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Real police reform is unlikely in Chicago

The only whistleblower from inside the police accountability system, among other experts, is skeptical

December 14, 2015 2:00AM ET

On Nov. 24, I pried loose the video of Laquan McDonald being killed by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke.

Seemingly as a result of a couple of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, Van Dyke was charged with murder.

Editorial boards and protesters have called for the resignation of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He hasn’t resigned, but he has sacked — or prodded the ouster of — the city’s police chief, the head of the police detectives unit and the head of the body that investigates police. Emanuel first objected to but eventually accepted a Department of Justice civil rights investigation. Now, with protesters chanting “Resign Rahm” in the streets and on far reaches of the Internet, two Illinois State Representatives have introduced a bill providing for a recall election. Black leaders are preparing their stakeholders to spread the petitions that would make recall a reality.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune has moved to join my lawsuit against the city; and city staff have told my lawyers that it will comply with my request for all documents related to Laquan McDonald’s case, including internal emails, by Wednesday.

Little did I know that my FOIA lawsuit — whose cost is covered by the government in Illinois — would spur national interest in requesting documentation of police violence and spark a public debate over Emanuel’s fitness for office. I’ve heard from countless people that this story has given them a sense of agency.

What the story has not done yet is start reforming the Chicago police.

It will be a while before we know whether real reform has come. If it does, it will be a first in Chicago history, according to several attorneys who have become experts on police violence here. Repeatedly over the past several decades, Chicago politicians have claimed they were instituting reform of police discipline, but very little has changed.

“So many times over the years … these major incidents arise, and the public’s attention is gained, and something happens,” says Amanda Antholt, an attorney who successfully represented clients in police brutality claims for a dozen years. The Office of Professional Standards “becomes the Independent Police Review Authority [IPRA]. The superintendent changes, but the same problem remains … It’s so often a change in name only.”

The problem Antholt refers to is an average of more than one police shooting per week for the last 29 years, according to IPRA data. More than two-thirds of those victims are black.

One attorney, Flint Taylor, has crusaded against police violence in Chicago for more than 40 years. He has learned that judges and juries have a hard time believing officers were in the wrong after a so-called independent investigation finds that they were doing their jobs properly.

“Even with consistent complaints” against a particular officer, he says, “about racial epithets, beatings with a nightstick, electric shock — you’d see them not sustained. And because of that 2 to 5 percent rate [of sustained complaints], you often couldn’t use it.”

Which brings us to Lorenzo Davis. He’s the only voice we have from inside the system of police accountability in Chicago.

‘They think that the people in the communities they’re policing are just all the enemy. In order to get real reform, you have to take a really strong approach of zero tolerance, and this department has never done that.’

Amanda Antholt

Chicago attorney

“I think that task force is a sham,” he says. “I think [Emanuel] created that task force because people like myself were calling for a Department of Justice investigation.”

Davis was one of about 15 senior staffers at the IPRA when he was fired in 2014. He says he was fired because he balked at being asked to find violent officers justified in their behavior.

“The ratio is crazy,” he says of shootings found justified by IPRA. Under his review alone, “there were at least half a dozen shootings that should have been unjustified but that were ruled justified. And that’s just from my team and people formerly on my team … There are eight or nine other teams.”

Most likely, Davis says, the other supervisors at his level didn’t have to be told to find officers justified. They just did, disregarding any evidence to the contrary.

“They were trying to do what they believed the chief administrator wanted,” he says. “The big question is, how do you get a true independent civilian oversight body? The mayor appoints the chief and the IPRA administration. They are loyal to the mayor, who appoints people he trusts because he knows he can’t fire them … Now you have the mayor appointing a task force.”

For Davis, who knows how to investigate police shootings, the 13 months it took to “investigate” Van Dyke is a joke; it should have taken a few weeks.

For Antholt, police shootings are just one gruesome outcome of a deep-seated problem she describes as “the feeling of us versus them from our police officers in our communities.”

“They think that the people in the communities they’re policing are just all the enemy,” she says. “In order to get real reform, you have to take a really strong approach of zero tolerance, and this department has never done that … The change needs to be really significant [because] the problem is so far gone.”

Davis and others point out a systemic problem: The IPRA’s policies and procedures, the rules that guide how investigations take place, remain the same despite the departure of its leader. They have remained largely the same since before the Office of Professional Standards was disbanded and replaced with the IPRA, according to Davis and Taylor.

Another systemic problem is that up to this point, in cases of police shootings, almost every media outlet has repeated the phrase “the Independent Police Review Authority is investigating the incident.”

Unfortunately, in many cases neither the “independent” nor the “investigating” part has been true.

Perhaps in the future, we will see more reporters, editors and producers questioning these simple words that snuff out the truth.

Reform needs to happen in the next few months, Antholt says, because after that, relatively few people may be watching. Then it’s back to square one. The most independent of all investigations, the DOJ civil rights probe, can take up to 18 months. By then, if recent trends continue, dozens more Chicagoans will have been shot by the police.

Brandon Smith is a Chicago-based independent journalist who, with the help of whistleblowers and the Freedom of Information Act, has reported on civil rights abuses, privatization of public assets, digital privacy concerns and pollution of land and water. He can be reached at hey@brandonsmith.com.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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