The one chance for Chicago City Council members to question Eddie Johnson before approving him as police superintendent was an April 12 council hearing.
The city’s murder numbers were way up. But the police department was still staggering from the fallout of a video that showed an officer fatally shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
The number of police stops had fallen off a cliff.
Some council members wanted Johnson to tell how he would increase that number. “How do we get the officers to do it?” Alderman Patrick Daley Thompson asked.
Johnson answered that the department had taken one step already. It had trimmed back the length of a report that officers had to fill out for each stop. “Every week we’re seeing [an] uptick in terms of the utilization of those forms,” he said. “So we’ll get there.”
Unquestioned at the hearing was an assumption: Police stops make the community safer.
But police department data reveal a complicated picture. The records, obtained by WBEZ through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, show negative trends as officers reported more stops: Gun seizures dropped, detectives solved fewer murders, and a decade-long decline in gun violence ended.
Those numbers did not improve as the department developed one of the most intense stop-and-frisk programs in the nation.
Productivity of stops
The trends revealed by the data do not surprise Ruth Wedster, a former CPD training division commander who retired a few months ago after 29 years with the department.
In the early 1990s, Wedster served in a tactical unit that focused on high schools in a rough part of Chicago’s South Side. Near a school, she says, “any kid who was not in the classroom or [who was] acting suspiciously, you were going to grab.”
If the individual did not belong in the school, Wedster says, she would give a quick pat down followed by an order: “Get out of here. Don’t be around the school.” Most of these stops lasted just seconds.
For traffic and pedestrian stops without an arrest, the department provided a report known as the contact card. Printed on white bond paper, roughly four-by-eight inches, the card included lines for the individual’s name, address, birth date, race, physical features and so on. It also included space to note alleged gang ties.
The contact cards could come in handy after a serious crime, such as a shooting.
“One tact guy would say, ‘I got a description of this [suspect] and he’s supposed to have one bad eye.’ And the other [officer] would say, ‘Wait, I have that guy. I know exactly who you’re talking about.’ And he’d pull a pile of cards out of his pocket and go through them until he found that person,” Wedster says.
For many stops, though, the cop did not bother filling one out. “You already knew who [the person] was and you knew how to find him,” Wedster says. So there was no record of those interactions.
Wedster says she sometimes carried out 20 stops in a single afternoon. She would find drugs and illegal guns and she would gather intelligence. “There would be bantering,” she says. “There would be BS-ing back-and-forth. You would get some information.”
If the individual were in the Gangster Disciples, she says, the questions might be, “What are the Stones doing? Where are they hiding their guns?”
“That’s a productive contact,” Wedster says.
For years, the department recovered more than 10,000 firearms annually. Gun violence dropped sharply.
But the stops — and the lack of any record for many of them — worried the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
“They happen outside the sight of supervisors,” says Karen Sheley, an attorney with the group. “Young people who are trying to get home to their parents [get] pushed up against police cars, handcuffed in front of their communities.”
To stop someone, even as briefly as Wedster describes, the Fourth Amendment requires a reasonable suspicion that a crime is afoot. A frisk requires a reasonable suspicion that the person is armed and dangerous.
In 2003, the police department started to digitize the information collected on the contact cards. The ACLU saw the database as a potential tool for regulating the stops and holding the department accountable for alleged racial bias.
Still, police supervisors talked up the database as a tool for keeping track of bad guys across the city. They said it would help identify gang members and drug dealers. They said it would help connect dots to solve major crimes.
After Mayor Richard M. Daley promoted Philip J. Cline to be police superintendent in 2003, the two wanted the digitization to “look successful because they were spending a lot of money for this process,” Wedster says. “So they were really pushing [officers] to go out there and get these contact cards and get them in the system.”
Cops could fill out the card or enter the information into computers in their squad car or at district stations. One way or another, the details ended up in the database. In 2004, officers documented 213,899 stops, according to a WBEZ analysis of the data.
By then, Wedster was a lieutenant in charge of a South Side gun unit. She and her peers started hearing from bosses “that the gun teams should go out on the street a little more often so that they could show that they’re out talking to people by having contact cards,” she says.
So the cards were no longer just for solving crimes. They were for gauging police performance. Wedster says the bosses started judging her unit not only on basics such as arrests and gun seizures but on the number of contact cards it generated. “Whatever anybody does is up on a screen at a meeting,” she says.
In 2007, the WBEZ analysis shows, the number of contact cards per year reached 471,235.
Still, it was hard to know how many police stops were taking place with no contact card and no documentation of any other sort. Criminologists call those encounters “dark stops.”
And there was an elephant in the room, Wedster says. The push for cards was “interfering with the overall goal” of the gun units, she says. Hitting the streets to collect cards seemed to distract from locating illegal firearm stashes and executing search warrants to seize those weapons.
The department’s firearms inventory, another dataset obtained by WBEZ through the open-records law, bolsters her claim. It shows that, as the number of documented stops increased from 2004 to 2007, the number of gun recoveries fell by 27 percent (see Chart 1).
Cline, who resigned in 2007, declined to comment about those trends.
Over the next three years, the department eased up on collecting the contact cards. By 2010, the annual total had sunk back to 336,108. In that same period, officers increased their firearms seizures a bit.
Things changed again in 2011, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel won his first mayoral election and brought in Garry McCarthy to be police superintendent.
McCarthy talked about Chicago’s illegal firearms, especially when trying to build pressure for tougher Illinois gun laws. “The most important thing that we need to focus on is reducing violence in the city, and one of the ways that we do that is by seizing guns,” he said at a 2013 news conference, standing behind a table covered with rifles and pistols.
