The Chicago Police Department has had plenty of bad days in recent years, but few as dismal as Jan. 13. That was when the U.S. Department of Justice published a report blistering the department for excessive reliance on force, “systemic deficiencies in training and accountability” and a code of silence that protects bad cops.
The only good news DOJ could report was that, in its view, the city and the CPD had shown themselves to be “committed to reform.” One sign of it is a new set of guidelines on the use of force, the product of months of deliberation and revision.
The rules, which stress the “sanctity of life” and the need to build public trust, are an improvement over the previous policy. But it would be premature to assume the problems cited by the feds are on the way to being solved.
One change involves when officers may resort to deadly force. The old rule authorized them to shoot anyone who flees after committing a felony using force (or trying to). The new one says they may use guns only if the person trying to escape is an “imminent threat” to someone.
Any force, the new rules stipulate, must be “proportional” to the threat a suspect poses. Officers are instructed to “use de-escalation techniques” whenever they are “safe and feasible.” Firing into a moving vehicle will be generally forbidden, even if the car is headed toward an officer; the officer is supposed to get out of the way if possible.
Put into place, these guidelines ought to reduce the number of times police shoot suspects. The language on foot pursuits is a welcome change for a department that had no written policy on the topic. A Tribune investigation found that such chases account for more than a third of police shootings – with nearly a quarter of the people killed by officers shot only in the back.
But the guidelines raise some crucial questions: Will police get adequate training to put them into practice? Will the rules be interpreted and applied in a sensible way that improves how officers handle uncooperative subjects? And will police who deviate be held accountable? If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” the directives will have little value.
Law enforcement in Chicago can be stressful, perilous and sometimes deadly. In a city beset by gun violence and gangs, no one doubts the challenges of combating crime and protecting public safety. Even the best department is staffed with humans who will make mistakes in volatile circumstances.
But no one can excuse the clear abuses that have come to light, such as the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald and the disgraceful effort by officers to cover it up. Less notorious cases noted in the DOJ report were numerous – including one officer who repeatedly slugged a handcuffed man and then lied about it, and one who pointed a gun at a group of teenagers and then handcuffed them for allegedly playing basketball on his property.
Ugly incidents undermine the trust of citizens and breed hostility toward anyone wearing a badge. In Chicago, abusive cops have too often gone unpunished. The police disciplinary system, which is being overhauled, has rarely sustained a complaint against an officer and failed to flag problem cops who had been the subject of repeated complaints.
The city and DOJ were working toward a consent decree that would put the police under federal supervision to ensure the reforms were carried out. But that work was interrupted when the Obama administration left office. Donald Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has made it clear he doesn’t think much of such efforts. So the resolve to follow through will have to come from within the city.
CPD deserves credit for approving these new policies. If they work, they could ease tensions between officers and the residents they are charged with protecting, who could be far more helpful to the cops in combating crime. Better policing could make Chicago safer for cops as well as citizens. That will happen only if the CPD can turn its promises into actions.
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