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November 12, 2018

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Life or death: Chicago Police confront institutional racism

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in his reaction to a new report by a police-accountability task force that he appointed, displayed a keen grasp of the obvious.

“The question isn’t, ‘Do we have racism?’” he said. “We do. The question is, ‘What are you going to do about it?’”

What to do about racism in the Chicago Police Department is a far from new question. Nor is it one to ask Chicago alone, as we have seen in the controversial deaths of black men in police encounters in Cleveland, New York City, Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., among others.

Emanuel created the task force, led by prosecutors and other experts, in December after the city released a video — after more than a year of fighting Freedom of Information Act requests — that directly contradicted official police accounts of the death of black teenager Laquan McDonald.

Contrary to reports that police officer Jason Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times in self-defense, the video shows McDonald moving away from police before Van Dyke opens fire. In the uproar following the video’s release, Van Dyke became the first Chicago police officer in 35 years to be charged with first-degree murder for an on-duty shooting.

I have seen racially charged police scandals lead to profound political consequences before. As a young Chicago reporter in 1972, I covered black Rep. Ralph Metcalfe’s startling break with the powerful Democratic machine of Mayor Richard Daley as the issue of police conduct became increasingly personal for him.

The last straw came when his friend Dr. Herbert Odom, a prominent black South Side dentist, was roughed up by police after a minor traffic stop. Among other actions, Metcalfe convened a “blue-ribbon panel” of experts on “The Misuse of Police Authority in Chicago.”

Among its findings, “complaints from citizens about abusive conduct by police are almost universally rejected” by the department’s “self-investigation system.” The panel’s recommendations led to formation of an Office of Professional Standards.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. But by 2007, widespread dissatisfaction led to replacement of the OPS by a newly created Independent Police Review Authority.

Yet in many ways there has been stunningly little progress since the Metcalfe panel. In Metcalfe’s day, excessive force complaints were upheld in only 1.4 percent of cases. Today, of the 10,500 complaints filed by black people between 2011 and 2015, only 166 or 1.6 percent were sustained or led to discipline after an internal investigation.

That’s according to data posted online by the Invisible Institute, an investigative journalism project that petitioned the courts for a decade to have the data released.

Even though the numbers showed a small percentage of the 12,000 officers on the force had generated the most complaints, department officials had made shockingly little use of the data they had.

For example, only 10 percent of the officers who had received complaints generated 30 percent of the total departmental complaints since 2011. One of those repeat cases was Van Dyke’s. Yet the department offered little accountability for officers or early-warning interventions to help allegedly repeat-offender officers to improve.

In fact, there’s little doubt that the McDonald case would quietly have gone away had the shocking video not been released to the public.

The task force offers more than 100 recommendations, including scrapping the IPRA, which the task force found to be too “biased toward police officers” for a new oversight agency under civilian control. You already can hear the backlash against that idea coming from police unions, which have been opposing civilian review boards for decades.

Yet Chicago’s system has swung too far in the other direction, the task force said, including provisions in union contracts that have “essentially turned the code of silence into official policy.” The task force calls for changing those provisions.

While we must not forget that most officers appear to be doing their jobs without complaints from the public, dismissing offenders as a “few bad apples” understates the influence that a few bad cops can have by “normalizing misconduct,” as Jamie Kalven, an independent journalist who founded the Invisible Institute, told me.

Perhaps now Chicago can become a model for curing police corruption instead of causing it. I’m waiting to hear Mayor Emanuel’s answer to his own very important question: What are he and other city leaders going to do about it?

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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