Just before Trump’s inauguration, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a Report summarizing its recent investigation of the Chicago Police Department (CPD), which resulted in many important findings. The Report discusses the police department’s pattern and practice of using excessive force, including rampant and unwarranted police shootings, profoundly unethical police practices, and a failure to properly investigate citizen complaints about police. One theme running through those issues is the staggering racism present in the police department.
The Report acknowledges what we all know, that police violence disproportionately targets people of color. Chicago is roughly 1/3 white, 1/3 black, and 1/3 Latino. Yet the CPD uses force ten times more often against black people than against whites. During a recent five year period, black individuals were the targets of 80% of the police use of firearms and 81% of the Taser use. The police use of force against youth is particularly alarming because it is these early interactions that shape a later mistrust between individuals and the police. For CPD officers’ use force against youth, 83% of the children were black, 14% were Latino, and only 3% were white. These statistics are especially upsetting because the Report also talks about just how often the police shootings or use of force are completely unwarranted. Chicago officers frequently shoot at fleeing cars or individuals who pose no threat, for instance. And more often than not, the people they are shooting are black people.
I know we hate to call individuals racist, particularly for what may be unconscious bias, but race is inescapably a part of this. Many citizens interviewed by the DOJ investigators complained of treatment so demeaning they felt dehumanized. Individuals’ complaints of frequent racial slurs from officers were confirmed by an officer who admitted that his colleagues and supervisors refer to black individuals as monkeys, animals, savages, and “pieces of shit.” The Report also cites officer interviews with the DOJ investigators, where officers themselves refer to black citizens in subhuman or animal terms. Honestly, the Report’s list of the documented, horrific, racist things some CPD officers have done is too disturbing to recount here. Suffice it to say that while, of course not all officers are racist, there is a culture where blatant racism is an accepted norm and allegations of racist conduct are wholeheartedly ignored.
When police officers dehumanize the people they police they are desensitized to the impact of their abuses and far more likely to use inappropriate excessive force. Yet, as the Report explains, the police department almost universally just ignores the racism. In order for police officers to successfully do their jobs – to police our cities – police departments must address any institutional and individual racism. There is simply no other way to build trust between the community and the police.
Author Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks of the mistrust between the police and black communities and explains: “It is not just that the belief that Officer Timothy Loehmann got away with murdering 12-year-old Tamir Rice, it is the reality that police officers have been getting away with murdering black people since the advent of American policing. The injustice compounds, congeals until there is an almost tangible sense of dread and grievance that compels a community to understand the police as objects of fear, not respect.” And that is where Chicago police officers, and many other officers around the country, now find themselves. They are the objects of fear, but not respect. This is a danger to us all: those relying on the police for safety, those doing the policing, and those being policed.