Portrait of Impunity – Part II

In the aftermath of the special prosecutor’s report on abuses committed by Commander Burge and officers under him in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Mayor Daley took pains to reassure the public “that the city has, in the two decades since, put in place a series of safeguards aimed at preventing such abuses.” Police Superintendent Cline struck a similar note. “The Chicago Police Department,” he said, “is a very different Department today since that period of time.” Among the safeguards the Mayor and Superintendent highlighted is a new “a personnel performance management system” designed to ensure police accountability. As I reported in the first part of this article, that system exists on paper but not in practice. It has been announced but not implemented.

What do we know about the effectiveness of the system the City in fact has in place? Does the CPD conduct adequate investigations of citizen complaints? Do officers in the field operate with an awareness that their supervisors will hold them accountable and impose appropriate discipline if they commit crimes against citizens?

Answers to these questions emerge from statistics provided by the City in Bond v. Utreras, the federal civil rights case described in “Kicking the Pigeon.”

Citizen complaints are investigated by two sections within the CPD. The Office of Professional Standards (OPS) is responsible for excessive force complaints; and the Internal Affairs Division (IAD) handles other categories of complaint. If a complaint is sustained by OPS or IAD and is not reversed by the Police Board, various forms of discipline may be imposed. These range from reprimands to suspensions of varying lengths to termination. For the purposes of analysis, the plaintiff’s attorney in the Bond case, Prof. Craig Futterman of the Mandel Clinic of the University of Chicago Law School, defines “meaningful discipline” as a suspension of seven days or more.

Let’s begin with the grand totals. During the years 2002-2004, citizens filed 10,150 complaints alleging police abuses in the categories of excessive force, illegal arrest, illegal searches, racial and sexual abuse. Investigations of those 10,150 complaints by OPS and IAD yielded just 18 cases in which the accused officer received meaningful discipline. In other words, an officer accused of abusing a citizen had a 99.8% chance of not receiving any meaningful discipline.

When you break out particular categories of police misconduct, this stunning ratio of complaints to meaningful discipline holds:

Type of misconduct Total complaints Meaningful discipline imposed %
Excessive force 5,358 15 0.27%
Illegal search 3,837 1 0.03%
Illegal arrest 661 0 0.00%

It is hard to believe officers with criminal tendencies would be deterred from wrongdoing by such odds. On the contrary, these numbers evoke conditions of impunity under which abusive officers can operate without fear of punishment.

Police abuse is not random. It is a highly concentrated phenomenon. Law enforcement professionals and critics generally agree that a small percentage of officers commit most of the abuses. The statistics disclosed in Bond v. Utreras reflect this phenomenon:

  • During the last five years, 662 officers had ten or more complaints. In a police force of roughly 13,500, these “repeaters” represent 5% of the force.
  • During the 2002-2004 period, the City investigated 18,077 misconduct allegations. (This total includes administrative infractions, bribery, substance abuse, and so on, as well as direct abuse of citizens.) 7,864—44%—of the 18,077 complaints name the 662 repeaters.

According to Futterman, these strong patterns do not affect investigation outcomes: repeaters, like the officer population as a whole, had a 0.2% chance—2 in 1,000 odds—of receiving meaningful discipline.

What are we to make of these statistics? Some defenders of the status quo argue that the number of complaints is inflated by false accusations designed to frustrate officers in the performance of their duties. Although it is hard to credit the proposition that thousands of citizens each year file false complaints against the police, this sort of argument cannot be definitively refuted. It should be noted, though, that dispute over the number of complaints cuts both ways. Critics of the CPD’s investigatory practices argue that police misconduct is grossly under-reported because of various disincentives to filing a complaint; among them, lack of faith in the process and fear of reprisals.

Another argument often made is that effective officers attract complaints. In its most extreme form, this argument sees complaints as a measure of effectiveness: citizens complain because the accused officers are doing their jobs.

This logic is an insult to the substantial majority of officers who are never accused of abusing citizens. Let’s take another look at the repeater figures. If 662 officers account for 7,864 of the 18,077 total complaints, that means 12,838 officers are responsible for the remaining 10,213 complaints. In light of the strong repeater dynamic—officers accused of abuse are accused multiple times—it is reasonable to assume these 10,213 complaints are attributable to 2,043 officers with five complaints each. That would mean 80% of the force has no complaints. Are we to conclude that those officers are ineffective?

The counter-argument is that many police officers do not interact with citizens in ways that would give rise to complaints. Those who draw the most complaints, so the argument goes, are working on the front lines of “the war” against gangs and drugs. This is indeed the heart of the matter. When police scandals have erupted in Chicago and elsewhere they have almost always involved elite gang tactical units, such as the Special Operations Section, working in low-income black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

In view of this history, one would expect the CPD to closely monitor such units. Yet the City has acknowledged in Bond v. Utreras that it does not track complaints by unit. In other words, it chooses not to know things within its power to know about patterns of abuse.

The implications of the statistics we have—and those we don’t have because the City refuses to connect the dots—are clear. They reflect a state of affairs in which officers with criminal tendencies enjoy all but complete impunity. Thirty years after the first abuses alleged to have occurred under Commander Burge, thirteen years after Burge was fired, four years after the special prosecutors were appointed, and two months after they released their report, that is the ongoing human rights scandal disclosed by the City’s own numbers.