Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Chicago residents think kids growing up there are as likely to be violent-crime victims as college graduates

By Mark Berman

May 7, 2016 at 8:00 AM

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, left, announced Eddie Johnson, center, as his new police superintendent in March. (Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters)

In Chicago, a city confronting a staggering increase in homicides and patrolled by an embattled police department, 3 out of 4 four residents — and a higher share of black residents — say they are worried that things are heading in the wrong direction. People are also displeased with Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) and uneasy with the job being done by Chicago's police officers, according to a new poll.

Among the starkest responses in a survey released Friday came when Chicago residents were asked about the young people who live around them. Those surveyed are as likely to think these young people will be victims of a violent crime as to graduate from college.

That is according to a Kaiser Family Foundation/New York Times poll, which was first reported by the Times. The survey was conducted from late April through early May and was jointly financed by Kaiser and the Times; both organizations say they developed its questions and analyzed the data.

This poll's results come as the city and its police department are facing a pivotal moment. Intense national scrutiny followed the release of video footage last year that showed an officer firing 16 bullets into 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, as did protests, the ouster of the city's police superintendent and the prosecutor in that case, a promise of reforms and a Justice Department investigation into the force.

Related: [Chicago’s staggering rise in gun violence and killings]

A task force assembled by Emanuel released a scathing report last month saying that the Chicago police, the country's second-largest local law enforcement agency, are viewed by residents as having "no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color," a belief the task force said was backed up by the department's own data.

The new survey found a city that described race relations as generally bad, while majorities of all residents think there is some or a lot of discrimination against black and Hispanic residents. There is a sizable racial divide separating how people feel about certain issues like education, city services and the conditions of public facilities.

This gulf is particularly acute when it comes to how people perceive the police department. One in 3 residents said the city's police officers are doing an excellent or good job. While nearly half of white residents (47 percent) and more than a third of Hispanic residents (37 percent) felt this way, just 12 percent of black residents echoed that opinion. When people from these three groups were asked whether police were doing an excellent, good, fair or poor job, the highest single response was from black residents, nearly half of whom answered "poor." (Three out of 4  residents said they had not personally interacted with an officer within the past six months, and for most of those who had, they said their interactions were positive.)

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Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, who faces murder charges after shooting Laquan McDonald, had at least 17 citizen complaints against him, according to a University of Chicago database of police records. Here's what else the records show about complaints against Chicago cops. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Dean Angelo, president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, questioned the poll's findings because he said he believed the survey was influenced by coming out so quickly after the task force's report.

"We've been painted with a brush of systemic racism running rampant through the department, based on a task force that . . . came out with a scathing and what I believe to be a biased report," Angelo said in an interview Friday.

The survey began April 21, the same day Emanuel announced that city officials were making a series of reforms in response to the task force's report, which came out a little more than a week earlier.

This task force report "was all over the headlines," Angelo said. "I don't think you could pick up a phone and get somebody who wasn't aware of the headlines and the lambasting the police took from that report. Everything is timing."

Related: [In Chicago, distrust for the mayor has turned personal]

The poll found that residents who responded are also unhappy with Emanuel, with a little more than 6 in 10 people disapproving of him.

Adam Collins, a spokesman for Emanuel, said Friday that the city was working to fight crime and improve public trust in the police force, pointing to reforms that officials had already enacted amid the heightened scrutiny.

"Our work over the past few months alone bears that out as we have expanded our new crisis response and de-escalation training to more police officers, expanded our body camera program to more police districts, and ensured every officer who responds to a call for service is equipped with a Taser," Collins said in a statement. "This work is our focus, and all these efforts that are right in line with the public sentiment expressed in the Times' poll."

When asked about what could reduce the number of police shootings in Chicago, residents said they strongly felt a number of reforms — including some already backed by Emanuel's office, like more cameras, increased Tasers and improved training on how to de-escalate situations — would be effective tools.

Related: [The Post’s database tracking fatal police shootings in 2016]

Since the beginning of 2015, members of the Chicago force had fatally shot 13 people, according to The Post's police shootings database. Among the most high-profile incidents was the fatal shooting last December of Quintonio LeGrier, an emotionally disturbed college student, and Bettie Jones, his 55-year-old upstairs neighbor. This prompted protests and a vigil,while highlighting how often police officers shoot civilians who are mentally ill or experiencing an emotional crisis. The officer has filed a lawsuit against LeGrier's estate, arguing that he had suffered "extreme emotional trauma" from the shooting.

