CHICAGO – Police in Chicago have “no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color” and have alienated blacks and Hispanics for decades by using excessive force and honoring a code of silence, a task force declared Wednesday in a report that seeks sweeping changes to the nation’s third-largest police force.
The panel, established by Mayor Rahm Emanuel late last year in response to an outcry over police shootings, found that the department does little to weed out problem officers and routine encounters unnecessarily turn deadly.
The group concluded that fear and lack of trust in law enforcement among minorities is justified, citing data that show 74 percent of the hundreds of people shot by officers in recent years were African-Americans, even though blacks account for 33 percent of the city’s population.
“Reform is possible if there is a will and a commitment,” the report said. But change must start with an acknowledgment of Chicago policing’s “sad history.”
The task force pointed to examples that spanned generations, including the 1969 killing of Black Panther Fred Hampton, allegations of torture from the 1970s to the 1990s under former commander Jon Burge and controversial stop-and-frisk practices in the early 2000s.
The report “raises consciousness,” activist Greg Livingston said. “It shines a light into the darkness.”
The city’s new police chief said the department welcomed “a fresh set of eyes” but was not waiting for recommendations from the task force or from a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Justice Department before making changes. Eddie Johnson, an African-American with 27 years on the force, was Emanuel’s hand-picked choice to take the top job. The City Council confirmed the appointment Wednesday in a 50-0 vote.
“We have racism in America. We have racism in Chicago. So it stands to reason we would have some racism within our agency. My goal is to root that out,” Johnson told reporters after he was sworn in.
In a summary of the report, the Task Force on Police Accountability recommended replacing the “badly broken” independent review authority that currently investigates misconduct with a “new and fully transparent and accountable Civilian Police Investigative Agency.” It also suggested creating the post of deputy chief of diversity and inclusion.
Emanuel did not rule out doing away with the existing body known as the Independent Police Review Authority, or IPRA.
“There’s no doubt we have a lot of work to do,” the mayor said, adding that “people have to have confidence” in whatever agency reviews police behavior.
“Whether it’s IPRA or not, the function needs to be there,” he said.
The mayor declined to talk about specifics in the report, saying he had not been briefed by the task force or seen the whole report.
The task force also called out police unions, saying that the collective bargaining agreements between the city and the unions have “essentially turned the code of silence into official policy.” The code refers to the reflex of some officers not to report colleagues for misconduct.
Officers, for example, can wait 24 hours before providing a statement after a shooting, giving them enough time to get their stories straight with fellow officers. And not only are anonymous complaints prohibited, the task force found that accused officers must be given the names of people who filed complaints.
The head of the police sergeants’ union insisted that union contracts “provide due process in disciplinary procedures, nothing more.” Union President Sgt. Jim Ade said the idea that the contracts make it easy for officers to lie was “ridiculous.”
Among other problems described in the report: Some officers in charge of training are teaching while they themselves are under investigation for a range of alleged offenses. And there is a disturbing lack of legal counsel for those in custody. Last year, for example, only 6 out of every 1,000 people arrested had an attorney at any point while in police custody.
“Stopped without justification, verbally and physically abused, and in some instances arrested, and then detained without counsel – that is what we heard about over and over again,” the report said.
The task force chairwoman, Lori Lightfoot, called the four-month review a “blueprint for change” and urged city officials and police to forge a better relationship with the citizens they serve.
“The pain and the anger and the frustration that people across this city have articulated to us … is something that has to be understood, has to be respected. And it has to be embraced if we are ever to move forward,” she said at a news conference.
The group conducted more than 100 interviews with community groups, police officers and outside experts and consistently found a department lacking a “culture of accountability,” Lightfoot said.
The report was released just two days after the fatal shooting of a black 16-year-old. Police say he was armed, though his mother says he did not have a gun. Around 100 people gathered for a vigil on Tuesday and some marched through streets, blocking traffic.
Emanuel, a Democrat, announced the creation of the task force at the same time he fired police Superintendent Garry McCarthy in the wake of public protests over the 2014 shooting by a white police officer of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was black. A video of the shooting, released last year, contradicted police accounts that McDonald was threatening officers before he was shot.
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