Chicago’s Abusive Police State Is Untenable

The CPD’s latest deadly use of force leaves little wonder why some hope for a future without cops.

Protestors yelling at Chicago police officers.
Demonstrators in the South Shore neigh­bor­hood protest­ing the shoot­ing death of 37-year-old Harith Augustus have a heat­ed exchange with police on Sunday in Chicago.
Scott Olson/​Getty Images

Early Saturday evening, a Chicago police offi­cer shot and killed Harith Augustus, a 37-year-old black American bar­ber work­ing in the neigh­bor­hood where the police had con­front­ed him. The Chicago Police Department released body-cam­era video that shows Augustus becom­ing agi­tat­ed after being sur­round­ed and grabbed by offi­cers. As he attempts to flee and appears to reach for a gun in his waist­band, an offi­cer begins fir­ing on him, and Augustus falls. In a state­ment, the CPD said that Augustus — who had a firearm license but no per­mit for con­cealed car­ry — had ini­tial­ly been approached for “exhibit­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of an armed per­son.”

The body­cam footage of the con­fronta­tion was released Sunday morn­ing, after a night of protests that began when an agi­tat­ed crowd of near­ly 100 gath­ered at the scene of the shoot­ing not long after Augustus was killed. A series of scuf­fles broke out between pro­test­ers and respond­ing offi­cers who lat­er began assail­ing some in the crowd with batons as bot­tles and rocks were thrown at them. The video was released along­side offi­cial talk about the need to jump ahead of mis­in­for­ma­tion impugn­ing the con­duct of the CPD offi­cers who con­front­ed Augustus. “We can’t have anoth­er night like that,” Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson told the press. “If we don’t get in front of things, the nar­ra­tive will spin out of con­trol.”

In truth the CPD lost the ben­e­fit of the doubt some time ago. There are, indis­putably, a lot of bad apples in the Chicago Police Department. This has always been so. Investigators have spent years uncov­er­ing the 20 years of tor­ture and abuse by offi­cers under the com­mand of Jon Burge, who sought con­fes­sions from more than 100 black men through suf­fo­ca­tion and gen­i­tal elec­tro­cu­tion with cat­tle prods, among oth­er meth­ods. Another infa­mous cadre of offi­cers, the Skullcap Crew, has been accused dozens of times of phys­i­cal and sex­u­al abuse and harass­ment in Chicago’s old hous­ing projects and has been named in more than 20 fed­er­al law­suits. All but one Skullcap Crew mem­ber are still active on the force today. In November, Cook County pros­e­cu­tors dropped 18 con­vic­tions for 15 men arrest­ed under the author­i­ty of Ronald Watts, a CPD sergeant who rou­tine­ly ordered his sub­or­di­nates to plant drugs and fal­si­fy police reports. Joshua Tepfer, an attor­ney with the University of Chicago Law School’s Exoneration Project rep­re­sent­ing 63 oth­er men who say they were also wrong­ful­ly arrest­ed by Watts, told the New Yorker’s Jennifer Gonnerman that hun­dreds more may have been framed, in a sto­ry pub­lished by the mag­a­zine in May.

The malfea­sance with­in the depart­ment goes well beyond the activ­i­ties of iso­lat­ed crews of rogue offi­cers. In 2015, the Guardian report­ed that over the pre­vi­ous decade, more than 7,000 peo­ple — 6,000 of whom were black — had been detained under alleged­ly abu­sive con­di­tions at a secret ware­house in the city’s Homan Square neigh­bor­hood with­out access to attor­neys or pub­lic knowl­edge of their where­abouts. In 2016, the CPD revealed that 80 per­cent of the dash­board cam­eras equipped by its squad cars could not record audio and that 12 per­cent had expe­ri­enced “video issues” — tech­ni­cal prob­lems caused, they said, by “oper­a­tor error or in some cas­es inten­tion­al destruc­tion.” “Chicago Police Department offi­cers stashed micro­phones in their squad car glove box­es,” DNAinfo Chicago’s Mark Konkol and Paul Biasco wrote in a review of dash­cam main­te­nance logs. “They pulled out bat­ter­ies. Microphone anten­nas got bust­ed or went miss­ing.”

