As part of the United States Department of Justice investigation into the pattern and practice of the Chicago Police Department, the DOJ held public forums and welcomed feedback from community members. Several CIC Summer 2016 interns attended the forums as well as wrote letters to the Justice Department with suggestions on how to rectify police and prosecutorial misconduct in Cook County.
Dear Justice Department,
In light of a system that protects corrupt police officers, routinely denies access to public
records, and values convictions over justice, the City of Chicago should not be entrusted to
manage reform. Overall the Justice Department should impose a consent decree in its investigation. Under this, it should both recommend and oversee dramatic changes in terms of transparency/accountability and police culture. More specifically there should be a focus on investigating how FOIA requests are handled, the independent monitoring of government bodies (such as the Conviction Integrity Unit), and the retraining of police officers.
Transparency and Accountability
In order to ensure transparency and accountability in the City of Chicago, the DOJ should thoroughly review the way FOIA requests are handled. Critics of the current system say that it can take months (and even years in the case of the Invisible Institute and Brandon Smith) of lawsuits to gain access to public records. Additionally, if they eventually manage to be obtained, these documents are often so heavily redacted they are rendered useless. Determined to protect itself, the city cannot be trusted to independently improve. The DOJ should review and ensure compliance with FOIA regulations, review the redaction policy, and should have consequences in cases of wrongdoing.
Additionally, the DOJ should call for the independent oversight of the Conviction Integrity Unit. Given the history of misconduct by the Chicago Police Department (including only 1% of those arrested ever seeing a lawyer), it is no coincidence that Cook County leads the nation in wrongful convictions and that a 60 Minutes report branded Cook County the “false confession capital of the world.” Between Jon Burge and Detective Reynaldo Guevara there are countless wrongfully convicted people waiting to be released. Ostensibly in an effort to rectify this, Anita Alvarez and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office established a Conviction Integrity Unit. The problem with the current system is that Alvarez and the Office appointed their own prosecutors. These prosecutors, steeped in the pervasive “win at all costs” mindset are not interested in righting miscarriages of justice. Rather, they have been known to actively block cases with overwhelming evidence of innocence by refusing to reopen cases and fighting motions for evidentiary hearings. As is the case in Brooklyn reforming the CIU should include a mandatory review of cases handled by men such as Burge and Guevara given the overwhelming evidence of false confessions and coercion in their work. Despite the fact that Alvarez was not reelected, it is not enough to believe that a change in State’s Attorney will change the pattern of behavior. For these reasons, in addition to monitoring FOIA compliance, the DOJ should call for and oversee the independent staffing of the Conviction Integrity Unit.
Police Culture and Retraining
Somewhere along the way the notion of “serve and protect” has become an Us vs Them attack on the bodies of those who are viewed as suspects and threats first and foremost. What exists is fear and distrust on both sides. When outcry is raised the most common retaliation is “not all cops” and that is certainly true. There are men and women who put their lives on the line daily, who wear the uniform with integrity and respect who want to make a difference. Still the negative voices are louder, and the system is resistant to change and criticism. The divide in the community and protection of officers as a result, fosters a climate in which men like Jon Burge can spend twenty years torturing civilians without punishment, where building like Homan Square can become centers of torture akin to Guantanamo Bay and where citizens’ constitutional rights can be routinely violated. The system reifies itself and these failings. Because of these attitudes, especially in Cook County, the police department serves and protects its own.
Starting at the common denominator of fear, the DOJ needs to focus on requiring the retraining Chicago PD. A 2006 report by the Department found that police academies, on average, spend 110 hours of training on firearms and self-defense but only 8 on community policing strategies and conflict management. In this historic time in our city and in the nation at large, police officers need to be retrained to work through fear in productive ways, aiming to defuse situations without the first instinct to be reaching for a weapon. Mandated retraining should focus on methods that increase the time spent on conflict resolution, working with individuals with mental health needs, and community engagement at large.
In closing, the suggested reforms will be costly and time consuming, but as the Chicago Tribune stated “[Reform costs] could be cheaper than paying settlements, judgments and legal bills in police misconduct cases.” The DOJ’s investigation has the potential to make real, lasting change in Cook County so long as it mandates and commits to overseeing the implementation of policies that increase accountability in government bodies at large, and Chicago Police Training.
Chicago Innocence Center Intern