate skyrocketed. Citizens filed several allegations against him over the next five years. His use-of-force rate increased as well, from less than two per year to six in 2014. That officer was Jason Van Dyke, who shot Laquan McDonald that same year and is now on trial for McDonald’s murder.
In theory, patterns of bad behavior like Van Dyke’s should be detected and corrected by supervisors. Complaints by civilians and other officers should trigger official investigations, and officers beset by numerous allegations should be sent to counseling or suspended. But the departmental investigation process is dysfunctional, and the vast majority of civilian complaints do not yield any discipline for the accused officer. When complaints are filed by other cops, discipline is much more likely, but according to data obtained by the Invisible Institute, officers at the center of the network are less likely than others to have complaints filed against them by other cops. The “blue wall of silence,” the tendency among cops to protect their own, appears to safeguard these officers more than others.
“We know that officers who are more in tune [with] or endorse the code of silence … are also more likely to use force, and less likely to use communication in interactions with the public,” said Scott Wolfe, a criminologist at Michigan State University, referring to published research. “They’re more likely to pull a gun and more likely to shoot a gun.”
Using the same data from the Invisible Institute, researchers at the University of Southern California, Yale, Harvard, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found in a working paper that networks of complaints and shootings can be used to tell that police violence is contagious. “Violence might spread when officers learn from each other scripts for trying to manage risky civilian encounters or encounters in which they lose control,” said Daria Roithmayr, a professor of law at USC and an author of the paper.
Previous results from two of the researchers had shown that violence behaved in a contagious fashion among citizens of Chicago. Without help or endorsement from those researchers, the Chicago police department used these results as the basis to build an algorithm that would predict which citizens were at higher risk of being involved in a shooting, and then contacted them to try to prevent that violence. The researchers believe that using the contagious nature of violence to target individuals — cops or citizens — is “extremely hard” and “just wouldn’t work well in practice.”
“Once we understand more about contagion, there might be implications for policymakers in terms of how police tasks are assigned or how police units are structured,” Roithmayr said. She cautioned, “There is much more to understand about contagion before we can begin meaningful policy prescription.” Currently, police departments do not formally take an officer’s social history into account when judging whether to reassign an officer or otherwise prevent them from engaging in misconduct. But Verry noted that internal affairs investigators typically look into the other officers on the scene of a complaint.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan recently filed the draft of a legally binding document that would lay out a series of reforms for the Chicago Police Department to implement in the next few years. In this draft consent decree, one of the required improvements is that the department create a system to pick up on bad behavior before it becomes more serious. A required element for that system is the capacity “to identify group- and unit-level patterns of activity.” The special attention paid to identifying misconduct among cliques within the department suggests that the architects of the consent decree may be aware of the social nature of misbehavior exhibited by groups like Burge’s Midnight Crew.