Independent monitor says Chicago Police staffing shortages are hurting reform efforts

Chicago Police
More than two years into Chicago’s police reform project an independent monitor has found progress, but the city is still missing goals. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Chicago Police
More than two years into Chicago’s police reform project an independent monitor has found progress, but the city is still missing goals. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Independent monitor says Chicago Police staffing shortages are hurting reform efforts

The independent monitor tasked with evaluating Chicago’s police reform progress says a shrinking police force and Superintendent David Brown’s reliance on city-wide units are dragging down Chicago’s efforts.

Court-appointed monitor Maggie Hickey released her fourth semi-annual progress report on Friday. The report evaluated the city on more than 500 separate requirements in the court-mandated police reform plan known as a consent decree, covering areas including how police interact with community members, how officers respond to domestic violence, and policies on when and how officers use force.

The monitoring team found Chicago to be in compliance with a little more than half of the requirements. It is the first report to find Chicago in compliance with more than 50% of the benchmarks being assessed.

Chicago entered into the police consent decree in March 2019 in response to a critical U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found CPD had a practice of violating the U.S. Constitution by using unreasonable force, including deadly force, and failing to hold officers accountable. The agreement is slated to last at least five years, but many other police consent decrees have stretched for 10 years or more.

The latest report notes multiple weaknesses, mostly at CPD, that are hindering the city’s efforts to comply with the U.S. Constitution.

The first one is a staffing shortage. According to the report, from January to June 2021, 363 officers left CPD, that’s more retirements in the first six months of this year than in all of 2018.

“As many cities across the country struggle with recruitment and retention, the [monitoring team] is concerned about the high number of vacancies, which ultimately impact officer safety, community safety, and the CPD’s ability to meet the … requirements set out in the Consent Decree,” the report reads.

It is especially problematic when it comes to supervisors, according to the monitor. Lower-level commanding officers, like sergeants and lieutenants, are key to the department’s reform efforts by ensuring beat cops have consistent supervision and maintaining high standards for officer behavior. But challenges with staffing at those ranks “continue to exist and grow.” The report notes that Brown, the city’s top cop, has tried to address the issue by reinstating “the controversial merit promotion system, a practice that was discontinued in 2019.”

But, the monitoring team found, Brown is hurting the efforts with his reliance on citywide teams to try and combat Chicago’s high levels of violence. Brown formed multiple roving anti-violence units early on in his tenure, reviving a tactic that had been previously abandoned by the department because of scandals that were attributed to the difficulty of supervising units that move around the city. The units have been blamed for damaging police-community relations

The monitoring team’s report indicates those concerns are cropping up again with the new version of the citywide units. Their existence alone “creates challenges for the CPD to achieve compliance with various Consent Decree requirements” by drawing resources away from districts. Beyond that the city has not been able to prove the citywide units are operating in ways “consistent with principles of community policing.”

In a response filed with the court, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul said the units were an indication that “CPD has yet to integrate the principles of community policing” into its crime fighting strategies. Raoul’s office brought the lawsuit that forced the reform plan on the department.

Raoul said he was “concerned that the City and CPD continue to create and expand roving City-wide units … which do not sufficiently incorporate community policing principles and do not use sufficient metrics to judge their effectiveness.”

“Community policing should be a necessary and first step in developing all crime fighting strategies, not an afterthought superficially tacked on at the end of a process,” the filing reads.

The attorney general’s office noted in its filing that the city and its police department “have made progress in some areas” of reform. But concluded that overall, the latest report shows the city is still way behind more than two years into the consent decree process.

“Based on the still lagging pace of Consent Decree implementation, the ultimate goal of establishing community trust in CPD remains far in the distance,” the filing reads.

Brown defended the use of the citywide teams, and said they have been updating the way they operate to ensure the officers are positively engaging with communities where they’re deployed.

Brown said he hopes the monitor and the attorney general would be willing to go on ride-alongs with the citywide units to see the positive way they interact with residents.

On the issue of staffing, Brown acknowledged that vacancies were affecting “all ranks.”

“It is more challenging when you have fewer cops, but we’re still the second largest police department in the country,” Brown said. “So yes, it’s more challenging. Yes, we’d rather have those vacancies filled. But our officers, by every metric that counts, are meeting the challenge.”

City attorneys, for their part, say the monitor is understating all the progress that was made in the first six months of 2021. They argue in a response filed with the court that “Chicago has achieved some level of compliance with more paragraphs than any other comparable city in its first two years under [a] consent decree.”

“A roughly 50% compliance rate is also a relatively common benchmark among other cities at the two-year mark,” the city’s filing reads.

Brown said the report documents “the most significant progress” so far in CPD’s reform efforts. And he said staffers had been in an “exceptional grind” trying to catch up on missed obligations from before he took over. Brown said he was most proud that the department had achieved compliance in three quarters of the “use of force” obligations assessed by the monitor. That section has to do with the policies, training and supervision around when officers, shoot their guns,deploy Tasers or use other forms of force.

“If you think about why we’re in a consent decree, it was policies and practices related to use of force,” Brown said. “And for the first time, we are in compliance … on our use of force policies.”

But a statement from the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois said the report should serve as a “wake up call” to the city, because the monitor has doled out “another failing grade” when it comes to police reform.

“Two and a half years after the City promised to make these systemic changes to policing in Chicago, the city has failed to meet even “preliminary compliance” in nearly half of all the areas assessed in this report,” spokesman Ed Yohnka said in a statement.

“To do their job of protecting the public, CPD must win back the trust of communities across the city, especially Black and Brown neighborhoods. Yet, once again, the monitor makes clear that CPD is not meaningfully engaging the public.”

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