Dashcam footage, with its audio miss­ing, proved cru­cial to adju­di­cat­ing the fatal shoot­ing of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old black teen, in 2014. The video — released in the fall of 2015 after a month­s­long legal bat­tle between a local jour­nal­ist and the city — showed that McDonald had been shot 16 times as he was walk­ing away from offi­cers. McDonald had been accused of lung­ing at respon­ders in inci­dent reports writ­ten by three CPD offi­cers set to face tri­al lat­er this year for con­spir­a­cy, obstruc­tion of jus­tice, and offi­cial mis­con­duct in their attempt at a cov­er-up.

The McDonald shoot­ing trig­gered an over­due Department of Justice inves­ti­ga­tion into the CPD’s prac­tices. The DOJ’s report, released in January 2017, charged that the CPD rou­tine­ly vio­lat­ed the Fourth Amendment with its deploy­ments of force, includ­ing “numer­ous inci­dents where CPD offi­cers chased and shot flee­ing per­sons who posed no imme­di­ate threat to offi­cers or the pub­lic” and “tac­ti­cal deci­sions that unnec­es­sar­i­ly increase the risk of dead­ly encoun­ters.” The report also exam­ined and crit­i­cized sev­er­al non­lethal encoun­ters includ­ing the tas­ing of a 16-year-old girl who was asked to leave school for using a cell­phone and the tas­ing of a woman in a “men­tal health cri­sis” who had “stiff­ened” and stopped respond­ing to ver­bal instruc­tions. The report paints a pic­ture of a depart­ment whose offi­cers have been giv­en free rein to ter­ror­ize and abuse black Chicagoans they hap­pen to come across. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly descrip­tive of offi­cers who would pick up black chil­dren and teens in their vehi­cles for ques­tion­ing:

We were told by many com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers that one method by which CPD will try to get indi­vid­u­als to pro­vide infor­ma­tion about crime or guns is by pick­ing them up and dri­ving them around while ask­ing for infor­ma­tion about gangs or guns. When indi­vid­u­als do not talk, offi­cers will drop them off in dan­ger­ous areas or gang ter­ri­to­ries. We reviewed a pub­licly avail­able video that appears to cap­ture one instance of an offi­cer dis­play­ing a youth in police cus­tody to a group of indi­vid­u­als gath­ered in a rival gang ter­ri­to­ry. The video shows CPD offi­cers stand­ing around a marked CPD vehi­cle with the back doors wide open and a young male detained in the rear. Officers per­mit a crowd of male youths to sur­round the car and shout at the ado­les­cent. The crowd can be seen flash­ing hand ges­tures that look like gang signs and threat­en­ing the cow­er­ing teenag­er in the back­seat.

[…] The video does not show any legit­i­mate law enforce­ment pur­pose in allow­ing the youth to be threat­ened. Residents told us that this has hap­pened for years, with sev­er­al indi­vid­u­als recount­ing their per­son­al expe­ri­ences. A young black man told us that when he was 12 or 13 years old, he and his friends were picked up by CPD offi­cers, dropped off in rival ter­ri­to­ry, and told to walk home. Another black teen told us that his broth­er was picked up in one loca­tion, dropped off in anoth­er loca­tion known for rival gangs, and told: “Better get to run­ning.”

According to the DOJ report, 98 per­cent of the more than 30,000 mis­con­duct com­plaints that had been brought over the pre­vi­ous five years had not result­ed in any penal­ties for the offi­cers accused. And some of the com­plaints that had were resolved through “medi­a­tion” deals that allowed offi­cers to acknowl­edge some lev­el of mis­con­duct in exchange for reduced penal­ties before the con­clu­sion of full inves­ti­ga­tions into their behav­ior. Half of the medi­at­ed cas­es from 2013 to 2015 were cas­es of alleged exces­sive force or domes­tic vio­lence. Of medi­a­tions in the case of domes­tic vio­lence, the report not­ed that the prac­tice “allows abusers to avoid mean­ing­ful pun­ish­ment, which may empow­er them to con­tin­ue the cycle of abuse.”

