Police Accountability in Chicago: Necessary Reforms

Imagine that a police officer shoots a fleeing suspect. Imagine further that in his official report, the officer falsely claims that the suspect lunged at him with a knife. If a video clearly shows that the suspect did no such thing, should the officer be given the opportunity to change his original account?

Under current policy in the city of Chicago, the answer is “yes.” The terms of the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), permit an officer to “clarify and amend” his original report of an incident after reviewing video or audio that captured it.

The Chicago Council of Lawyers (CCL) is calling for an end to this practice. In a statement released this week, the CCL declared that the policy “may discourage some officers from taking seriously their duty to tell the truth in the first instance.” They note that other public employees are not allowed to amend statements made in the course of their duties, and that witnesses in official investigations also lack such a right. Therefore, the CCL is urging the Mayor’s Office and the FOP to remove the “clarify and amend” provision from their collective bargaining agreement.

In their statement, the CCL also called for another important measure to enhance police accountability: identifying and monitoring police officers who are have been named in unusually high numbers of misconduct complaints. Evidence shows that a small minority of officers are involved in a large proportion of misconduct incidents. According to one analysis, just one percent of the police force was responsible for more than one-quarter of all damage payments incurred from police misconduct lawsuits between 2009 and 2011. A separate report found that between 2011 and 2015, 10 percent of the officers who had received complaints generated 30 percent of the total number of departmental complaints.

Chicago’s failure to discipline the small number of police who repeatedly engage in misconduct comes at a high cost. It creates a climate of mistrust of the police, dishonors the vast majority of officers who serve the public honorably, and results in a substantial drain on scarce public resources. Over the past decade, police brutality-related lawsuits cost Chicago taxpayers more than half a billion dollars.

To address this problem, the CCL recommends that the city take four steps. Step one is identifying and closely monitoring officers named in an unusually high number of complaints—the CCL suggests 10 or more complaints in the last three years, or more than three complaints per year for those officers who have been on the force for fewer than three years. Step two involves setting up an early intervention system that identifies officers with performance problems and provides them with coaching and close supervision. Step three requires that the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) prioritize the investigation of officers named in an abnormally high number of complaints. The fourth and final step calls for IPRA to release more complete police misconduct records and publish them more frequently.

In the wake of the shooting death of Laquan McDonald, the need for greater police accountability is acute. The reforms the CCL is recommending are essential for ensuring that accountability, and for building a system that fulfills the promise of justice for all. For the complete Policy Statement issued by the Chicago Council of Lawyers, please click here.

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