Opinion

No easy fix for Chicago police

It is much easier to condemn police wrongdoing than it is to fix it. How, for example, do you reform a Chicago Police Department that suffers not from a few bad apples but from a rotten culture of racist policing and official impunity? A city task force empaneled by Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel attempted an answer in a report made public last week.

The depth of the problem came to national attention with the outrageous killing of Laquan McDonald, an African American man whom police shot 16 times. Officers told a false story about the threat that McDonald posed. Video that contradicted their account was withheld by the city for a year. Prosecutors were slow to act.

The independent review board meant to investigate police abuse turned out to be little more than a rubber stamp run by former law enforcement officials. It examined roughly 400 officer-involved shootings since 2007 – and found problems in precisely one case. The review board and the police Bureau of Internal Affairs failed to fully investigate nearly half the complaints they received between 2011 and 2015. Collective bargaining agreements, which discourage officers from reporting on each other and which give officers 24 hours to get their story straight with partners before making statements, “essentially turned the code of silence into official policy,” the panel found.

This broken accountability system has enabled terrible practices. Three-quarters of police shootings between 2008 and 2015 killed or injured African Americans. Chicago police stop people, the vast majority black, at a much higher rate than do police in other major cities. In 2013, Chicago police searched African American drivers at four times the rate of whites, even though they found contraband twice as often on white drivers. Unsurprisingly, the panel found that the Chicago Police Department suffers from widespread mistrust, particularly in the African American community.

Better training is no doubt part of the solution, but hardly enough. The task force recommends creating and adequately staffing a new civilian oversight board and an inspector general’s office to provide another layer of independent oversight. It proposes publication of data on arrests, stops and other police behavior. Collective bargaining agreements must also be revised. Noting that many of the people police pick up are unaware of their rights and legal protections, the panel wants arrestees to be able to call lawyers or family members within an hour of being detained. The task force also recommends expanding the city’s body camera program and monitoring young officers to spot and correct improper conduct early.

A federal investigation of the Chicago police continues. The Justice Department should demand wide-reaching reforms, particularly if the city does not move swiftly to implement the task force’s recommendations.

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