Although the media has only recently started paying more attention, police brutality is not a new phenomenon. Nor is police misconduct, excessive force, unjustified police shootings, or racial discrimination by police officers. What is new are some of the efforts to hold the police accountable for unjustified violence. Efforts to impose police accountability have included Chicago’s recent reparations plan, national pushes to increase the use of police body cameras, and Loevy & Loevy’s “pattern and practice” law suits against cities that institutionally perpetuate such abuses. Most recently in Chicago, there has also been a push for an elected police accountability board.
Most cities have an independent police accountability review board that handles citizen complaints about the police. A board that is separate from the police is essential because when officers are charged with investigating complaints about their fellow officers, let’s just say they don’t have such a great track record for conducting a thorough and unbiased examination of the allegations. In theory, independent accountability boards are supposed to step in and conduct the investigations without being influenced by the involved officers. In reality, however, such boards have suffered from a lack of real independence and integrity.
For instance, in Chicago, for a long time the so-called independent reviews were a total farce conducted by the Office of Professional Standards (“OPS”). Rather than interviewing the officers involved in a police shooting individually, standard procedure for OPS was to have the officers sit in an unsworn, unrecorded “roundtable session” where they would coordinate a reasonable explanation for the shooting. Even though witnesses and autopsy reports often contradicted the officers’ version of events, OPS only found police shootings to be unjustified less than 1% of the time. OPS simply looked the other way as officers altered or destroyed evidence, in order to make shootings appear justified. In one illustrative case, Chicago police officers shot and killed Cornelius Ware, a paraplegic who failed to get out of his car when the police ordered him to do so. Witnesses reported shouting, “He’s paralyzed! He can’t get out of the car!” and an autopsy report showed that Mr. Ware was shot in the back of his hands, supporting the witnesses’ descriptions that his hands had been in the air in a position of surrender. But in its rush to find the fatal police shooting justified, OPS did not consider the witness reports or the autopsy. Notwithstanding OPS’s bogus conclusion that the shooting was justified, attorneys at Loevy & Loevy secured a $5 million jury verdict against the police and city for this unjustified shooting death, but the stark contrast between a $5 million verdict and a quick ruling that the shooting was justified underscores what a charade the OPS investigation was.
In 2007, Chicago ushered in what was billed as a new era of police accountability when it replaced OPS with a civilian investigation organization called the Independent Police Review Authority (“IPRA”). Many, however, view IPRA as just OPS with a new name, although, in fairness, IPRA has actually begun “sustaining” some of the allegations against police officers (finding sufficient evidence to justify disciplinary action), and it has increased transparency by publishing all of the investigative outcomes on its website. But IPRA is still too prone to rubber-stamp police misconduct, and Chicago police abuses continue at alarming rates.
In response, there is now an activists’ campaign seeking an accessible complaint investigation board run by elected citizens from the community – citizens who could be independent and not accountable to the police department. An elected police accountability board in Chicago would be the first of its kind. The proposed legislation, drafted by the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR), seeks to form an elected board with control over the police department, including the power to investigate all police misconduct and police shootings, to impose discipline, and, where appropriate, to seek indictments against officers for criminal conduct. The intention behind the legislation is to increase the transparency of investigations, especially around police involved shootings, and to have meaningful repercussions for police offenders. CAARPR is organizing a mass protest and march on the Federal Building and City Hall this August 29, 2015. While it’s unknown whether this legislation will gain the necessary traction, one thing is certain: finding a path to true police accountability is necessary if we are to have any hope of ending police violence.