In a community forum Thursday evening, policy experts and activists called for radical change to the way policing takes place in Chicago, ranging from large-scale reform to complete defunding. 

The forum was the latest in a series organized by the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference (HPKCC), and included a variety of participants, from grassroots activists to city officials like Inspector General Joe Ferguson. 

Bocar Ba, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California, Irvine, and Roman River, a doctoral student at Columbia University, presented on their research exploring the effects of different police accountability measures. (Ba noted that one challenge in their line of work is the temptation to cooperate with the police department being studied — a criticism recently levied against the University of Chicago Crime Lab by a sociology professor at the university.) 

When the Invisible Institute won a 2014 judgment to release certain police complaints to the public, the Fraternal Order of Police sent an internal memo to CPD officers warning them of the release. Ba and Rivera found that, afterward, police officer behavior changed for the better — complaints of constitutional violations went down by 25 to 34 percent — without any increase in crime rates. 

Using public records, the pair also discovered that when an officer’s former classmate from the police academy is injured on the job, that officer is more likely to use force or injure someone they are interacting with. And when the diversity of police academy classes increased, white officers were less likely to make low-level arrests for crimes like traffic violations. 

Sydney Roberts, the chief administrator for the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), spoke about the work the police misconduct investigation agency has been doing since it opened in 2017.  After explaining the agency’s work, Roberts also noted some of the shortcomings she thinks it still faces, like an inability to accept anonymous complaints and an often-lengthy investigatory process.

“The investigative process and the disciplinary process remains long and protracted, and that impacts the public’s confidence and trust in our office,” she said. 

“I will say that despite these challenges we are making an impact,” she added, noting that, in 2019 the agency’s sustained rate — the percentage of cases in which there is sufficient evidence to support disciplinary action — was 42%, a significant increase over previous years. 

But Roberts also took a longer view. “COPA’s responsibility is to respond to misconduct — we should be preventing misconduct from occurring in the first place …. We can’t discipline or discharge an individual officer one at a time and let that serve as the basis for eliminating police misconduct or be the sole basis for eliminating bad policing behavior,” she said. “I firmly believe that the best police accountability system in the world is not going to reform a flawed policing system.” 

Trina Reynolds-Tyler, an activist and analyst with Data4 Black Lives, praised Roberts and COPA for increasing the sustained case rate. But she noted that historical data shows that the misconduct system in Chicago has resulted in officers being disciplined at extremely low rates: in Hyde Park, for example, the Citizens Police Data Project has records of 417 allegations against officers from 1988 to 2020. Of those, only 29 resulted in any form of discipline, a hair under 7 percent. In Kenwood, the corresponding rate is 2.8 percent. 

Part of that is due to internal obstacles COPA and its predecessors have faced, such as the fact they can only recommend discipline of an officer, which the superintendent of CPD then has to agree to. “I want to ground us in the fact that COPA faces so many barriers, and that plays a role in not only their sustained rate, but also whether officers face discipline …. A recommendation can in many ways feel like a way to pacify people,” Reynolds-Tyler said.

She suggested that this type of pacification also occurs through another mechanism: the settlements that the city pays out to victims and their families. In 2018, she pointed out, the city spent more than $113 million in police misconduct settlements. “You leave families with the decision: are you going to take this money, are you going to receive this settlement, or are you going to pursue charges?”, Reynolds-Tyler said. “Is this police officer in jail justice for you?” 

Another problem she highlighted was the reliance on police procedures in cases of misconduct. For instance, police officers often do not turn on their body cameras while detaining or arresting people, even in cases where they are required to do so. They may also not file tactical response reports, which are mandated in cases where an officer uses force (or is alleged to have done so by a suspect). 

“There are stories of people who have literally been abused, literally been terrorized by police in their neighborhoods or on their way home, and the responsibility of the record falls on the police or falls on the individual who may not have the capacity to file a complaint,” said Reynolds-Tyler. 

For her part, Reynolds-Tyler, an abolitionist, called for the police to be defunded. “To me, police accountability looks like defunding the police — firing officers and investing that money into communities that have historically been divested from,” she said. “They are drastically impacting and changing lives of people who have been overpoliced and over-incarcerated.”

The entirety of the two-hour forum is available on the HPKCC’s Facebook page at facebook.com/HPKCC.Chicago.

Reporter

Christian Belanger graduated from the University of Chicago in 2017. He has previously written for South Side Weekly, Chicago magazine and the Chicago Reader.

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