In a briefing with reporters yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he’s still deciding whether or not to implement reforms for the Chicago Police Department. The reforms, suggested by the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, were part of a blistering report on the city’s police agency that was published at the tail end of President Obama’s second term. This section from the Reuters write-up of the briefing jumped out at me:
Sessions said he had seen summaries of both the Chicago report and the report that the Obama Justice Department completed on police in Ferguson.“Some of it was pretty anecdotal and not so scientifically based,” Sessions said.
Of course, the summary for any study will be anecdotal, and not particularly heavy on data. That’s the whole point of a summary. I’m not entirely sure what Sessions means by “scientifically-based.” But the DOJ’s Ferguson study is based on a wealth of data, much of supplied by the legal aid group ArchCity Defenders and the advocacy group Better Together. And much of the data from those organizations comes from the municipalities in St. Louis County themselves — data from police agencies, city budgets, and municipal courts. If Sessions couldn’t find data in the Ferguson study, it’s because he didn’t look for it.
And as it turns out, he really didn’t look for it.
Asked by The Huffington Post whether he had read the Civil Rights Division’s investigative reports on the police departments in Chicago and Ferguson, Missouri, Sessions conceded he had not. But, he said, he didn’t think they were necessarily reliable.
“I have not read those reports, frankly.”
Just to be clear, the U.S. attorney general is currently deciding whether to continue to enforce civil rights reforms suggested by the Civil Rights Division of DOJ in Chicago and Ferguson — but he’s apparently pondering that decision without having read the reports supporting those reforms. He only read the summaries. Not surprisingly, he found that the summaries lack data. As summaries tend to do.
To be fair, the DOJ’s report on Chicago, flabbergasting as it was, was largely anecdotal. There’s a good reason for that. As the report itself notes, the Chicago Police Department is notoriously bad at collecting data. They city couldn’t even tell investigators how many people its police officers had shot. The investigators couldn’t cite reliable data on police complaints, because they found ample evidence that people who try to file complaints are subject to threats and intimidation, and that the complaints themselves are poorly investigated and poorly documented. In other words, the report was largely anecdotal because anecdotes were all investigators had. But the very lack of reliable data is in itself troubling, and indicative of a problem. From the report:
The City and CPD must improve the ways in which they collect, organize, analyze, track, and report on available data and data trends. Currently, CPD’s data collection systems are siloed and do not allow for meaningful cross-system data collection, evaluation, and tracking. As a result, CPD is unable to easily use the data at its disposal to identify trends, including trends in misconduct complaints, training deficiencies, and more . . .
The data that is collected and publicly reported by the City is also incomplete, and at times, inaccurate. IPRA reports only on how investigations are resolved by that agency; but, as discussed in this Report, the findings of IPRA investigators can be set aside, and its discipline recommendations greatly reduced. IPRA’s reporting, therefore, does not give a full picture of how misconduct investigations are ultimately resolved. Independent evaluation of IPRA’s publicly reported data regarding use of force found that the data was, at least historically, inaccurate. And, even though IPRA’s public reporting is far more comprehensive now than it was before, CPD does not aggregate or publish the same information for investigations handled by BIA and the districts. Currently, very little information is published about those investigations, even though those entities handle roughly 70% of all misconduct complaints.publicly reported data regarding use of force found that the data was, at least historically, inaccurate. And, even though IPRA’s public reporting is far more comprehensive now than it was before, CPD does not aggregate or publish the same information for investigations handled by BIA and the districts. Currently, very little information is published about those investigations, even though those entities handle roughly 70% of all misconduct complaints.publicly reported data regarding use of force found that the data was, at least historically, inaccurate. And, even though IPRA’s public reporting is far more comprehensive now than it was before, CPD does not aggregate or publish the same information for investigations handled by BIA and the districts. Currently, very little information is published about those investigations, even though those entities handle roughly 70% of all misconduct complaints . . .