As of April, the city of Chicago has ful­ly imple­ment­ed only 20 of the 99 rec­om­men­da­tions for reform out­lined in the DOJ’s report. It’s plau­si­ble that more progress might have been made under the terms of a fed­er­al con­sent decree with the depart­ment that would have giv­en the city’s reform efforts fed­er­al over­sight. That’s unlike­ly under the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of exist­ing over­sight agree­ments for cities around the coun­try last March, and he hasn’t tak­en much of an inter­est in Chicago’s polic­ing beyond blam­ing the American Civil Liberties Union’s anti – stop-and-frisk advo­ca­cy for the city’s spike in homi­cides in 2016. Chicago will instead nego­ti­ate a con­sent decree with the state of Illinois, and the city has reached an agree­ment with the ACLU and var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ty and activist orga­ni­za­tions that will allow those groups to pro­vide input both dur­ing those nego­ti­a­tions and in the reform imple­men­ta­tion process.*

It is plain that abuse — for Trump and most of his sup­port­ers — is part of the tool kit nec­es­sary to beat back the phan­tasm of “American car­nage” or, at worst, the regret­table but inevitable con­se­quence of brave and com­mend­able police offi­cers try­ing to do so. The pres­i­dent and his sup­port­ers argue that those who speak out against police vio­lence and the racial inequities of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem are by con­trast too fix­at­ed on race talk to do any­thing about the vio­lence plagu­ing their com­mu­ni­ties. This nar­ra­tive both eras­es con­stant, dogged anti-vio­lence work and activism hap­pen­ing with­in black com­mu­ni­ties — like the mas­sive demon­stra­tion that shut down the Dan Ryan Expressway just over a week ago — and implic­it­ly advances the idea that unre­strained state vio­lence should be vis­it­ed upon black peo­ple who are by impli­ca­tion law­less and untamed. Of course, the wan­ton law­less­ness present in depart­ments like the CPD — the sadis­tic vio­lence, the codes of silence — make them rather sim­i­lar to the gangs the law-and-order crowd wants so dear­ly to stamp out.

It should come as no sur­prise that crim­i­nal jus­tice pol­i­tics post – Black Lives Matter and post-Ferguson has giv­en rise to activists who want to raze the frame­work of polic­ing itself to the ground. In Chicago, a com­mu­ni­ty of activists like Mariame Kaba and orga­ni­za­tions like the Black Youth Project 100 have been dri­ving forces behind a move­ment for police and prison abo­li­tion, advanc­ing a vision of a future in which unarmed medi­a­tion, com­mu­ni­ty-admin­is­tered jus­tice, and inten­sive efforts to fight pover­ty and inequal­i­ty obvi­ate the need for law enforce­ment as cur­rent­ly con­ceived. It’s still a large­ly amor­phous vision, but one, activists point out, with seeds in the already-exist­ing cul­ture with­in heav­i­ly pro­filed minor­i­ty com­mu­ni­ties of avoid­ing calls to the police at all costs.

It’s also a vision now sup­port­ed by the Democratic Socialists of America, who backed a res­o­lu­tion call­ing for the abo­li­tion of police and pris­ons at their nation­al con­ven­tion last August. The calls to abol­ish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, one of the cen­ter­pieces of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s con­gres­sion­al cam­paign and now the sub­ject of leg­is­la­tion in Congress is best under­stood not only as a pro­pos­al shaped by our cur­rent immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy debate, but a rhetor­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal cousin of the left’s inter­est in rethink­ing polic­ing com­plete­ly. It’s not at all clear how far that push will go or how many Americans will sign on to the project. But the sta­tus quo — in Chicago and too many oth­er cities besides — is no longer ten­able.

Update, July 16, 2018: This sen­tence has been updat­ed to clar­i­fy the sta­tus of Chicago’s con­sent decree with the state of Illinois.

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