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Protesters square off with Chicago police at Kinzie and State streets May 30, 2020, during a protest of George Floyd’s murder.

Protesters square off with Chicago police at Kinzie and State streets May 30, 2020, during a protest of George Floyd’s murder.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

'Serious concerns' remain after CPD revises mass arrest policy ahead of Democratic Convention

A coalition of community organizations says the policy still fails to draw a line between crowds protected under the First Amendment and those engaged in illegal activity such as looting.

With the Democratic National Convention less than two months away, a coalition of community organizations voiced “serious concerns” Thursday about the Chicago Police Department’s newly revised mass arrest policy.

The overhaul stems from closed-door meetings authorized by the federal judge presiding over the department’s court-ordered reform push after the so-called consent decree coalition warned that an earlier version of the policy “eviscerates protections” that are otherwise granted to protesters.

In a court filing, the coalition acknowledges the latest draft policy contains various “improvements,” including changes that ban the controversial containment tactic known as “kettling” and prohibit officers from arresting protesters for minor offenses unless they pose a public safety threat, damage property or disobey a dispersal order.

However, the coalition notes that “serious deficiencies remain.”

The policy fails to draw a line between crowds protected under the First Amendment and those engaged in illegal activity such as looting, according to the coalition. And it doesn’t “distinguish between unlawful but nonviolent civil disobedience and unlawful actions that could result in physical harm to people or property.”

The filing also raises alarms about the policy’s delayed use of force reporting procedure, which the coalition says encourages officers to use force and “conflicts with best practices.” What’s more, the new policy doesn’t sufficiently restrict the use of pepper spray on protesters.

“The Coalition urges CPD to publicly commit to protect the First Amendment rights of people to engage in protests at the DNC and beyond; that mass arrests will be a last-resort option at the DNC; and that officers will not use unnecessary violence or retaliate against protesters,” the filing states.

In a statement a police spokesperson said the policy is the product of months of collaboration and is “rooted in constitutional policing.”

“During the policy development process, we worked to address concerns from the consent decree coalition and use its feedback to inform the current draft, which is now posted for public review and comment,” the spokesperson said. “This policy provides guidelines on the processing of individuals taken into custody during coordinated multiple arrest incidents and is guided by our First Amendment Rights policy.”

CPD’s response to George Floyd loom over planning

Throughout the filing, the coalition references the department’s troubled response to the protests that cropped up after the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020. Both the city’s inspector general and the monitor overseeing the department’s reform efforts wrote scathing reports detailing the department’s operational breakdowns and widespread abuses.

Police Supt. Larry Snelling has since said that training ahead of the convention in August has been built around lessons learned, but the coalition pushed back on that claim.

“CPD’s over-emphasis on mass arrests as a response to large groups of people exercising their First Amendment rights demonstrates that it has failed to learn from and operationalized the lessons that the department should have implemented after its violent and unlawful response to the protests of summer 2020,” the court filing says.

The coalition’s renewed concerns come just weeks after Inspector General Deborah Witzburg followed her office’s blistering analysis that CPD had been “outflanked, under-equipped and unprepared to respond to the scale of the protests and unrest” in 2020.

While Witzburg’s criticism was far more tempered in the new report, she also identified pressing issues with CPD’s preparation ahead of the convention. Among other things, she slammed the department for training officers on a draft policy.

“As Chicago prepares to host the DNC — and reckons with the prospect of large-scale demonstrations to accompany it — we must be confident that the mistakes of 2020 will not be repeated,” Witzburg said on May 30.

Snelling disagreed with many of Witzburg’s harshest findings and insisted that CPD “has made considerable progress with respect to its mass gathering since the events in 2020.” But 11 days later, the department posted the new mass arrest policy that was negotiated with the coalition and the Illinois attorney general’s office.

‘No substitute for deep and sustained engagement with impacted communities’

The coalition is comprised of community groups that fought for the court order mandating police reforms, known as a consent decree. But in the new filing, the coalition expressed anger about being elbowed out of the mass arrest policymaking process.

“The Coalition’s enforcement process and the subsequent court-ordered negotiations resulted in improvements to the original version of the policy,” the filing states, “but this is no substitute for deep and sustained engagement with impacted communities on the front end of major changes to CPD policy and the Consent Decree.

“This engagement is a requirement of the Consent Decree, and it is imperative going forward to ensure CPD policies reflect best practices and community priorities, and to avoid last-minute negotiations in advance of major events or deadlines like the DNC.”

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