The Chicago Police Department is accepting five proposed changes to its use of force policies, out of a total of 155 changes recommended by a community working group that met weekly for months to help update the department’s rules on when and how officers can shoot their guns, deploy tasers or use their batons.
The use of force working group consisted of 34 members, including activists, civil rights leaders and politicians. They met for three hours every week since June. It was part of an effort by the department to increase community participation in policymaking, as required by the court-enforced police reform plan known as a consent decree.
Now, members of the working group are calling the entire process a “sham.”
Working group member Amika Tendaji, who is an organizer with Black Lives Matter Chicago, called the department’s adoption of just five recommendations, “ridiculous.”
“I am in no way satisfied,” Tendaji said. “The spirit of what the working group tried to come up with is that police should have a stronger duty than the average Chicagoan to not hurt people, to not shoot people and to not beat people.”
Tendaji said the five recommendations that were accepted do not “at all” live up to that spirit.
The changes accepted by CPD’s “executive steering committee” which is made up of the most senior leadership at the Police Department, are largely technical in nature, and focus on the language used in the policy, like adding a definition for the “sanctity of life,” a term that was already included in the existing force policy.
The steering committee also agreed to change the word “subject” to “person” in the use of force policy.
Chicago Police Department Deputy Chief Ernest Cato said these changes to the language were important, and would send clear messages to officers.
“You’re taking the word subject out and you’re making it a person. We’re now humanizing that individual, who you’re encountering … so I think that’s huge,” Cato, co-chair of the working group, said. “Now, when every police officer has to write a report, they’re going to say that person, not … that subject, but that person, that human being.”
As an example of the kind of changes that were rejected, Tendaji said there were some that focused on not allowing officers to carry weapons in certain situations or restricting when officers were allowed to draw their guns.
University of Chicago Law Professor Craig Futterman, also a member of the working group, said the department also rejected recommendations that the city ban chokeholds, limit when tasers can be used and require that all force be used only as a tactic of last resort.
“This working group was formed, and the mayor announced it to great acclaim, … and it was a sham from the start,” Futterman said.
Futterman said he had spoken with 25 members of the working group, and that “sham” was the word most often used to describe the process, and CPD’s decision to accept only five technical changes.
“It was designed to use us, to use a group of folks with credibility with the community … to allow [the city] to check the community engagement box,” Futterman said. “I can’t describe the anger and disenchantment of the folks who really put themselves into this.”
Throughout the working group process, Tendaji said, it felt as if the city was just going through the motions, and was not actually interested in changing the Chicago Police Department.
“The response to the working groups is more of the same,” she said. “It’s a determination to brutalize citizens, particularly those fighting for their humanity, their dignity and their right to exist.”
Cato said he understands that accepting five proposals may “appear to be such a small number.”
“But you got to remember, these are five changes folks from within our community came up with,” Cato said. “So let’s not just say five is a small number. Five is a very strong number.”
Department officials said some recommendations were rejected because they would run afoul of state law or collective bargaining agreements, or because they were deemed “not operationally feasible.”
Futterman mocked the idea that CPD made any attempt to seriously consider the suggestions of the working group.
“CPD said we’re not going to change a damn thing about how we instruct our officers,” Futterman said. “Instead we will do something that doesn’t change anything.”
One example of a rejected recommendation was the proposal that CPD prohibit the use of force against peaceful protestors.
“[Pepper] spray, long range acoustic devices and batons must not be used against passively resisting protestors or to disperse crowds at protests,” reads the rejected proposal.
Police actions at protests have been under a microscope during the recent months of unrest, and are the subject of an investigation by the independent monitor overseeing the consent decree process.
But department spokesman Luis Agostini said that change was rejected because it was already covered in the existing policy.
The department policy says “force used in response to a person’s lawful exercise of First Amendment rights (e.g., protected speech, lawful demonstrations, observing or filming police activity, or criticizing a Department member or conduct) is prohibited.”
“So if the demonstration is a peaceful, lawful expression of First Amendment rights, the use of force is prohibited,” Agostini said.
That policy does not address protests that are peaceful but not lawful, like protesters shutting down a freeway. The proposed change would have barred officers from using force to disperse peaceful, but unlawful demonstrations. Agostini acknowledged the existing policy would still allow officers to use pepper spray or batons in those situations
“CPD would still need options to enforce the law under these circumstances and some could rise to a use of force,” Agostini said.
Tendaji said it was “horrific” that CPD would not agree to protect peaceful protesters, especially considering the allegations of brutality at demonstrations this year.
Of the five suggestions that were accepted, Mike Milstein, the deputy director of community policing said it likely won’t be until “early 2021” that the policies are officially changed because they still need to go through a lengthy review process that includes the parties involved in the consent decree.