CPD policy requires officers to report most uses of force, but in practice, officers are not required to provide sufficient detail about the force they used, and most officer force is not reviewed or investigated, notwithstanding CPD policy requirements . . .
CPD’s documentation of officer use of less-lethal force is consistently insufficient. Moreover, CPD and IPRA have accepted insufficient documentation even when officers’ use of force is suspect, or when people complain about the force officers used against them . . . Indeed, when we referenced these requirements in interviews with officers in an effort to gain an understanding of the system, officers and supervisors of all ranks seemed surprised to hear that these requirements existed. None asserted that these requirements were adhered to on any regular basis and most struggled to explain what these policies require . . .
Deficiencies in how the City and CPD collect, analyze, and publish data regarding police activities contribute to the Department’s failure to identify and correct unconstitutional policing. These deficiencies also inhibit transparency regarding CPD’s practices. For decades, Chicago has failed to develop a comprehensive, integrated system to track and make public basic information about its police force. Instead, information is siloed, inaccurate, and incomplete. In addition, by failing to analyze and use important data, and by not reporting on that data publicly, the City is missing an opportunity to improve public transparency, and in turn, the relationship between CPD and the public.
It’s true that the plural of anecdote isn’t data, but the anecdotes in the report itself are gut-wrenching, as I noted here when the report came out. Moreover, while it’s true that one or five or 10 or 20 instances of police brutality in a force the size of Chicago PD aren’t proof of systemic problems, I think you can begin to consider systemic problems when those incidents meet three criteria: 1) There’s convincing evidence that the abuse happened. 2) The abuse is egregious. 3) The officer or officers who committed the abuse never received discipline.
It’s one thing to say the incidents described in the DOJ report only represent a small fraction of Chicago PD. Of course, the report didn’t claim to be comprehensive, and its reliance on anecdotal data is, again, made necessary by CPD’s insufficient collection of data. But the “just a few bad apples” argument is a fair starting position.
Yet even after one incident in which there’s provable, egregious abuse for which the offending officers are never punished, and I think you can plausibly argue that there’s a problem. Now you’re not talking about a few bad actors, you’re talking about a system that doesn’t hold bad actors accountable. With each subsequent example, it gets harder and harder to believe that you’re dealing with a police agency that takes abuse all that seriously. The case for systemic abuse then only gets stronger if you can show that those particular incidents were never even investigated. The DOJ report on Chicago PD lists many such incidents.
Sessions has said in the past that he has philosophical objections to DOJ investigating local police departments — basically a “state’s rights” approach. That would explain why he doesn’t feel he needs to read the reports. If you don’t think DOJ has a duty to intervene no matter how abusive a police department may get, it really doesn’t matter what’s in any DOJ report.
That’s a politically awkward position to take, particularly for someone with Session’s history on race. But it’s at least an honest one. What Sessions is doing now is far less honest. He’s mischaracterizing the reports to imply that these police departments aren’t as bad as DOJ makes them out to be. But he’s doing so without actually reading the reports.
Put another way, Sessions is saying this: I don’t think these police departments are as bad as the DOJ reports claim. But he really means this: I don’t care if these police departments are as bad as the DOJ reports claim.
There’s one another especially telling quote from Sessions in the Huffington Post article:
“I do believe the Department of Justice is the leading advocate for law enforcement in America, and I hope to be able to fulfill my responsibility in that regard.”
I’m not asking this question for rhetorical purposes. If the answer is yes, that’s worth knowing. Horrifying, but worth knowing. If the answer is no, then Sessions isn’t philosophically opposed to DOJ intervention. He’s just opposed in all but the worst cases. And if that’s his position, the public deserves to know what criteria he’ll use when deciding when alleged police abuses merit federal intervention, when the appropriate DOJ response is to do nothing, and when DOJ should actually “advocate” for or defend an embattled police agency.
Sessions might also tell us how he can make those decisions without bothering to read the reports about alleged abuses in the first place.