Wedster, by then a captain, says the superintendent expressed a different priority behind closed doors at police headquarters. She had a direct view when she attended CompStat, McCarthy’s weekly meetings about crime and police data.
“He’d say, ‘We gotta be hands-on; we have to put our hands on these people.’ It got so blatantly out of control. It wasn’t arrests. It wasn’t guns recovered. It was how many contact cards,” Wedster says.
McCarthy’s message reached cops on the street, Wedster says. “A sergeant would say to his officers. ‘An arrest? That’s going to take you two hours. I don’t want you to do arrests. You’ll miss 10 contact cards out there.’ ”
The model was New York City, which had adopted a similar policing approach. It seemed effective.
Wesley Skogan, a Northwestern University political scientist who studies policing, describes that approach as “simply stopping people and frisking people in very large numbers, repeatedly, again and again.”
“The theory was that this would deter people from carrying guns and drugs and therefore would reduce crime,” Skogan says. “But it lost its moorings in actual suspicion. It lost its mooring in the real belief that people were potentially armed.”
By 2013, Chicago cops were entering the information from more than 700,000 contact cards a year into the database. McCarthy had doubled that number since arriving in 2011.
But Skogan says there was “an enormous increase in people who did nothing [wrong] — who weren’t committing a crime, who weren’t armed — but were being stopped because the police wanted them to move on and because the police wanted the message to go out that, ‘If you’re on the streets you’re going to be stopped.’ ”
So the contact-card system was now a street-sweeping tool, Skogan says. “It morphed into a monster.”
Skogan led a survey of 1,200 randomly selected Chicago residents last year. The survey found that 38 percent of young white males reported being stopped by police in the previous 12 months, he says. For young African-American males, the figure was 68 percent.
Former CPD Lt. Ronald Forgue, who left the department last summer, became familiar with these stops as both a cop and parent. “My kids are biracial — black, Hispanic — and they’ve been stopped many times,” says Forgue, who lives in a diverse South Side neighborhood. He says officers filling out a contact card mislabeled one of his sons a gang member.
Yale University Law Professor Tracey L. Meares reviewed academic research on whether New York’s stop-and-frisk program was effective. The review found that “the impact on crime is relatively small given the scale of the intervention,” she says.
Meares says that raises questions about the program’s efficiency.
Chicago’s contact-card push was anything but efficient, Wedster says. “You’re at a point where the officers have not been out gathering intelligence,” she says. “First of all, you’re sick of doing [the cards]. You don’t even want to ask anyone any questions because you know it’s their 50th contact with the police over nothing. And you don’t want to talk to them and they have nothing to say to you.”
What did cops do?
“They shut down,” Wedster says. “If you don’t let a police officer go out and do the job that they’re trained to do and use their skills and their instincts — if you put them in a two-block area where all they’re supposed to do is write contact cards — they’re going to bring their DVD player and they’re going to sit in that [squad] car and watch movies.”
“It was very, very unproductive,” Wedster says.
In 2013, as McCarthy pushed the number of contact cards through the roof, gun seizures dropped to their lowest point in decades, according to the WBEZ analysis of the firearms inventory. The seizures remained near that level in 2014 and 2015.
Did Chicago simply have fewer illegal guns than a decade earlier? Or, at least, were people carrying fewer of them?
Michael Bloomberg suggested such things about New York when he was still mayor of that city. In 2013, he credited New York’s stop-and-frisk program for a crime decline.
Chicago too has seen a drop in most types of crime — but not in gun violence. In 2004, the first full year the police department was digitizing contact cards, a decade-long decline in gun violence came to an abrupt halt. Ever since, the number of shooting victims has hovered around its 2004 level (see Chart 3).
WBEZ asked McCarthy, fired after the Laquan McDonald video release, whether the city’s contact-card focus had anything to do with the falling gun-seizure numbers. He declined to comment.
The police department turned down an interview request and sent a statement. “There were no specific changes to policing tactics that would account for a drop in gun seizures,” it says.
The statement points out that Chicago still recovers more guns than any police department in the country (see Chart 7).
Another question about the push for contact cards is how it affected community trust in the police.
Retired CPD Det. David Lemieux says stopping so many people creates resentment. “The good citizens of the community that are not involved in any crime and that may even be the victims of crime . . . have been treated as criminals or as potential criminals,” Lemieux says. “There’s no real reason to trust or cooperate with the police.”
That has made it harder to investigate crimes, including shootings. Chicago’s murder clearance rate is near its lowest point in decades. In 2015, the police solved only about a quarter of the murders committed during the year (see Chart 2).
Skogan, the political scientist, says the contact cards could be healthy for Chicago. “You want a system where officers feel free to fill out the cards because it’s an honest accounting of what they’ve done and they can provide an honest reason for what they did.” he says.
But last December brought a sharp decline in contact-card use because of the McDonald tumult and McCarthy’s ouster. The card numbers dropped further in January, when the department turned the card into a two-page form called an Investigative Stop Report. Many of the form’s additions were efforts to comply with a new state law and a police settlement with the ACLU.
The number of contact cards in January and February totaled 15,327, according to the WBEZ analysis. That was the fewest of any two-month period since 2003, when the department set up the database.
“Officers are afraid that they are going to make a mistake in how they articulate [the reasonable suspicion] on paper,” Wedster says. “And it’s going to turn into a civil-rights violation. It could mean losing your house. It could mean losing your career. Ultimately they could end up in jail.”
Wedster says those fears, coupled with the upsurge in gun violence, have put the new police superintendent in a difficult position.
“Now not only does Eddie Johnson have to straighten out the contact-card mess,” she says. “He’s got to find a way to get the police to re-engage.”
Wedster says the department needs to spend less time writing up contact cards and more time getting illegal guns off the street.