April 7, 2023
Across the nation we are debating what to do about public safety; how to respond to public worries about crime; and what if anything we need to do about how we police our communities. There are advocates for doing more of the same, simply supporting our police, and giving them more resources and fewer regulations on their behavior and practices. And there are advocates for policies that will drastically alter our approach to policing and focus on systemic changes that look at more holistically strengthening communities.
This is a debate that has pushed me to think about my own experience when in 1968, my final year of graduate studies, I was part of a team affiliated with what was then St. Luke’s Hospital in the upper west side of Manhattan. We had a contract to work with police officers, and street cops, at a time when the nation was in the midst of the turmoil of civil rights protests, anti-war protests, and a growing movement to address economic injustice. Our work was trying to make the local police more effective by increasing individual officers’ sensitivity to the community they served and their ability to confront the built-in bias of a mostly white police force in a very diverse city.
These were objectives that would fit right into the strategies of those who think we just need to give more support to the police and just do what we are now doing a little better.
Young as I was, and inexperienced as I was, it seemed then that this was a futile task in the absence of deeper, more systemic changes. Just making individuals better understand the lives of those they encountered, and just making them better able to see how they might be better listeners to the voices of the communities they served seemed to be a futile and perhaps destructive act. Individual officers who we might touch, and whose behaviors we might help change would just be going back to a Police Department and a locker room that was steeped in its built-in bias and defensive posture against criticism and change. We were making that officer a misfit and little real change would happen.
When I saw the futility of our work, I stepped away from that project before the year was out.
I thought about that experience when I read the recently released Public Report on Chicago Police Training on the Use of Force, authored by the community representatives serving on Chicago’s Use of Force Community Working Group, it is easy to see that little has changed since 1968.
The Task Force evaluated the Chicago Police Department’s (CDP) current efforts to train their officers about how to de-escalate confrontations with members of the community and reduce their use of force. The Task Force was established in 2020 in the wake of Chicago entering into a consent order with the US Department of Justice to address the bias and violent practices of CPD.
The report told the same story that I had lived decades ago. Changing how we police is hard work and requires more than a few good trainers to accomplish. Changing how we police, how we address the overarching issue of community safety, will not be possible without totally rethinking our approach and being ready to listen to the lived experience of those who are being served.
The report’s title is telling: “CHICAGO POLICE TRAINING TEACHES OFFICERS THAT THEIR LIVES MATTER MORE THAN COMMUNITY LIVES”
Here are their conclusions:
- CPD training lacks any perspective from the community (9);
- CPD training reinforces an “us against them” culture that pits police officers against community members and teaches officers to fear the people of Chicago—to see everyone who is not the police as a potential threat (10);
- Instead of teaching officers to honor the sanctity of all human life, CPD training teaches officers that their lives are worth more than the lives of community members (12);
- CPD training fails to teach officers to minimize police violence (13);
- Rather than challenge CPD’s culture of denying the reality of police abuse, CPD training teaches officers how to justify and even cover up unnecessary police violence (14);
- CPD training fails to acknowledge the reality of racism and bias within the Department or teach officers the impact of their biases on decisions to use force against community members (16).
The task force came to these conclusions after closely observing CPD’s efforts to retrain its officers. Again, training was seen as the answer to a problem that can only be solved by drastic redesign.
The training took place in an organization that sees itself as separate from the communities where they work and sees itself as unloved and unappreciated. “One trainer told the classroom ‘People will try to bait us… Our job is hard as shit, but this is the job we have. We have each other. The world is against us, but we have each other. We have one another to get through the day.’… Trainers reinforced common perceptions among officers that: (1) the community does not understand police officers or their jobs; (2) the media is out to get the police; and (3) only fellow police officers understand and have the interests and backs of other police officers…
“The training left many officers feeling that it is even more important that they stick together because the public and media do not have their backs…One long-time officer referred to CPD’s approach to community engagement as ‘usually bullshit for numbers,’ not something that the CPD or its officers should think has any real value….
“It was clear that most of the officers who participated in the training did not want to be there and acted like it was a waste of their time. Experienced officers were powerfully resistant to being taught to do things differently than they have throughout their careers. The pervasive attitude was that the new policies and training were “bullshit” —that they weren’t going to be told by the trainers how they should do their jobs…For the trainings to have any chance at being effective, CPD must design them to account for a resistant audience.”
