By Nirej Sekhon
Georgia State University
The Department of Justice (DOJ) is currently investigating the Chicago Police Department.
Given that the Justice Department is playing hardball with Ferguson, Missouri – suing the city following its refusal to voluntarily enter into an agreement to reform its police department and courts – advocates in Chicago may also expect something important to change as a result of DOJ involvement.
In a recent paper, I analyzed 259 Chicago police shootings that occurred between 2006 and 2014. These are all of the incidents for which Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority had made a completed report of investigation publicly available as of last month.
My analysis of these incidents suggests that police reform in Chicago, like that in Ferguson, must include a critical examination of the enforcement tactics that police departments use in poor, minority communities.
Better discipline and training are part of the solution, but they are unlikely to make dramatic difference by themselves. To create meaningful change, we must look beyond officer shooters in high-profile cases like that of McDonald and Michael Brown.
We shouldn’t just ask how officers might best manage suspects during an encounter, but why certain police-civilian encounters occur at all.
Police shootings in Chicago
There is no such thing as a “typical” police shooting, but many share common features. For example, in nearly 50 percent of the 259 incidents I reviewed, police officers shot during or immediately following a foot chase.
In my view, not all of these chases were necessary. We expect officers to chase and subdue a murder suspect who fires shots at officers as was described in one of the reports I read. But we ought to feel differently when officers chase and shoot a young black man whose only offense was “looking in the officers’ direction” or “grabbing his…waistband and turning away.”
Egregious high-profile shootings like McDonald’s too quickly lead us to the conclusion that the problem is “bad apples” – cops who use their badges as cover for racist aggression.
The implication is that there are relatively few “bad apples” as compared to “good cops.” And that those “good cops,” with the right training, will only shoot when necessary.
Discipline and training are not enough
In reality, it is hard to know how many bad apples there are in any given department because neither police departments nor unions are keen on divulging that information.
This is just one of many obstacles to punishing police officers for misconduct. The public was rightly frustrated, for example, when it emerged that Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, who shot Laquan McDonald, had a long history of civilian complaints for excessive force and racist slurs. Had Van Dyke been appropriately disciplined for any of his earlier brutality and racism, perhaps McDonald would be alive today.
But in a city like Chicago where there are tens of police shootings every year, it is hard to argue that every cop involved with a shooting is a “bad apple.”
My review of the available cases reveals that it’s not just racist cops who shoot. In the shootings I examined, the demographic profile of officer-shooters looks much like the demographic profile of the department as a whole. Police shootings cannot be reduced to a simple story about white-on-black racism because many of the police officers doing the shooting are black.
Most police shootings in Chicago are unlike the Laquan McDonald case in that officers typically claim a firearm threat prompted them to shoot. In nearly 80 percent of the 259 reviewed cases, the individual who was shot had access to a gun. This does not mean that these shootings were unavoidable, but it does suggest that many were probably not as clearly unnecessary as McDonald’s.
So, what if anything can be done about “good apples” who shoot?
Better training, many say. There can be little argument that better training is desirable. Some police shootings in Chicago have occurred because officers were physically dragged along after having reached into running vehicles. Some involved officers firing from moving vehicles, or at moving vehicles. Such practices are unnecessarily dangerous and could be readily avoided if officers were better trained to avoid them.
And of course, there is “deescalation,” a buzz word in public discussion of police reform. Deescalation techniques are supposed to help officers defuse or withdraw from potentially violent incidents without jeopardizing anyone’s safety. There is nothing wrong with providing officers with more of this training. But, the emphasis on individual officer training is shortsighted.
Both discipline and training focus on how individual officers manage critical incidents. That overlooks an important question. How is it that an officer finds himself squared off with a potentially armed individual? To answer that requires thinking critically about departmental choices in particular neighborhoods, not just individual officers’ choices in particular cases.
It’s where you live
The likelihood of getting shot by the police is much higher in some Chicago neighborhoods than in others. Of the 259 police shootings that the IPRA has released information about, nearly 90 percent occurred in minority neighborhoods. That goes a long way in explaining why 80 percent of police shooting victims were black in a city that is only one-third black.
The police department and others might point out that the likelihood of getting shot by anyone is much higher in poor black neighborhoods than, say, middle-class white ones. Incidences of violent crime tend to be much higher in poor, minority neighborhoods. That would seem to explain why police shootings are also higher in those neighborhoods.
Not so fast. The connection between neighborhood violence and police shootings would make sense if shooting victims consisted exclusively of persons who were suspected of violent crime.
But in nearly a quarter of the 259 IPRA incidents, it was the police who stirred the pot. These police-civilian encounters began as traffic stops for minor violations, because someone made a “furtive movement,” or just looked suspicious. Many of these stops were likely of the “stop and frisk” variety that have been controversial in New York City, Chicago, and other cities. The shootings that occur in the course of these kinds of encounters follow a general pattern. One of the stopped civilians flees and the police give chase. During or immediately after the chase, officers shoot in response to a perceived gun threat.
Even if one believes the officers’ version of an encounter’s final moments when a suspect’s threatening behavior prompted the police to shoot, we should ask whether the initial stop should have occurred at all. And, even if the answer to that question is “yes,” we should ask whether a foot chase was justified, given the harmlessness of the misconduct that precipitated the initial stop.
My review also revealed that plainclothes officers were responsible for nearly 40 percent of on-duty shootings. There is evidence from other departments that such officers are, per capita, responsible for more shootings than uniformed officers. This may be because more aggressive officers are drawn to such assignments. It also seems possible that people have a hard time distinguishing these officers from civilians who mean harm – particularly when plainclothes officers break into an ongoing fight or melee.
Police departments and policymakers must critically examine the relationships between police shootings and stop-and-frisk, plainclothes policing and other enforcement tactics. Doing so will afford more insights into how to improve police-community relations in poor, minority neighborhoods. If this is truly reformers’ goal, more aggressive discipline and better training should be components of the agenda, not the whole of it.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.