With the Department of Justice announcing it will investigate the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and hundreds of protesters calling for the resignation of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County State Attorney Anita Alvarez, the need for great change in Chicago is clear. And while calls that replacing Emanuel and Alvarez would revolutionize CPD are logical and entirely warranted, they are also somewhat shortsighted. In order to create lasting change in CPD, the entire system of investigating allegations of misconduct and disciplining officers must change.
When former police officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times on Oct. 20, 2014, he likely did so in confidence that CPD and city officials would publicly defend his actions as both justifiable and necessary. Van Dyke’s belief that the system would protect him was validated that night when police spokesman Pat Camden addressed the media and told a wildly inaccurate version of the events that led to McDonald’s death. Camden said the officer who killed McDonald was acting in self-defense and shot the teenager one time in chest after he had lunged at police with a knife.
Camden’s statement to the media was the inception of Chicago’s 13-month fight to keep dashboard footage of McDonald’s murder from the public. The city claimed that releasing the footage would interfere with ongoing federal and state investigations of the case. On Nov. 19, Chicago officials lost this battle when Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama ordered the dashboard footage to be released within the week. The city shared the video with the media on Nov. 24 and activists quickly took to the streets in protest of McDonald’s slaying and the 13 months it took to make the footage public. Mounting pressure forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel to take action, and he did so by firing former police superintendent Garry McCarthy and establishing the Task Force on Police Accountability.
“The shooting of Laquan McDonald requires more than just words,” Emanuel said in a written statement announcing the new task force. “It requires that we act; that we take more concrete steps to prevent such abuses in the future, secure the safety and the rights of all Chicagoans, and build stronger bonds of trust between our police and the communities they’re sworn to serve.”
The steps Emanuel has taken to improve the relationship between police officers and the communities they serve will likely prove ineffective. The mayor has failed to address that when it comes to the process of investigating allegations of police misconduct, he holds all the authority. Emanuel appoints every person involved in the investigation process: the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), the CPD superintendent and the Chicago Police Board (CPB). Data released by Invisible Institute and the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic of the University of Chicago Law School earlier this month found the system to rarely penalize officers. In 2015, more than 99 percent of misconduct complaints against CPD officers were not disciplined. Van Dyke was among those officers. 20 citizens filed complaints him before he killed McDonald, including use of excessive force and racial slurs. None of these had resulted in any discipline.
Leadership for CPD has failed to hold officers accountable for their actions. And because every individual involved in the process of investigating allegations of police misconduct — members of IPRA, CPB and the police superintendent — are appointed by the mayor, Chicagoans currently have no way of influencing how this system operates.
The Chicago Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression (CAARPR) has long advocated disbanding this system and establishing a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) in its place that allows citizens of Chicago to choose their own representatives. These representatives would be responsible for setting the rules and regulations for CPD and would prevent city officials for prolonging cases and hiding details from the public.
“The way the (investigation and disciplining) process works is IPRA maybe thinks that a police officer should be disciplined or fired or put on suspension,” Frank Chapman, Field Organizer and Education Director at CAARPR, said. “Then they present that to the police board and the police board makes the decision. Or they present it to the Superintendent of Police and he makes the decision and then he hands it to the board. So it’s like a ball that bounces around. And when they want to protract and drag the process, they’ll bounce the ball back and forth.”
Establishing CPAC would allow the citizens of Chicago to prevent that bouncing ball. It would allow members of the community to appoint a representative for their district who would directly oversee investigations into allegations of police misconduct and present the findings to the board. In an effort to prevent any preference towards police officers, former and current officers would be disqualified from being elected to CPAC.
Although calls for Emanuel’s resignation are warranted and should be met, the mayor has repeatedly stated he has no intention of quitting. And while Illinois state legislators have recently filed a bill to allow the citizens of Chicago to impeach the mayor, there is no guarantee the lengthy process will result in Gov. Rauner signing the bill into law.
In the meantime, protesters should use Emanuel’s new vulnerability to their advantage and demand control over supervision of CPD and transparency in investigations of police misconduct. True reform will not be achieved while any mayor holds sole power over who is involved in this process. The need for CPAC has existed for far too long, but the death of McDonald might be enough to force Emanuel to give the citizens of Chicago what is long overdue: the right to choose how they are policed.