At court hearing, Chicagoans slam police reform efforts

In what is now a familiar refrain in Chicago, residents told alarming stories Tuesday to a federal judge about what they described as racist and traumatic encounters with Chicago police officers.

A mother recounted hearing a loud boom before officers rushed into her home and ordered her to the floor. She said they barged into a room with guns out in front of her 4-year-old granddaughter. A man said police officers earlier this year pulled up while he waited for a Lyft, grabbed his bag and rifled through it before they left without saying anything.

Just a month ago, a woman tearfully recalled, she watched her daughter, a rape survivor, get dragged out of a car by a male police officer while her daughter cried, “Please don’t rape me.”

The emotional testimony came in a hearing before U.S. District Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, who is stepping in at a critical moment to oversee the massive, court-ordered reform of the Chicago Police Department, which aims to correct decades of civil rights abuses.

“We all know Chicago police don’t do this to white people in white neighborhoods,” said the mother who watched her daughter’s encounter with police.

The anecdotes from Chicagoans chronicling alleged abusive and disrespectful policing practices came just minutes after the deputy chief in the Illinois attorney general’s office offered her own stark assessment of the city and department, saying they have consistently “resisted commonsense” recommendations on how to achieve sweeping reform.

Mary Grieb, who is representing the AG’s office in consent decree proceedings, said the department has delayed implementing critical new policies, including on practices as sensitive and dangerous as foot chases, and said department staffing practices lead to overpolicing in Black and brown neighborhoods without allowing for meaningful community engagement.

Though she acknowledged that CPD’s written policies are now “significantly better,” she said the process “should not have been as hard as it was.”

“As a result, the public is understandably concerned about where we are nearly four years in,” Grieb said. “To the people of Chicago, the progress we’ve made on paper does not mean much until that progress is reflected in CPD’s practices.”

Grieb, in her comments, also noted that staffing issues have resulted in a large backlog of nearly 1,500 shootings and other use of force incidents that await reviews. Such reviews are done to provide critical feedback regarding policy and training as well and guidance to front-line officers.

The hearing, the first court proceeding with input from members of the public since before the COVID-19 pandemic, was held in the large ceremonial courtroom on the 25th floor to a packed courtroom and elicited a barrage of criticism from dozens of community members and attorneys who said the department’s efforts were falling short.

After listening to several hours of testimony, Pallmeyer concluded the hearing by acknowledging community concern that there has not been enough progress, as well as how a lack of progress impacts the entire city, including with an unacceptable level of violence.

“The reality is the situation in our city, a city we all love, is very troubled,” Pallmeyer said.

U.S. District Judge Robert Dow, who oversaw the reform process until recently taking a position as counselor to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts., joined Pallmeyer in conducting the hearing.

The judges also heard comments from city officials. Jennifer Bagby, a lawyer for the city, said progress has been made in rewriting policies and implementing officer training. CIty Hall “has been and continues to be committed” to the process, she said.

Among the speakers was Anjanette Young, who was the victim of an infamous botched police raid in 2019. Young was forced by police officers to stand naked in her home while they improperly searched her home, video of which went viral after it was aired by WBBM-Ch. 2.

“We are taxpayers. We pay the officers’ salary when they come to work everyday,” Young said, growing emotional. “We deserve to be treated with human dignity.”

The stories came one after the other on Tuesday, with residents describing searches of homes and cars done without warning or explanation, guns drawn on them and their children and disrespectful behavior, such as laughing and making jokes, during traumatic moments.

“This consent decree has been going on for several years and we are seeing no results from it,” a community member told the judge. “Our community doesn’t have the luxury of the time it takes to reform. … It’s all about life and death.”

Community members also commented about frustrations over working with the department on critical policies, such as use of force, only to have their input ignored.

Arewa Karen Winters, who co-chaired a group that studied use of force that included department members, said her work on the committee revealed, for her, other, more subtle problems in the relationship between police and the community.

Arewa Karen Winters walks outside the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse after attending a public hearing allowing members of the community to give input on the Chicago Police Department consent decree on Nov. 29, 2022.

As an example, she told Pallmeyer that after Officer Ella French was killed in the line of duty, Winters and others in the group made a point of acknowledging the loss the department members had suffered.

Winters then told Pallmeyer that the community rarely hears the same expressions of empathy or sympathy from police about the harms they have caused.

“All they care about is how they hurt, and they want everybody to hurt along with them,” said Winters. “I am not an abolitionist. I believe there should be a system of law and order, but I just don’t know what is happening right now. I don’t know how they are still failing at the consent decree but they are (claiming) they are doing so well.”

The Chicago Police Department has been under a sweeping consent decree since 2019, following a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the department after the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke.

In recent years, the department has touted progress in rewriting policies and increasing the number of court-ordered reforms that it has come into some level of compliance with, but the department has struggled with deeper, cultural reform. Critics have said the department has approached the consent decree with a mindset of checking boxes and has failed to fully staff key departments, leaving areas necessary for reform — like training and the office that reviews use of force incidents — underresourced.

Chicago police Superintendent David Brown came under fire earlier this year when he fired Robert Boik, the Chicago Police Department’s executive director of constitutional policing and reform, after Boik sent an email asking for a reversal of a decision to distribute his staff to patrol instead of officer training.

On Tuesday, Grieb spoke directly to these concerns, saying that staffing shortages at the department’s training academy had resulted in using personnel from outside units, who themselves had to be trained on complex subject matters.

And in a troubling note, Grieb raised concerns about whether the department would meet the 40 hours of training that is now required for all officers each year. The 2017 Justice Department investigation that led to the reform had concluded that Chicago’s lack of basic training requirements contributed to the years of reported abuses and struggles within the department to police effectively and fairly.

Staffing issues have been exacerbated by high numbers of retirements, something Brown and other department leaders have identified. And it is not uncommon in policing for leaders to reassign personnel to address spikes of gun violence as they occur.

At the same time, questions have also been raised by aldermen and the newly seated Community Commission for Police Safety and Accountability about how the department analyzes and uses department staffing data to ensure the most effective coverage with the personnel they do have.

Achieving reform generally involves three stages: rewriting policies, training officers on the new protocols and then integrating it into regular operations.

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While the department has often cited a high compliance rate with the first stage — rewriting policy — it is the second two stages that will result in fewer stories like the ones told Tuesday in court. That requires training officers on sound policies so that they can use them in intense situations on the street to address violence without engaging in abusive policing.

Achieving all of this is a complicated process, experts agree.

Independent monitor Maggie Hickey, in her comments to the court Tuesday, acknowledged the substantial work that has gone into the effort so far, including the preliminary compliance.

“Chicago is no longer at the starting line. … The city of Chicago and the Police Department have come a far way, but they also have a long way to go,” Hickey said. “ … If properly supported, the existing compliance level will be the foundation for the city to ultimately achieve full and effective compliance.”

Hickey then offered a note of caution as well.

“It’s clear that change is difficult, but nevertheless we press on,” she said.

Chicago Tribune reporter Jason Meisner contributed.

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