Tuesday, January 17, 2017

By Benjamin Wallace-Wells  
The New Yorker
January 15, 2017

A July, 2016, protest against police violence in Chicago. The city has struggled with both high crime rates and numerous incidents of police brutality.

For at least three years, two stories about crime and police in Chicago have been unspooling, each only intermittently acknowledging the other. The primary one has been about escalating gun violence, which has spread across the city’s West and South Sides. Though the city has added hundreds of cops, launched intensive programs to improve the enforcement of gun laws, and experimented with predictive algorithms to identify who is most likely to commit acts of violence, the crime wave has proved alarmingly resistant to efforts to control it. Last year, seven hundred and sixty-two people were killed in Chicago—three hundred more than the previous year, representing the largest one-year increase in any of America’s biggest cities in the past quarter-century.

The second story has been about police excess in dealing with suspects and passivity in dealing with civilian reports of crime. In 2015, the Guardian revealed the existence of Chicago Police Department “black sites,” where suspects were routinely denied civil liberties. The police shooting of Laquan McDonald, a black teen-ager, and the release of dashboard-camera video showing that the officer’s claim that he acted in self-defense was obviously false, elevated concerns about accountability in the department. Meanwhile, Chicago homicide investigators have identified suspects in only twenty-nine per cent of cases, a rate that is less than half the national average. In October, 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said that his officers, who feared becoming the next face of police violence, had taken a “fetal” position. Apparently, that fear has persisted. “The major thing you hear from Chicago cops,” Eugene O’Donnell, a former N.Y.P.D. officer and prosecutor for the Brooklyn and Queens District Attorneys, who is now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said this week, “is to stay fetal—go fetal, stay fetal.” Arrests were down twenty-eight per cent this past year.

On Friday, in what may be the last major act of the Obama Administration, the Department of Justice issued a hundred-and-sixty-eight-page report into the failures of the Chicago Police Department. One measure of the authors’ alarm is that they used the word “unconstitutional” twenty-two times, often to describe the department’s patterns of using force. The D.O.J.’s investigation began in December, 2015, shortly after the video of McDonald’s death was released. Much of the report it produced shows how the department’s internal investigations following complaints of police misconduct are systemically biased toward cops. But the report also connected departmental abuses like McDonald’s shooting to a breakdown in trust between police and the community, and linked the collapse in trust to the increase in violent crime. “The City and CPD acknowledge that this trust has been broken,” the report said, by “systems that have allowed CPD officers who violate the law to escape accountability. This breach in trust has in turn eroded CPD’s ability to effectively prevent crime; in other words, trust and effectiveness in combating violent crime are inextricably intertwined.”

The report does not name bad actors; it describes bad acts. The Justice Department found that Chicago police officers drive suspected gang members into rival territory and leave them there. In one instance, officers chasing a suspect fired forty-five rounds into a residential neighborhood, twenty-eight of them with a rifle. “In some incidents, officers appeared to fire their weapons merely because others had done so,” the report observed. In another incident, two police officers sitting in the front seat of a car approached and opened fire at an armed suspect, who fired back. Sitting in the back of the police car, exposed to the fire, were two civilian witnesses to an unrelated assault investigation.

One pair of incidents stands out. In 2013, an off-duty officer spotted the “silhouette” of a man entering a vacant building. He called for backup, but instead of waiting for help to arrive he got out of his car and summoned the man out of the building. “You’re not a fucking cop,” the man said, and walked toward the officer, who “struck and kicked” the suspect. The man produced a “shiny object, prompting the officer to fire twice, killing the man.” No weapon was recovered from the scene; a silver watch was. Then, last November, the D.O.J. report notes, “this same officer shot a man in the back and killed him, claiming the man had pointed a gun at him during a foot pursuit. No gun was recovered.”

There are a few points in the report where the authors acknowledge the good intent of most cops. The references are perfunctory. The emphasis is on the patterns of evasion and abuse. “The use of unreasonable force to quickly resolve non-violent encounters is a recurrent issue at CPD,” the report concluded. The investigators found “a significant number of instances” in which officers intimidated witnesses, to prevent them from filing complaints. When complaints were filed, investigations were often so desultory that the department “frequently” declined to even interview civilian or officer witnesses. The authors write, “The questioning of officers is often cursory and aimed at eliciting favorable statements justifying the officer’s actions rather than seeking truth.”

The D.O.J. provides partial transcripts of some of those interrogations, in which internal-affairs officers seemed to prompt accused officers to give self-exculpatory answers. Here is one, from a case in which an officer shot an unarmed teen-ager:

Investigator: Okay, so he—as he’s standing back up again, he still had his hands in his waistband?
Officer: Correct.
Investigator: And you felt like he had something in his—in his hands?
Officer: Correct.
Investigator: And you—you were in danger?
Officer: Yes, I was—I was in fear—I was in fear of my life.

This week, the Pew Research Center released a survey of nearly eight thousand police officers around the country; ninety-three per cent said that, in recent years, they have been more concerned about their own safety. There was an uptick in the number of officers killed last year (sixty-four, the most since 2011; the annual average is about fifty), among them the high-profile assassinations of officers this summer in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Public and federal scrutiny of the police, since the shooting of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, in the summer of 2014, has continually increased, too. In Chicago, especially, you can see the stress. The suicide rate among officers there is sixty per cent higher than the national average for law enforcement—which is already higher than that of the general population. “It is the stress of the job,” one of the department’s mental-health counselors concluded, “that is the precursor to the crisis.”

That counselor was speaking about the mental health of the officers, but he might have meant the broader policing crisis, too. The national crime wave that Donald Trump emphasized throughout his campaign does not exist, but Chicago is not the only city where homicides have markedly increased. I lived in Baltimore when Freddie Gray died in police custody, in April, 2015, and during the protests and riots that followed, when the police retreated into a position that Emanuel might have called “fetal.” Churches organized patrols to keep neighborhoods safe. Rival gang leaders held a meeting to talk about how to protect neighborhoods that the cops had abandoned. Arrests plummeted; homicides rose to levels not seen since the nineties, and the murder rate has stayed high since. Anthony Batts, who was Baltimore’s police chief during the crisis and who was subsequently fired, lamented in September, 2015, that in the days after Gray’s killing his police “took a knee.”

The chasm between the police and citizens in cities like Chicago and Baltimore is often described as cultural, and this has a way of making efforts at repair seem futile. But the prose of the D.O.J. report is hard and precise, in ways that help to clarify what is happening on the ground. We are not in the realm of feelings. There is a connection between the police’s excesses in Chicago and their failure to stop the homicides. The way for them to fix things is to follow the rules.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells began contributing to The New Yorker in 2007, and joined the magazine as a staff writer in 2015. He writes mainly about American politics and society.

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