The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The damning Justice Department report about Chicago police also helps explain the city’s murder rate

Police work a homicide scene in Chicago’s Washington Park neighborhood on May 30, 2016. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune via Associated Press)

Over the past couple of years, we’ve heard a lot about the Ferguson Effect. The general idea is that cops have stopped responding to altercations or stopped proactive policing, because they’re scared of anti-police violence, because public criticism of police has diminished morale, and/or because they’re afraid that if they do need to use force, they’ll be subjected to internal investigations, criminal charges, a lawsuit, or some other sort of discipline, such as public ridicule should they end up in a cellphone video that goes viral.

None of these theories speaks particularly well of police, even though they’re often advanced by police groups and their supporters. There also isn’t much data to back them up. In most parts of the country, discipline of police officers is rare to nonexistent. Criminal charges are almost unheard of. Of the 600,000 or so police on the beat in the United States, typically fewer than 10 per year face criminal charges related to use of force while on the job. As for violence, killings of police officers did jump last year, by a significant margin. But it’s still much lower than it was in the 1980s and 1990s, more so if you consider rates instead of raw numbers. (Of course, it’s always possible that the theory is true about police officers’ motivations, even if those motivations aren’t backed up by convincing data.)

But what is true is that the cities where there have been recent, high-profile protests against police brutality have also seen much higher rates of violent crime. Perhaps that is indeed because, in response to protests and criticism, the police in those cities have stopped doing their jobs. That’s an awfully cynical view of police. Perhaps it’s because the people who protest police are also just generally lawless and unhinged. That’s an awfully cynical view of people. Here’s another explanation: Perhaps crime is up in some of these cities because police practices have eroded residents’ respect for the police, the courts and the rule of law.

As I’ve pointed out before, in his study of murder in the United States, “American Homicide,” the Ohio State historian Randolph Roth argues that one big factor in homicide rates throughout U.S. history is public sentiment about the legitimacy of government. When people lose faith in government, they lose faith in the rule of law. They become less likely to resolve disputes through legal means and more likely to resolve them extralegally.

This brings me to the recent Justice Department report on the Chicago Police Department. It’s been pretty well-documented that the murder rate is up in the United States, but it’s being driven almost entirely by cities, and a handful of cities in particular. And Chicago right now is worse than any of them. Here’s an excerpt from the report you should keep in mind as you read the other excerpts in this post:

Over the year-plus since release of that video, and while we have been conducting this investigation, Chicago experienced a surge in shootings and homicides. The reasons for this spike are broadly debated and inarguably complex. But on two points there is little debate. First, for decades, certain neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Sides have been disproportionately ravaged by gun violence. Those same neighborhoods have borne the brunt of the recent surge of violence. And second, for Chicago to find solutions—short- and long-term—for making those neighborhoods safe, it is imperative that the City rebuild trust between CPD and the people it serves, particularly in these communities. The City and CPD acknowledge that this trust has been broken, despite the diligent efforts and brave actions of countless CPD officers. It has been broken by systems that have allowed CPD officers who violate the law to escape accountability. This breach in trust has in turn eroded CPD’s ability to effectively prevent crime; in other words, trust and effectiveness in combating violent crime are inextricably intertwined.

When people don’t trust the police, they stop cooperating with the police. When they fear interactions with police more than they fear the crime in their neighborhoods, there is a huge problem. That concept probably seems absurd or exaggerated to a lot of people. Why would anyone fear the police more than they fear criminals, especially in a city where crime is as high as it is in Chicago? Well, here’s why:

We also talked with several individuals who gave credible accounts of being detained by CPD officers for low-level offenses (for example, failure to use a turn signal) or on false pretenses, and then were told that they would not be released until they brought the officers guns. We heard community members refer to this practice as “guns for freedom.” One man told us of an incident that happened within the past few months, in which he was arrested for driving on a suspended license and told by officers that “everything would go away” if he brought the officers two guns. Officers released him on bond and told him he had one week to bring the officers the guns. They warned him that if he did not bring the guns they would put him away “forever.” This person told us of a friend who had a similar experience several years ago. Other individuals with whom we met during community meetings told us similar stories of CPD officers offering to release them from custody if they provided officers with a weapon. A pastor at a Latino church told us that his congregants reported being picked up by CPD officers seeking information regarding guns or drugs, but when they either could not or would not provide such information, the officers removed the congregants’ shoelaces and dropped them off in rival neighborhoods. Another man told us that he saw officers surround his seven-year-old niece seeking information about who sold drugs and which gangs were running in their neighborhood.

It takes only a couple such interactions with police to destroy an entire family’s or social network’s faith in them. Here’s another horrifying excerpt:

We were told by many community members that one method by which CPD will try to get individuals to provide information about crime or guns is by picking them up and driving them around while asking for information about gangs or guns. When individuals do not talk, officers will drop them off in dangerous areas or gang territories.