Collins said Emanuel remained focused "on building on the progress we have made with generations-old issues in Chicago, from jobs to education to public safety," adding, "We are striving to grow our already record high school graduation rate, to build out our first-in-the-nation free community college program, and extend our record performance of adding 41 corporate headquarters and nearly 100,000 jobs here over the past five years."

Emanuel also received poor marks from residents when it came to his oversight of the Chicago police, as 2 out of 3 people disapproved of the job he was doing on that issue. Residents were split between thinking that Eddie Johnson, confirmed last month as head of the police department, should focus on reducing crime or reforming the police department. A smaller share felt he should focus on both equally.

Police officials say they have worked at both tasks, pointing to both announced changes to the department and its efforts to combat crime.

"In recent months, the Chicago Police Department has implemented dozens of reforms aimed at rebuilding public trust, restoring accountability at every level of the department, and promoting transparency," Anthony Guglielmi, spokesman for the Chicago police, said in a statement. "At the same time, we are working hard to reduce violence driven by gangs and illegal guns — and in April, the city's homicide rate continued an important downward trend compared to the first few months of the year."

On Friday, Johnson published an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times saying that the department is committed to working with residents "as your partners in this fight" against violence.

"Superintendent Johnson believes that the police department is only as strong and effective as the support it receives from the community, which is why he spent the first weeks on the job participating in a listening tour to hear the thoughts and concerns of Chicagoans across the city, and has pledged to work with them towards building a brighter and safer future for Chicago," Guglielmi said.

Related: [Chicago prosecutor withdraws from Laquan McDonald shooting case, asks for special prosecutor]

The McDonald shooting has loomed large in people's minds, as nearly three-quarters said they had followed news about that case very or somewhat closely. More than half (56 percent) said it was not justified, but a sizable number (37 percent) felt they did not know enough to say. Seven percent felt it was justified.

Twice as many residents think police are more likely to use deadly force against a black person (62 percent) than believe race is not a factor when deadly force is used (30 percent). Only 1 percent of residents said they think police are more likely to use lethal force against a white person.

The city's overall criminal justice system is viewed as racially unfair, with nearly all residents believing that it treats people unfairly some of the time. More than half of residents (52 percent) say that crime, violence and gangs are the single biggest problem facing  Chicago today, dramatically exceeding those who think education (8 percent), the economy (7 percent) or police-related issues (5 percent) are the top issue. The feeling that crime is the biggest problem is even higher among black residents (63 percent) and Hispanic residents (60 percent) than white residents (35 percent).

Chicago is facing a spike in violence, as the numbers of killings and shootings are significantly up this year over the same period last year, though as Guglielmi said, police note that this has slowed after the first months of 2016. Last year, Chicago had more homicides than any other city, an uptick that came as homicides went up in more than a dozen major cities across the country.

As a general rule, though, most residents of Chicago say they feel safe in their neighborhoods, although when asked about the young people in their neighborhoods, residents are very worried that they will wind up in gangs, go to jail or end up abusing drugs or alcohol.

While the police have vowed to respond more forcefully to the city's spiking crime rate, residents do not believe that a lack of officers is responsible for Chicago's violence. Instead, at least 70 percent of residents blame poor family structures, a lack of jobs or poor educational opportunities.

Last fall, Emanuel espoused the idea that police officers, afraid of being filmed while using force and becoming a news story themselves, had gotten "fetal." His comments were made just weeks before the McDonald video was released, over the city's objections. More residents feel that these high-profile incidents of officers being filmed have not changed the behavior of Chicago's police (44 percent) than think officers have gotten less aggressive chasing suspects (34 percent).

A little more than a third of people said that if it was fully their choice, they would live outside Chicago (36 percent), while twice as many said they would still want to live there.

Further reading:

After a blistering report, what's next for the embattled Chicago police?

Chicago will make some reforms to its police force as Justice Department probe looms

The Justice Department is investigating the police in Chicago. Now what?

Police chief dismissed by Emanuel says he was a fall guy

Why did authorities say McDonald lunged at officers?


Mark Berman covers national news for The Washington Post and anchors Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and stories from around the country.

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