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Chicago Police Department Reforms Could Go Further than a DOJ Investigation

When Cincinnati had a reckoning for its police department, it relied on the community to introduce a wide range of significant changes.

Photo: Armando L. Sanchez

In the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan called for the Department of Justice to do a systemic investigation of the Chicago Police Department. After seeming to push back, Mayor Emanuel said today that he just didn’t want them to “reset” the ongoing investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office and was okay with a broader one from DOJ. Greg Hinz at Crain’s thinks this could result in a consent decree with the DOJ—basically, where the federal agency has some temporary oversight of the department. That decree wouldn’t be unusual; there are about 20 cities operating under them currently. But as The Marshall Project found, the results have been spotty.

[Two days after this story was originally published, the Department of Justice announced a civil rights investigation into the CPD.]

I have a piece in the January issue of Chicago magazine about what the city could do to be more transparent, and it goes beyond the police force to I.P.R.A., the not-exactly-Independent Police Review Authority. One city that comes up in it is Cincinnati, which seems to be the consensus gold standard for the reform of troubled big-city police departments.

By gold standard I don’t mean perfect. Their police chief just got fired, a lot less gently than Garry McCarthy was. Violent crime rates went up there this year. “This isn’t a story in which stuff just went smooth and everything is nirvana there,” says Craig Futterman, the University of Chicago law professor and founder of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project. “But they engaged in reform, bringing both some of the most ardent critics and community members, and police officers to the table in joint problem solving. And really helped to establish trust that never existed.”

How’d they do it? Cincinnati went beyond a consent decree with the DOJ and formed something like its own consent decree with the community: “3,500 people from eight different stakeholder groups worked together to hammer out what they called the Collaborative Agreement. It limits the use of force, creates transparency with the Citizens’ Complaint Authority and looks for patterns that could turn into trouble.” Those stakeholder groups included the police department, the police union, the ACLU, the city, and the Cincinnati Black United Front.

This piece from St. Louis Public Radio has a good summary of the reforms that were won in Cincinnati. A couple would have been highly relevant to the Laquan McDonald shooting—an early warning system for officers with numerous complaints or policy violations, for instance, as well as a policy to quickly inform the community in the wake of an officer-involved shooting, including the release of dashcam video and officer audio.

John Eck, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati who was a consultant to the collaborative agreement and has studied it since, told me via email that the prompt calling of a press conference and release of recordings isn’t a formal policy, but is “standard practice,” and one that’s come to be expected. “If they stopped, the police would get huge pushback from citizens (and press),” he writes.

(And there has been pushback; when officers fired 31 rounds and killed a gang member in a biker bar in 2011, the department withheld the names of the officers involved because of fears of retaliation. The Cincinnati Enquirer sued.)

That standard procedure, Eck told me, is an outgrowth of the collaborative agreement. Which is in some ways more impressive—that it isn’t formal policy, that it was an outgrowth of the agreement, but happens anyway to the extent of being standard procedure.

“Reform #1 is honesty,” Futterman says. “When a police shooting or allegation of serious abuse arises, you’re honest with people. You keep people informed. If there’s a video, particularly a video was taken in a public area, you release the video within 24 to 48 hours. That’s what good departments do. That’s what generates trust, and it begins with honesty.”


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