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New watchdog report condemns Chicago police, mayor for responses to protests, riots

The 152-page report describes a plague of communication breakdowns, leadership gaps and indiscriminate use of force

A police vehicle sits a few blocks north of the Michigan Avenue bridge over the Chicago River in August. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)
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CHICAGO — The Chicago Police Department was blasted in a scathing city watchdog report that describes a plague of communication breakdowns, leadership gaps and indiscriminate uses of force during the massive protests and riots that swarmed the city last spring after the death of George Floyd.

Accountability failures, including a lack of body camera footage and the discovery that many officers obscured their badge numbers and names during the chaos, reveal institutional problems that will only worsen if not taken seriously, Chicago’s Office of Inspector General concluded in the report released this week.

The 152-page report also targets Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D), who has been criticized by activist groups since taking office in 2019, for authorizing the use of pepper spray with limited guidance, which the authors suggest created confusion and helped fuel mass arrests.

“CPD and the City will be dealing with the negative repercussions of the shortcomings revealed here for some time,” Deputy Inspector General for Public Safety Deborah Witzburg said in a statement. “Where there were out-of-policy, dangerous, and disrespectful actions by CPD members, the events of May and June 2020 may have set CPD and the City back significantly in their long-running, deeply challenged effort to foster trust with members of the community.”

In a statement, Lightfoot said “there is no question” the protests “challenged our resources and dramatically impacted the response.” She credited Police Superintendent David Brown for promising “to do better.” “There were a number of lessons learned and opportunities for improvement that were put into place over the course of the summer and fall,’ she said.

Chicago was an epicenter of the massive global protests that followed Floyd’s Memorial Day death. In addition to demonstrations that flooded the city’s streets with thousands of people, looting and violence swept through downtown and other neighborhoods for nearly a week starting May 29.

The report’s charges have spurred a new round of public criticism of Lightfoot and the embattled police department, which has been under a federal consent decree since March 2019 but has consistently failed to meet most of its court-mandated deadlines for revision measures related to training, use of force and accountability.

Lightfoot admitted in the report to authorizing the use of pepper spray for crowd control on May 30, when people were destroying police vehicles, smashing windows and hurling objects at police. Her approval, however, was interpreted differently by different police groups. The SWAT team, for example, understood the use of the spray was granted against “active resistors” and not only against “assailants,” the report stated.

Sheila Bedi, director of the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and co-counsel on a federal lawsuit against the city and police department for police abuses during the summer protests, said the report “really documents the ways in which the department’s default is violence and those failures are systematic. They are failures in leadership through the department and all the way up through the mayor’s office.” Although Lightfoot and Brown denounced officers who were reported by the news media using violence, “they took no action to hold them accountable.”

Among the findings, the report showed that the police department’s incident action plan “did not outline or communicate specific expectations” and the lack of planning or direction left frustrated officers on the ground having “to self-direct” their own actions. The department also had not conducted training on mass arrest procedures “in years,” which the report authors say was a major factor that contributed to the violence.

The lack of planning also revealed itself in equipment shortages: With the full force deployed on the street, the department didn’t have enough radios, body cameras and large vehicles for arrests. Instead, the police department sent officers to obtain vans from rental businesses and drive them to Chicago.

The report, which covers May 29 through June 7, also found that the department underreported uses of baton strikes and other violence. Only 18 percent of arrest reports had body-cam footage. Some officers told interviewers that they obscured identifying information because of reports that their colleagues were being doxed on social media. The police department identified four officers who were harassed online during the nine-day period.

Despite the wish of Brown and Lightfoot, punishing officers is impaired because the department “has scant records of which officers were working and where for large parts of its response to the protests,” the report said.

“Except for officers working their regular assignments … there are no records of which officers were deployed downtown,” the report reads. The department refused to provide records showing the whereabouts of its senior command staff either, saying complying would be too “burdensome.”

Addressing concerns with the police department remains a point of tension for Lightfoot’s administration. She has been denounced repeatedly by activist groups and some city council members for dragging her feet in fulfilling one of her campaign promises: creating a civilian oversight council of the police department. Council members have already crafted two ordinance proposals for an oversight group; Lightfoot said this week that she will introduce one of her own next month.

On Friday she was again put on the defensive by community groups for directing $281.5 million from the federal Cares Act, the economic stimulus legislation passed by Congress last year in response to the coronavirus pandemic, to cover police payroll. Taxpayers, she said, were being spared from paying hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Should we have said no? ‘No, no, no, federal government, we’ll incur this expense, we’ll put this burden entirely on city of Chicago taxpayers and you can take your money elsewhere?' ” Lightfoot told reporters during a Friday news conference. “Criticism comes with the job of mayor, but this one’s just dumb.”

As the consent decree suggests, the revisions demanded of the department stem from decades of misconduct cases that have resulted in multimillion-dollar payouts to victims of police misconduct and shootings. Bedi said the problems are “bigger than the department and bigger than city hall” and come from a lack of political will.

That is changing under Lightfoot’s term, marked by fiery council meetings provoked by a small group of aldermen demanding accountability.

“We’ve seen [in] other jurisdictions that consent decrees can save lives. It can be a tool for harm reduction, but it will require action by the courts,” she said. “The real place that gives me the most hope for change is in the city council.”

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