Over the past two years, killings of black men, women, and children at the hands of police officers have received increased national attention due to widespread organizing efforts. In Chicago, over the last several months, the 2014 killing of 17 year-old Laquan McDonald and subsequent delays in investigation sparked calls for massive reform of the Chicago Police Department, the State’s Attorney’s Office, and the Mayor’s Office. In order to aid this discussion, we have outlined below the facts that are currently known about Laquan McDonald’s killing, the current accountability framework for police officers in Chicago, and some recommendations for reform have already been put forward.
The Facts So Far
Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shot and killed 17 year-old Laquan McDonald on October 20, 2014. According to Officer Van Dyke’s report, Laquan McDonald was standing facing policing officers and aggressively waiving a knife when he fired 16 shots in 14 seconds. The police cruiser’s dashcam video shows something else, however: it shows that Laquan McDonald was walking diagonally away from officers when Van Dyke, who had just arrived on the scene, opened fire.
Since then the following information has also been reported from multiple sources:
- Five other CPD officers wrote reports with statements that were contradicted by videos.
- The original dashcam video and several others released later all have faulty audio components.
- Police discouraged witnesses on the scene from making statements.
- After the shooting, police officers entered a nearby Burger King and accessed its surveillance video. When the video was retrieved later, it had an 86 minute gap that included the time of the shooting.
- In the wake of the release of the shooting video, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel fired Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and Scott Ando, the head of IPRA, resigned.
The Current Disciplinary System:
Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA)
IPRA was created in 2007 as a civilian-led independent police review agency, though its chief administrative staff to date have consisted entirely of former law enforcement officers. IPRA is required to investigate the following: all police shootings where an officer injures someone, all deaths in custody, and claims of excessive force. (The Police Department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs investigates other categories of complaints. See below.)
Since 2007, IPRA has investigated 409 police shootings, but found only two unjustified. Of these 409 shooting victims, 301 were Black, 58 were Hispanic, and 36 were white. In 2014, IPRA concluded that in 54% of its completed investigations, there was insufficient evidence either to prove or disprove the complaint. IPRA has subpoena power to compel testimony and evidence and can make recommendations as to disciplinary action and firing of officers. IPRA requires individuals who are filing complaints against police officers to sign affidavits, a practice that has been criticized as many individuals refuse to sign affidavits for fear of reprisals.
The methods and procedures by which IPRA operates are governed by rules set forth by the Chicago Police Board in concert with the terms of the police contract negotiated with the Fraternal Order of Police.
The Bureau of Internal Affairs
The Bureau of Internal Affairs (BIA) is a reviewing body within the Chicago Police Department. The BIA investigates all categories of misconduct not investigated by IPRA, including stop & frisk violations, sexual assaults, false arrests, denial of medical aid, and more. Unlike IPRA, the BIA is not required by law to report on the results of its investigations.
The Chicago Police Board
The Chicago Police Board holds hearings in cases where serious discipline (dismissal, and suspensions of over 30 days or more) have been recommended. The Chicago Police Board is the only body that can terminate a police officers’ employment, however, few officers are ever fired. For instance, in 2014, the Chicago Police Superintendent sought to fire 22 officers in proceedings before the Police Board. The Board fired just six. Five additional officers resigned. A relatively small number of police officers are named in many misconduct complaints. Officer Van Dyke, for example, had been named in 17 complaints.
All recommendations regarding the disciplining of police officers have to go through the Police Superintendent before they are passed onto the Chicago Police Board or otherwise acted upon.
The Mayor of the City of Chicago
The Mayor’s Office appoints the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department with the advice and consent of the City Council and the Chicago Police Board. The Mayor appoints the chief administrators of IPRA and all 9 members of the Chicago Police Board. The mayor has the power to dismiss these appointees at any time.
History of police discipline in the current system
From 2010 to 2014, IPRA investigators sustained only 4% of the 17,700 complaints they reviewed. Sixty percent of complaints were thrown out because the alleged victims failed or refused to sign affidavits. Of the 800 cases in which officers were found at fault, 45% were given only a written reprimand and received no other punishment; 28% were suspended but docked only 1-5 days of pay, and 15% had resigned before any punishment could be imposed. Most officers who were disciplined were not disciplined for excessive force or other conduct against community members, but for minor or technical violations: misuse of department equipment, having unauthorized second jobs, and other personnel violations.
While killings by police have sparked outrage and inspired street protests, many groups have also developed policy proposals designed to overhaul the current police accountability and disciplinary framework in Chicago. Below we outline the major features of one proposed ordinance that has received a great deal of support from community groups that have also been engaged in protest. The Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR) has drafted a proposed ordinance creating a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC). The CPAC ordinance would create a council comprised of elected community members from each police district, emphasizing racially equitable and proportional representation. The CPAC would entirely replace IPRA, and would have the power to:
- Appoint the Superintendent of Police;
- Develop guidelines and standard operating procedures for police;
- Investigate all police shootings and allegations police misconduct or violations of state, municipal, federal, constitutional or human rights law;
- Make final decisions regarding officer discipline;
- Refer cases to the U.S. Federal Grand Jury and the U.S. Attorney in order to seek indictments against police officers.
The Community Renewal Society, a faith-based organizing group in Chicago has also proposed its own FAIR COPS ordinance (fact sheet available here). FAIR COPS would retain the overall structure and powers of IPRA, the Chicago Police Board, the Bureau of Internal Affairs, and the Mayor, but introduce another office of the Police Auditor to review all investigations and police procedures with a goal of ensuring fairness, transparency, and consistency. Specific powers regarding the firing of officers and investigation of citizen complains would not be in the hands of the Police Auditor, but the body would have access to data and records from the police department, as well as subpoena power.