Chicago police: Reform push as violent past prevails

Polarisation over police reform has played out in the news and on social media after videos showing officer brutality.

    Chicago police: Reform push as violent past prevails
    Protesters write a message on a police bus during a NATO summit in 2012 in Chicago [Nam Y Huh/AP]

    Chicago, United States - The fear of violence in one of the country's most dangerous cities is real for civilians and police officers alike.  

    "I tell him to quit every time I talk to him. I'm terrified for him, terrified he'll get hurt - terrified he'll hurt someone and go to jail," Nico Composto, 24, says of his father, a Chicago Police Department veteran.

    Nico, like many relatives of Chicago police, grew up in Jefferson Park , a predominantly white, middle-class neighbourhood on the northwest side.

    A 20-minute drive south down Central Avenue from Jefferson Park will bring one to Austin , a poor black neighbourhood with one of the highest crime rates in the country.

    It was there that Dee Jay - a young black man with a mix of pain and anger in his eyes - recounted the day when he alleged Chicago police officers beat him during an interrogation in an abandoned warehouse.

    It is impossible to independently verify his claim. But the group of about 15 young black men Dee Jay was standing among believe his story for one simple reason: history.

    Dee Jay's account is strikingly similar to the well-documented systematic torture of black men by some Chicago officers between 1972 and 1991.

    The fears held by Chicagoans such as Nico and Dee Jay were vaulted into the national spotlight after the release of the Laquan McDonald video in 2014 . Polarisation over police reform played out in the news and on social media after the video led to a wave of pressure on City Hall to implement reforms.

    READ MORE: Grand jury to hear evidence in Laquan McDonald shooting

    In the spotlight

    This pressure came not only from a myriad of community organisers in Chicago, but also from the US Department of Justice, which conducted a 13-month civil rights investigation of Chicago Police Department practices.

    Recently  released results of the investigation , which accuse the department of systematically violating constitutional rights of Chicagoans, has placed police misconduct back into the national spotlight and reignited the debate on police reform in Chicago.

    Based on interviews, there is significant division between those at the forefront of the reform debate: police officers and black community organisers. However, there are some areas of agreement between the two sides, and even some internal disagreement.

    Officers interviewed - who all requested anonymity because they were not officially permitted to speak - expressed fear that their lives would be put at greater risk because of reforms hastily implemented for the sake of political expediency.

    One police veteran recounted a video showing a Chicago officer stomping on the head of a man involved in an altercation with another policeman last June. The police veteran admitted the video "looks bad" but said he believes the use of force was justified because the arresting officer was in danger.

    "The problem here is the [police] superintendent took phone calls from an activist saying 'you need to suspend these guys immediately'... They screwed the guy. They flat out screwed him," he said, referring to the decision to suspend the officer who kicked the man's head.

    The veteran officer said the suspension, among other incidents, signalled a permanent shift towards knee-jerk discipline motivated by "political expediency", rather than actual evidence of wrongdoing.

    Like many throughout the Chicago police, the veteran officer said this type of discipline has already caused officers to be less proactive in fighting crime and hesitant to use force - even when appropriate.

    "Nowadays, it's too hard to even get the cops out of the car," he said.

    WATCH: Albuquerque police: A history of violence (24:35)

    Redress through training

    But not all Chicago policemen agree. One young patrolman, who has worked in one of the US city's most violent neighbourhoods for years, responded by saying: "You obviously don't know who we are and what we're doing every night."

    Although there is some disagreement, most officers interviewed said there is a need for reforms, especially aimed at police misconduct.

    Officers clearly view training as the best way to redress misconduct. Most indicated oversight reform is a necessary, though less important, step.

    All were frustrated that the Chicago Police Department provides no mandatory training for officers - a deficiency the Justice Department report documents in great detail. The report asserts even the training new recruits receive at the police academy is deficient.

    "Only one in six recruits we spoke with came close to properly articulating the legal standard for use of force," it noted.

    One interviewee actually left the Chicago Police Department after less than two years because the lack of training made him feel unsafe.

    "If the DOJ [Department of Justice] comes in here ... yeah we're going to take a beating, and rightfully so," the veteran officer bluntly stated in an interview a few months before the release of the report.

    "But if they start sending people to training, the professionalism will start turning around. Because you can't constantly do this stupid s*** over and over again and have supervisors that have been doing this stupid s*** over and over again now supervising people that are now doing it and not being able to change," he said.

    "Like I said before, we're stuck in 1990 or 1980. That's what our level of training is at. And they can say 'Oh hey ya know it costs too much.' No, it costs a hell of a lot more in lawsuits," he said. 

    READ MORE: Chicago police recommend dismissals for shooting

    Negotiations with the community

    Despite agreement on the need for reform, all officers interviewed blamed community organisers for the imposition of knee-jerk disciplinary action, citing their promotion of mass protests and public statements demanding accountability above all else.

    Civil rights workers, meanwhile, are divided on whether they should work directly with Chicago's City Hall.

    Ja'Mal Green, 20, told Al Jazeera that he and other young organisers don't want to "have a meeting with the mayor because then that'll compromise our credibility". Green said he believes headline-grabbing tactics are the most effective means of forcing politicians to implement reforms.

    Green pointed out as evidence the Chicago Police Department's plan to give all officers Tasers, which was announced shortly after he organised a highly publicised protest in front of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's house demanding the issuance of stun-guns.

    Older organisers interviewed criticised such tactics - many singling out the demonstration at the mayor's house.

    Pastor Autry Phillips, executive director of Target Area, said the most effective way to implement police oversight was not to "blast the mayor out on TV", but organising voters as leverage for direct negotiations with City Hall.

    READ MORE: Federal probe finds pattern of abuse by Chicago Police

    Tio Hardiman, head of the Violence Interrupters  group, said he believes disagreement over working with City Hall is preventing organisers from uniting with one voice, which is the main impediment to implementing police reforms.

    Hardiman said this division is the product of a long history of black organisers being used by politicians in Chicago to suppress evidence of police misconduct.

    "A lot of the pastors sat on the police board down here, they heard them stories [of police misconduct]. They didn't say nothing. All they did was sit on the board and say: 'Yes sir, yes sir.'"

    Despite division, pressure from community organisers is clearly having an effect on police reform.

    However, according to the Department of Justice report, the only steps taken so far by the city to reform police training was the hiring of one consultant, and a verbal pledge to implement training reform in line with department's recommendations.

    No written intention of training reform within the Chicago Police Department has been made, however.

    "CPD [Chicago Police Department] has not yet worked out whether these reforms are possible given CPD's current infrastructure, resources, and personnel, and if the reforms are possible, precisely how they will be accomplished, and by when,"  the Department of Justice report noted.

    City Hall is unlikely to reform training without "significant external pressure", it added.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News



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