Before the Chicago City Council voted unanimously to confirm Eddie Johnson as the city’s police superintendent this week, some of the aldermen representing Chicago’s wards spoke about him.
One of the officials who spoke pointed to a harsh document about the police that was about to go public and highlighted the road ahead for Johnson and the embattled department. “We have a lot of work to do,” Alderman Emma Mitts of the 37th Ward said to Johnson. “Everything is riding on you right now.”
Johnson, a veteran of the Chicago Police Department, was approved Wednesday by a City Council vote of 50-to-0. That same day, a task force assembled by Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), who named Johnson as his interim superintendent last month, released a scathing report that decried the Chicago police for “systemic institutional failures going back decades that can no longer be ignored.”
The task force offered a bleak assessment of how the department treats people of color. In their report, the task force members recounted how residents said officers treat minorities poorly and then paired this with police department data that “gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.”
This report came at a pivotal moment for the city and its police force, the country’s second-largest local law enforcement agency, which is being investigated by the federal government and confronting declining morale and levels of crime unseen for years.
In Chicago, the police department is facing unrest and issues both local and national. As the task force report said, “racism and maltreatment at the hands of the police have been consistent complaints from communities of color for decades.” In recent years, a series of high-profile episodes across the country has prompted a debate over how police use force, particularly against minorities.
Chicago’s department came under even more scrutiny after a video was released last November showing a white police officer firing 16 rounds into Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old. The officer was charged with murder and arrested.
This footage prompted a flood of protests and, over the days and weeks to follow, a flurry of activity: The Justice Department launched a “pattern or practice investigation” to see whether the department violates the Constitution or federal law. An increasingly embattled Emanuel ousted Garry F. McCarthy, his police superintendent, in December amid the outcry over the shooting, while prosecutor Anita Alvarez was decisively ousted by voters last month in an election where the McDonald case played a major role. Meanwhile, the city is seeing a spike in bloodshed, as murders and shootings far outpace the violence seen in recent years.
“It was already clear, prior to when the report came out, that Chicago was facing some significant challenges on all fronts,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “On the accountability front, on the use of force front and from the crime front.”
“The groundwork had already been set in terms of the need for change,” Wexler said. “What this report does is simply underscore that need.”
On Dec. 1, the same day he said he was dismissing McCarthy, Emanuel announced that he had created a task force to review how the department handled police accountability, oversight and training. This task force said the McDonald shooting and video were a tipping point that “gave voice to long-simmering anger” in the community.
In its report, the task force members described how they consistently heard about how some city police officers are racist. They also provided statistics, saying that three-quarters of the more than 400 people shot by police from 2008 to 2015 were black; about a third of the city’s residents are black. Looking at street steps and traffic stops found that black people were also overrepresented there as well, the task force said.
For the energized activist community in Chicago, this report offered a sense of validation — and some surprise — at seeing these issues scrutinized by the mayor’s own task force.
“I was pretty shocked,” said Ja’Mal Green, a high-profile activist. “Maybe we are at a time now that people just want to see change. So much has been going on in the city … maybe everybody wants to wake up.”
Green said he and another activist are meeting with Johnson — a Chicago native who has been with the police department since 1988 and was, most recently, its chief of patrol — next week for a gathering the new superintendent requested.
The report itself was only a starting point for what comes next, others said. Trina Reynolds-Tyler, communications co-chair of the reform group Black Youth Project 100, said that even though the task force’s statements about racism were surprisingly blunt, activists need to remain focused on what comes after.
“People will take this as a win, and I think there is a shimmer of light that comes with the acknowledgment of systemic racism, but when we think of the reform and changes that need to happen in this city, it doesn’t involve investing more of city dollars in training for police officers,” she said. It must mean giving community members more involvement in the policing process, Reynolds-Tyler said.
Lamon Reccord, a 17-year-old organizer and activist, said he wanted to see more accountability and transparency for officers who shoot people. He said he had arranged a meeting with Johnson and John Escalante, who served as interim superintendent between McCarthy and Johnson.
“I see a change in the future. I see activists like me sitting down with Eddie Johnson and working together collectively,” Reccord said. “Protesting is a good thing, but if people aren’t sitting down and writing policy to make a change, nothing is going to happen.”
The Rev. Ira Acree said he was “stunned” that a task force picked by Emanuel would produce such a report.
“Never in a million years would I have anticipated such a blistering report with so much truth in it,” said Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church on the city’s west side.
Acree he said he was optimistic because the task force’s findings included “courageous and bold recommendations.”
That list of recommendations is long, and it includes beefing up oversight, creating an inspector general for public safety, releasing more reports and adding more body cameras. But right now, these are just recommendations, not new policies, said Acree, who chairs a social justice group in the city.
“It’s easy to go here and cherry-pick the lower hanging fruit,” Acree said of Emanuel. “But he needs to do something bold. For a weakened mayor, this is actually an opportunity to do a couple of things.”