Training may be a part of the solution to ineffective policing but, without systemic changes, it made no sense in 1968 and it makes no sense in 2023 to see it as anything but a band-aid and a pacifier. What needs to be changed is a power structure that establishes the policies and practices for which police are to be held accountable, that understands the need for a real partnership with the communities they serve, and which is self-critical and ready to self-initiate change.
When it takes an independent observer to see what this commission sees, we know that the program is structurally unsound.
In the same week that this study of training became public InJustice Watch and Block Club Chicago published their review of data on how Chicago’s Police Department had weaponized the city’s traffic rules. Their conclusion was that traffic stops had become the new ”stop and frisk”, a common but ineffective approach of urban police departments seeking to squash crime in mostly BIPOC neighborhoods. This is a practice that Chicago was under court order to end because it was racially biased and proven ineffective. So unable to stop pedestrians at will Chicago police are now making millions of traffic stops while searching for guns. CPD has just found a way to do the same thing differently.
“The meteoric rise in traffic stops can be traced back to a 2015 legal settlement between Chicago police and the ACLU of Illinois over the department’s use of pedestrian stops as part of a strategy known as ‘stop and frisk’…In the years leading up to the settlement,…Chicago policehad stopped hundreds of thousands of Black Chicagoans without clear justification, in violation of their constitutional rights…The settlement, in that case, required the police department to create a new form for officers to document their reasons for stopping someone and the details of what happened during these so-called ‘investigatory stops’…In 2016, the first year that the new reports were in use, pedestrian stops fell dramatically, to about 57,000, from more than 330,000 the year before….Within three years, the rise in traffic stops more than made up the difference. From 2016 to 2019, the number of traffic stops increased by nearly 200,000 each year, “
From the top to the bottom, in training sessions and on the street, a reconstructed Police Department weathered the storm of bad publicity and reached legal agreements requiring them to change, and then just went back to doing business as they always have done.
The voice of the community that continues to be ignored was stated by Frank Chapman, an organizer with the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression when he said, “There are consequences to making hundreds of thousands of stops in Black neighborhoods… Black drivers like him often walk away from police encounters over minor issues feeling racially targeted and harassed…the brutal beating death of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police officers earlier this year showed how a routine stop can escalate into a deadly incident with little provocation. During the present climate of police violence against Black people, when a Black person is stopped, they more than likely are a little jittery about the whole thing, because it’s so prevalent that people are getting killed as a result of being stopped…”
This is the challenge we face as we debate how to ensure we all live in safe communities and establish policies to get us there.
Chicago’s mayoral election was recently decided. The major issue had been public safety and the role of our police department. One candidate, Paul Vallas, mirroring many of the themes that have fueled conservative politics nationwide, promised to expand the police force in order to help them do their job better. The other candidate, Brandon Johnson, saw the structural issues that have resulted in excessive use of force and a loss of trust in the police and recommended a dramatic and comprehensive rethinking of how we approach building safe communities that would de-emphasize traditional policing strategies and uplift efforts to improve the overall quality of life across all parts of our city.
The election was seen as a national barometer for whether we should just fine-tune in the current structures of urban policing or if there is a need for deep, structural change to build another model. The election tested Chicago’s political temperature and gave us a way to judge which direction might be able to get enough public support to move forward in Chicago and beyond.
The election’s results, a close victory for Mr. Johnson, show how difficult it will be to move away from status quo police strategies even if there is little reason to believe that they will be effective. .
The evidence of decades tells me that doing more of the same and tinkering around the edges of Police Departments, looking for the next training approach will not get us different results.
As words like “defund” become politicized, we need to remember that what we are doing and what we have done for decades that has brought us little progress. More fundamental changes are needed to build a Police Department that really believes it serves a community that they are part of and a community they actually care about. And that will not come without a painful redesign.
The issue is not resources. In Chicago, like most other communities, policing remains a large, if not the largest part of a municipal budget. Spending more to do what has not worked does not seem to be a good strategy.
The path that Mayor-elect Johnson seeks to lead Chicago is one which calls for rebuilding communities, engaging citizens in the design of public safety strategies, and changing the very role of our Police Force, will be difficult. It will raise fear that if we make dramatic changes, we can end up in a worse position than we are now. But, if we do not recognize how badly the current approach has failed, we will not recognize that the current level of crime and the current state of fear about safety is the result of the current strategy. We are where we are because of, not in spite of the way we have built the role of our police forces and the ways we have encouraged them to operate. Just staying the course will not make things better and, very likely, will make things worse.
Change is hard but it is time to get on with it.
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