Chicago Police Are Reducing Stops And Arrests During COVID-19. Activists Want Even Fewer.

Interim Chicago Police Superintendent Charlie Beck
Charlie Beck, interim superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, speaks at a press conference about the measures first responders are taking to protect themselves and the public from COVID-19, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Chicago. Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times via AP, Pool
Interim Chicago Police Superintendent Charlie Beck
Charlie Beck, interim superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, speaks at a press conference about the measures first responders are taking to protect themselves and the public from COVID-19, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Chicago. Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times via AP, Pool

Chicago Police Are Reducing Stops And Arrests During COVID-19. Activists Want Even Fewer.

Chicago Interim Police Superintendent Charlie Beck said he’s instructed officers to slow down the number of stops and arrests they make to reduce contact between citizens and police and slow the spread of COVID-19.

At a press conference Tuesday, Beck said there had been “significant reduction” in traffic stops and pedestrian stops during the coronavirus crisis.

“Normally as a chief, that would upset me. But in this case, it tells me [officers] are doing exactly what we're asking them,” Beck said.

The superintendent’s comments come as a coalition of civil rights organizations and community groups are pushing for the Chicago Police Department to stop making arrests and other stops except when there is a “clear and present danger of imminent physical harm.”

The group sent a letter to city attorneys on Monday asking for a meeting to discuss policing policy during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Each stop presents a risk of COVID-19 passing between the officer and the person stopped. If just one officer is infected and showing no symptoms, they could spread the virus to dozens of families in just one day through a series of stops for misdemeanors,” the letter reads.

In his comments Tuesday, Beck acknowledged the risks posed by making arrests, and said he had instructed officers to issue tickets for “a certain level of misdemeanor[s],” rather than arresting people.

“Don't bring them to the station, don't put them into the system,” Beck said.

Sheila Bedi, a clinical law professor at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and one of the authors of this week’s letter, said it was “encouraging” to hear Beck talk about the dangers of arresting people.

“There's no way to social distance during an arrest,” Bedi said.

Bedi represents a collection of organizations who were given an oversight role in Chicago’s court-mandated police reform efforts. She said her clients believe that during the coronavirus crisis, the department should be treating arrests as a “last resort.”

“It sounds like we're not there yet, but perhaps there's a possibility of getting there,” she said.

Some officers, who spoke with WBEZ on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media, said they were already limiting their interactions with the public as much as possible, and only making stops when absolutely necessary.

Monday’s letter also raised concerns about CPD being tasked with enforcing Ill. Gov. JB Pritzker’s stay at home order.

“If police are empowered to stop, frisk and detain anyone outside of their home, many people will be subject to unconstitutional stops. CPD’s enforcement of shelter in place orders not only leaves communities vulnerable to policing abuse, but it also places CPD officers and community members at risk of infection and contagion,” the letter reads.

On Tuesday, Beck said officers had not made any arrests or given out any tickets for violation of Pritzker’s order, which went into effect on Saturday evening.

He said his instructions to officers enforcing the stay at home order has been to give three warnings and then call a supervisor before any arrests are made or tickets are given out.

“The bottom line is that we don't want to arrest people for doing things that before last week would have been legal unless we absolutely have to, unless we are sure that they understand the severity of the violation that they're committing,” Beck said.

Bedi said her group has not yet gotten a response from the city to its letter, and she said despite Beck’s comments Tuesday, it is “absolutely” important that the city spell out all of its COVID-19 policies and make firm commitments to uphold constitutional policing.

“Representations at a press conference are important, but it really needs to be reduced to writing.”

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.