The Justice Department investigators didn’t just get reports of such incidents, they were also given video evidence. As the report argues:

In addition to the likely illegality of this conduct, its impact on community trust cannot be overstated. The fear and anger created by these practices was obvious when we talked with individuals who reported these experiences. As the attorney for the man in the November 2015 incident noted during a media interview, “if there was any trust that’s built up by officers on the street, that trust is clearly and quickly destroyed.”

Meanwhile, the report points out that the homicide clearance rate in the city has fallen under 30 percent — half the national average. So even as the cops are harassing people in search of guns and drugs, murders are going unsolved.

Any remaining confidence in police is obliterated when complaints about these incidents go unheard. The Justice Department report found that of the 30,000 complaints filed against CPD officers, less than 2 percent were sustained. The common counter to such statistics is that a low level of sustained complaints merely confirms that most cops are good cops and that most complaints against cops are frivolous. Perhaps, but the report also found that more than half of those 30,000 complaints weren’t even investigated. Even when they were, the investigations were hardly impartial.

Civilian and officer witnesses, and even the accused officers, are frequently not interviewed during an investigation. The potential for inappropriate coordination of testimony, risk of collusion, and witness coaching during interviews is built into the system, occurs routinely, and is not considered by investigators in evaluating the case. The questioning of officers is often cursory and aimed at eliciting favorable statements justifying the officer’s actions rather than seeking truth. Questioning is often marked by a failure to challenge inconsistencies and illogical officer explanations, as well as leading questions favorable to the officer. Investigators routinely fail to review and incorporate probative evidence from parallel civil and criminal proceedings based on the same police incident. And consistent with these biased investigative techniques, the investigator’s summary reports are often drafted in a manner favorable to the officer by omitting conflicts in testimony or with physical evidence that undermine the officer’s justification or by exaggerating evidence favorable to the officer, all of which frustrates a reviewer’s ability to evaluate for investigative quality and thoroughness.

The report found that investigations are also undermined by a pernicious police code of silence. The report found that even upon discovering when officers had lied, hidden or destroyed evidence, or even threatened witnesses to protect themselves or other officers, city officials typically did nothing about it. The city couldn’t even tell Justice Department investigators how many people Chicago police officers had shot. It apparently wasn’t all that important to keep track.

The case of Tiawanda Moore is a perfect example where the city’s priorities lie. Several years ago, Moore tried to report a sexual assault by a Chicago police officer. When members of the department’s internal affairs unit tried to talk her out of the complaint, she started recording them. That put her in violation of a state law against recording public officials without their consent. (That law has since been struck down by a federal court.) When the officers discovered she was recording them on her phone, they arrested her. You would think that the city would have immediately taken steps to remedy such a breach of public trust. Instead, then-State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez pressed felony charges against Moore.

The report also documents social media and Internet posts by dozens of cops that make racist or disparaging comments about African Americans, Muslims and other minority groups — including from supervisors. It documents numerous other incidents in which officers used racist epithets against Chicago residents, some of which were caught on video, or reported by other officers. Few of these officers were punished. Nearly all of those who were had been caught on video.

Just as Moore’s attempt to report police misconduct resulted in her arrest, police groups and their supporters often not only dismiss these reports as exaggerated or cherry-picking, but they also attack the reports themselves for disparaging cops. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), our probable next attorney general, has criticized them for hurting the morale of police officers. Likewise, this is a common refrain among those who push the Ferguson Effect and “War on Cops” narrative: Police critics, Justice Department reports such as the one in Chicago, and protest groups such as Black Lives Matter undermine public trust in the police, thus making cops less effective at fighting crime.

What that criticism overlooks is the fact that in the communities where crime is highest, the police have already lost the public trust. A survey published last month showed that people with the lowest opinion of police typically either had or knew someone who had a bad interaction with cops. And of course those people were disproportionately black. A recent survey of police officers themselves found that black officers had much different opinions about brutality and racism within law enforcement than white officers.

Whether it’s Baltimore, Cleveland, Ferguson and St. Louis County, or now Chicago, we’ve consistently seen that the cities in which violent crime remains aberrantly high are also served by police departments with long histories of institutional abuse, bigotry and/or corruption, and where transparency and real accountability are close to nonexistent. In all four of those particular examples, the problems extend well beyond the police department and into other branches of city government. There are of course countless variables that contribute to a city’s crime rate. This isn’t the only one. But it’s one that’s chronically overlooked. Instead of putting all the blame on the “culture” of communities that continue to suffer from abnormally high violence, perhaps it’s time to also scrutinize the culture of their police departments, and the institutions and politicians who are supposed to keep those departments in line.