The Chicago Police Department, pressured by a U.S. Justice Department investigation and public outrage over police misconduct, has unveiled proposed policy changes aimed at cutting down on the kinds of controversial uses of force that have plagued the city.
The draft policies released Friday would further limit when officers can shoot fleeing people, restrict the number of times officers can Taser arrestees and compel officers to use the lightest force possible in any situation. The draft rules would expand on guidelines now in effect, some of which are comparatively vague.
The proposed changes are the latest aftershock of the court-ordered release in November of video of white Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting African-American teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times. The video — showing Van Dyke shooting McDonald as he walked away from officers with a knife in his hand — touched off sustained protests fueled by decades of frustration among many black Chicagoans over use of force and the failure to discipline officers.
The Justice Department is investigating whether Chicago police have systematically abused citizens, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel has worked to enact changes to policing and discipline aimed at getting ahead of reforms that federal authorities might seek.
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The mayor is in a tight political spot; he’s proposed changes to a Police Department with a long history of scandal, but he’s also contending with surging gun violence seen widely as a consequence of police ratcheting back their aggressiveness to avoid criticism or punishment.
Experts lauded the proposed changes but noted that other police departments have been making similar reforms for years while Chicago has endured a string of policing scandals and racked up tens of millions of dollars in lawsuits over alleged police abuse.
“Welcome to the 21st century,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminal justice at the University of South Carolina. “This is a step in the right direction. Good for them. It’s just a day late and millions of dollars short.”
It remains unclear what version of the rules will ultimately take effect, and the department has provided itself room to change course if any of the proposals prove controversial. Meanwhile, the enforcement of any new rules will hinge in part on the success of promised improvements to the city’s frequently ineffective police disciplinary system.
The policies would tighten the rules on shooting fleeing people, holding that officers can’t shoot unless that person poses an “immediate threat.” The current rules allow an officer to fire on anyone who has committed or attempted a felony using force, and experts said the new rules would go beyond U.S. Supreme Court case law.
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The department also would ban officers from triggering more than three shocks from their Tasers before trying something else.
Dovetailing with the department’s new training on defusing tense incidents, officers also would be compelled to turn to “force mitigation” and wait out or move further from potentially violent people. Officers also would be called on to immediately seek medical aid for people injured by police and “comport themselves in a manner that conveys the gravity of any use of force.”
The department set up a website for officers and the public to comment on the draft rules at policy.chicagopolice.org. After 45 days, police officials will review the feedback, Superintendent Eddie Johnson said at a news conference.
Though inviting public comment on a policy change is new for the department, the city has often invited public comment on proposed policies. While the comment period might discourage the perception that city officials are acting unilaterally, nothing binds Johnson to bend to the demands of officers or the public.
The department hopes to adopt the rules by the end of the year and then train the city’s roughly 12,000 sworn officers by spring, a potential change for a department that has sometimes shifted policy with little fanfare and has previously provided scant training to officers after the academy.
The proposed rules are geared toward giving options to officers to avoid using heavy force, even if state law or legal precedent would allow it, Johnson said.
“Can you use force? Yes. But should you? Maybe not. There may be other alternatives that you can utilize so that you don’t have to use deadly force,” Johnson told reporters.
Dean Angelo Sr., president of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police lodge, said police have used de-escalation tactics for years. The draft rules, he said, are the department’s reaction to critics who know little about police work.
“Until they put on a uniform and get into that car, they have no idea,” he said.
The ability of any new policy to bring change will depend partly on enforcement, and aldermen on Wednesday passed Emanuel’s plan to replace the city’s beleaguered Independent Police Review Authority with the Civilian Office of Police Accountability. Recent Tribune investigations have shown IPRA has been sluggish and reluctant to find officers at fault, even when compelling evidence suggested wrongdoing. COPA is promised to have more funding and greater authority.
Sharon Fairley, the former federal prosecutor Emanuel appointed to run IPRA as the policing controversy erupted, called on the department this summer to revise its use of force policies, including in ways similar to the provisions in the new draft rules. Tightening the rules would give the city’s disciplinary authorities greater leeway to suspend or fire officers after shootings — a step the city has rarely taken.
The new policies prominently state that the department’s rules are stricter than Supreme Court case law on police uses of force, specifying that officers use the lightest necessary force when attempts to defuse the situation fail. Mandatory de-escalation training started last month for all department officers.
The draft rules hold that an officer must intervene if another officer is wrongly using force. Though the department already has a rule against lying, the draft rules specify that officers must truthfully describe uses of force. In the McDonald shooting, numerous officers stood by as Van Dyke fired again and again, and the department has moved to fire several officers whose reports clashed with the account captured on the video.
Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, credited the draft rules for adopting widely accepted best practices. He called the proposed policy “impressive and state of the art.”
Alpert, however, said departments have been going beyond “the minimal Constitutional floor” in their use of force rules for decades. He said other cities have adopted new force rules because of forward-thinking leadership — or because they were forced to change by federal authorities investigating past abuses.
“This is something Chicago should have done years ago,” Alpert said. “These aren’t reforms that are going to make anyone say, ‘Wow, this is a really taking the bull by the horns.'”
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