Before the task force’s report was released, Emanuel had said he would be open to the group’s recommendations. He spoke on Wednesday, before he was briefed by the task force, and has not commented publicly on its conclusions or recommendations since then.
“The task force put a lot of thought and time into developing more than 100 recommendations, and the mayor is going to give the report the review it deserves,” Stephen Spector, a spokesman for Emanuel, said in a statement Friday.
Emanuel and his office have pointed to other actions he has taken to try to restore the community’s shaken trust in the police, including agreeing to release videos from police shootings more quickly, improving deescalation training for police officers and expanding the use of body cameras on officers.
His office also highlighted efforts to diversify the police department, citing Johnson’s ascension to superintendent and saying that half of the city’s police chiefs and deputy chiefs are black, while an increasing number of minorities recently applied to join the police force.
Acree said the report gives Emanuel a chance to make changes on his own, “rather than waiting on the DOJ that is already in town to make you do it.”
The conclusion of the Justice Department’s investigation is “the next shoe that’s going to fall” in Chicago, Wexler said.
“Many of the things identified in this report are a prelude to what you can expect” from the federal probe, Wexler said. He said Chicago should keep making its own changes and not wait for the other probe to finish. “You can expect that the Department of Justice report will be a formal mandate for change,” he said.
The Justice Department said in a statement that it would “review both the task force report and any changes the department makes during the course of our investigation.”
This inquiry is ongoing, and the department has dispatched investigators to the city as part of its work, officials said.
“Chicago, we’re well into it now,” Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in an interview with The Post this week. “We’ve sent a team out there. We’re having community meetings … because we have to have community input into our reviews. That is where we get a lot of information that’s very important.”
Speaking with police departments is also vital, Lynch said, because when federal investigators look into departments after particular incidents, they often find that “officers have never really been given appropriate training in how to handle those situations or deescalate those situations.”
Another official familiar with the Justice Department’s investigation said the task force report can be viewed in some ways as “a little bit of a preview” for federal government’s investigation because similar issues will be covered in both.
Still, the federal probe will inevitably produce a more detailed report, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the investigation is ongoing. “It’s parallel, but it’s definitely different,” the official said. While the task force’s report was thorough, the official said, Justice Department would cover much more ground.
A police spokesman did not respond to requests for comment. Johnson has said since the report came out that he does not think that it properly depicts his department.
“No, I don’t think it’s a true representation,” Johnson told NBC Chicago. “I think we have racism in this country, I think we have racism in Chicago, so it only follows that we would have some racism within the CPD.”
“But we’re not like any other organization,” he added. “So the challenge is to root it out, because misconduct of any kind just simply can’t be tolerated.”
When Emanuel named Johnson as his appointment, he ignored recommendations from the city’s police board, drawing criticism from activists who said he circumvented the normal process.
But Emanuel said he felt Johnson was “the right person” to help reduce violence, restore the community’s trust in the police and improve morale in the department. Since the McDonald video was released, morale has reportedly worsened in the department, and the task force’s findings could further add to that.
“I think the challenge is you do have officers who are not racist, who are not brutal, who will feel tarnished by this,” Wexler said. “The key is to support them as you move forward. … You’ve got to try to find out how you can support the good cops in Chicago that are trying to do their job. I’ve worked there and I know, there are decent, hard working cops who are absolutely miserable about a report that kind of tarnishes them in the process.”
Experts say the harsh task force assessment, released amid an ongoing federal probe , could help Johnson pursue new reforms even before the Justice Department finishes its investigation.
“It gives a foundation for a new administration to require change,” said Franklin E. Zimring, law professor and criminologist at the University of California at Berkeley. “The enemy of reform in Chicago policing is the status quo.”
This status quo is also complicated by the spike in violence, Wexler said. Through Sunday, there were 154 murders so far this year, up from 95 at the same point last year, a 62 percent jump, according to police data. The number of shootings also skyrocketed to 744 from 418, a leap of 78 percent. Sexual assaults, robberies and batteries were all up as well.
The city is on pace to have more than 500 killings this year — far below than the annual death toll recorded in the early 1990s, criminologists point out, but still higher than most recent years.
“At the very moment you’re expecting your officers to step up and move forward, you have a report that has really identified some institutional challenges,” Wexler said.
Experts said in some ways, the situation in Chicago echoes what was seen in Los Angeles, where the police department was investigated and the Justice Department pushed reforms after officers in an anti-gang unit were accused of beating and framing people. The agreement took more than a decade and cost about $300 million, but the department was eventually transformed.
“When you looked at Los Angeles, it really in many way seemed equally daunting,” Wexler said. “You had crime issues, and you had morale issues. And yet, what did happen … those hurdles and obstacles were overcome by leadership, good management and a willingness to put the resources in that were needed.”
A city going through what Chicago is facing now often goes through a series of stages as it approaches reform, Wexler said. First comes a report with brutal findings, then an agreement that change is needed. After that, there needs to be a combination of good leadership and resources to pull the community and the police together, he said.
Guarino reported from Chicago. Matt Zapotosky in Washington contributed to this report.