Marchers protest the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was fatally shot last year in Chicago. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

Before the release of graphic footage of a police shooting that turned hundreds of protesters into the streets Tuesday night, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel took pains to present the tape as damning evidence against a single officer, not the police force as a whole.

"One individual needs to be held accountable," Emanuel said in a conference call with ministers and other civic leaders, according to the Chicago Tribune. The footage shows Officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting Laquan McDonald, a black 17-year-old, in the back. Van Dyke discharges 16 rounds, continuing to fire after McDonald falls.

But recently released data on police complaints in Chicago show broad disparities in how the city's police as a whole interact with its black population. Although African Americans make up 32 percent of Chicago's population, they filed 61 percent of all complaints since 2011. Just 1 in 5 complaints came from white citizens, who make up nearly half of the city.

On top of that, black Chicagoans' complaints about police misconduct result in disciplinary action less frequently than those filed by white residents.

"What we see all the time is just a complete indication of disrespect for members of the black community," said James D. Montgomery, a lawyer in Chicago who deals with police misconduct. He represented the family of Rekia Boyd, a 22-year-old woman whom an officer shot and killed in 2012. This week, the department fired the officer, Dante Servin.


On the beat

While striking, the racial disparities don't necessarily mean that black residents are more likely to be wronged by those in uniform, experts said. If police officers spend more time in predominately black neighborhoods, they will interact with black residents more frequently, resulting in more opportunities for disputes.

On the other hand, the figures also could understate black frustration with the police in Chicago, since not every case of possible mistreatment results in a filed complaint.

"The vast majority of folks that believe they've been abused don't file complaints," said Craig Futterman, an attorney who belongs to a legal clinic at the University of Chicago. He and the Invisible Institute, a journalistic production company, successfully sued the city for the release of the data.

In any case, the disparities between white and black complainants are even greater for the most serious allegations of police misconduct. Black residents filed 71 percent of complaints of illegal arrests, 72 percent of complaints of excessive force involving injury, and 75 percent of complaints of improper searches of vehicles and premises.

There is no evidence in the database that the race of the officer affects how likely a person is to complain. In fact, black civilians filed slightly more complaints about black officers than about white officers.

Women and police

Black residents were also slightly more likely to file a different category of complaint: "inadequate / failure to provide service," a broad term that conveys Chicagoans' perception that the police are not responding to their requests for help and protection.

It's the most common type of complaint, accounting for 12.3 percent of categorized complaints since 2011. And in 64 percent of those cases, the complainant was black.

"I can recall calling the police one time when some deranged lady was banging on my door," said Montgomery, the lawyer. The dispatcher asked whether the woman was black or white, he added. "I said she was black, and nobody showed up."

Among the black complainants citing an inadequate police response, 68 percent were women, compared to 49 percent of black complainants in general.

"African American women may be more likely to be at home when they see something that they want the police to respond to on the street," like a burglary or a drug deal, said Lawrence, who interviewed police officers in the city for his doctoral work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Those are the types of things that the police will respond to, but they're not going to be a priority."

That difference in priorities could be part of the reason why black women are more likely to file complaints against the police than women of other races. While black men and women file complaints at roughly equal rates, 36 percent of white complainants are women.

It’s also possible that police treat women and men differently, unless they are black.

"Black people in general are stereotyped as masculine, and black women in particular are perceived without consideration for their femininity," said psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff, the president of the Center for Policing Equity at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The database, though, doesn't provide evidence for or against these theories. From the numbers alone, it's impossible to tell why black women filed more complaints against officers.

Complaints unanswered

The agencies that handle police misconduct in Chicago rarely find sufficient evidence to sustain allegations against officers. Since 2011, less than 2 percent of complaints filed by black Chicagoans were ruled to be sustained. For white complainants, that figure was 13 percent. These figures only include cases in which the complainant signed an affidavit alleging misconduct. (Current data isn't available at the national level, but a study by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found that about eight percent of complaints were sustained at major police departments in 2002.)

Spokesmen for the police told the Tribune that they do their best to get to the bottom of a complaint against an officer, but that they're often unable to corroborate the accusations.

For Futterman, though, the police's best investigative effort isn't always enough. He noted that law enforcement's failure to gather evidence against officers when black residents complain of misconduct might mean that police are better sourced and better trusted in white neighborhoods.

In some neighborhoods, "people are frightened even by having to give names and addresses and things like that," Futterman said. "Part of an investigator's success is securing cooperation, too."

It's an argument long advanced by advocates of police reform: Whether the cops are investigating a criminal mastermind or one of their own, they can't guarantee public safety without the public's trust.