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  • Writer's pictureMario Nicolais

A police department’s pattern of unconstitutional conduct

In 164 pages, the U.S. Department of Justice eviscerated the Chicago Police Department. After a year-long investigation, the DOJ found the CPD “engages in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional use of force.” The detailed report outlines a systematic failure, not only in the CPD, but the entire city government for its dereliction to oversee and provide adequate resources to avoid such an outcome.

While the rest of the country may look at the DOJ report and snicker at Chicago, it should serve as a warning to state and local governments across the country. It would be easy to get lost in the dramatic headline and believe that Chicago is an unfortunate, but unique circumstance. But in an era when police conduct across the country has come under ever-increasing scrutiny, Chicago could foreshadow future revelations across the nation. Every state and municipality should take this chance to review and revise their police training programs and conduct standards.

The issues identified by the DOJ span a broad range: shooting at fleeing suspects; firing at vehicles without justification; poor discipline in discharging weapons; tactical errors that unnecessarily increase the risk of deadly encounters and use of excessive force against people who present no threat — even against children. And that is just the start. The entire list is too long for just one column.

It would be easy to blame this on a police culture indifferent and uncaring toward the communities they are pledged to protect. But that view would be inaccurate, unfair and blind to the systematic root causes of the problem. As the report also notes, physical and life-threatening danger are inherent characteristics of a police officer’s duties. Faced with dangerous and deadly criminals, police must frequently make instantaneous decisions without the benefit of full information. Such circumstances alone put police in a precarious position. When combined with insufficient training and support, the situation becomes untenable.

The DOJ report documents that “many CPD officers feel abandoned by the public and often their own Department” and “found profoundly low morale nearly every place we went within the CPD.” This is the outcome when “[o]fficers generally feel they are insufficiently trained and supported to do their work effectively.” And that fault lies with the department and the city, as a system, and not with any individual officer.

The systematic failure begins with a failure to fully and fairly investigate police conduct. Not only does the current system fail to fairly and fully investigate police conduct, the city itself has “put in place policies and practices that impede investigation of officer misconduct.” The negative effect is several-fold. First, it erodes public trust in the police when review is neither transparent and outcomes seem unfair. Animosity between the public and the police grows in inverse proportion to the level of trust, leading to a likely increase in situations where further violence may arise. Second, it dulls reflection and analysis surrounding the conduct, hampering the ability to use it as a teaching tool to avoid similar events in the future.

Because lessons are not being drawn from investigation into past conduct, the failure trickles down through the training provided by the CPD. The DOJ found that current training leaves many of the 12,000 members of the police force “underprepared to police effectively and lawfully.” For example, the DOJ observed a CPD Academy training on deadly force that relied on a video made roughly 35 years ago. The training did not address changes in standards or laws in the interim period. Is it any wonder that officers later make mistakes?

Chicago’s errors should be a tool for other cities like Denver to analyze and avoid similar outcomes. It will make us all safer.

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