Chicago Police Supt. Johnson announces new policy on use of force

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Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson announces the Chicago Police Department’s newly revised Use of Force policy during a press conference at Public Safety Headquarters on Wednesday, May 17, 2017. | Santiago Covarrubias/For the Sun-Times

Calling it “a needed change,” Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson announced Wednesday that the department will implement a new use of deadly force policy, focusing on conflict de-escalation and “the sanctity of life.”

By 2018, all sworn members of the department will be required to complete an e-learning course, along with an additional 12 hours of training, according to police officials.

The reform efforts by the department are self-imposed, and police leaders solicited feedback from city residents and community leaders before deciding on the changes.

Johnson said the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video in 2015 and its ensuing fallout “was an incident we all learned from.”

Protests erupted in Chicago after the video — which showed Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting the 17-year-old 16 times as he walked away — was released. Van Dyke currently faces murder charges in the teen’s death.

Johnson’s predecessor, Garry McCarthy, was fired and the Department of Justice opened an investigation into CPD practices.

The department has intensified its community outreach efforts in the 16 months since the video was released.

Johnson said the McDonald shooting “may have given us the springboard to move forward and change some things.”

“Sometimes tragic things happen that ultimately result in things being better,” Johnson said.

Community activist William Calloway joined Johnson, Chicago Police Board President Lori Lightfoot and other police leadership at Wednesday press conference and praised the department’s decision to implement reform.

Addressing fellow activists, Calloway said, “This is a big win for us, our voices were heard.”

Last October, on the second anniversary of McDonald’s death, Calloway staged a rally outside police headquarters to call for police reforms.

Johnson emphasized that the decision to change its policies was not one made by the federal government.

The CPD has not heard from the DOJ with regard to any potential consent decree, according to police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.

“The ball’s in their court,” he said. “We submitted our reform plan, we’re doing that, as far as what the DOJ is going to implement, I don’t know.”

In January, the Department of Justice announced it found violations of the U.S. Constitution and federal law by officers when it comes to use of force, racial disparities as well as other systemic problems.

Kevin Graham, the newly elected president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the rank-and-file union rejects those findings, but was still open to discussing ways to improve officer safety, noting that three Chicago Police officers have been shot in the last two weeks.

“We do not believe Chicago Police Officers engage in systemic excessive force, as the Department of Justice report alleges, and we are glad that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called into question such conclusions,” Graham said in a statement. “Nevertheless, we are always willing to discuss new measures with the Superintendent that insure the safety of our officers and those of the public.”

Sharon Fairley, chief administrator of the Independent Police Review Authority — which the DOJ also found to be at fault — praised the changes.

“We believe these new policies incorporate new concepts that are essential to fair and effective policing,” Fairley said in a statement. “Specifically, we’re pleased to see the department’s renewed commitment to the sanctity of life, de-escalation practices and the requirement for officers to believe a person poses an imminent threat before discharging their firearm at a fleeing suspect.”

Before taking questions from reporters, Johnson, Lightfoot and Ald. Ariel Reyboyras (30th), the chair of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, addressed several dozen officers, informing them on the coming changes.

“We remain true to our commitment to reform and to rebuild public trust and transform the Chicago Police Department,” Johnson said. “We will not waver on this promise. We will — we will — be a department that is better for the citizens of Chicago and better for the brave men and women that make up it’s ranks.”

Johnson added that he’s “not naive” and knows some department members may be not totally receptive to the impending changes.

“I know that there will be some who will think these policies are too restrictive for officers to do their jobs and there will be some who think it isn’t restrictive enough,” Johnson said. “However, I do believe that the set of policies we’re releasing today is in the best interest of everyone.”

The new policy seems in line with guidelines recently adopted by departments that were mandated to make changes by agreements with the Justice Department, called consent decrees, said Stephen Rushin, an expert on such deals who will join the faculty at Loyola University Law School this fall.

The CPD policy’s emphasis on de-escalation — that officers get training and try to defuse volatile situations rather than use force— was similar to new policies adopted by the Seattle Police Department after it entered a consent decree, Rushin pointed out.

“Chicago has addressed many of the critical things that a consent decree would call for, but a consent decree doesn’t have detailed policies, it would just have guidelines for what would go into them,” Rushin said.

However, a use-of-force policy is meaningless if the department doesn’t hold officers accountable if they violate the rules, and Chicago still needs to address a broad slate of reforms to fix problems identified by a DOJ report issued in December that found a pattern of civil rights abuses by CPD officers.

“A use-of-force policy is great, but there are other things that have to happen,” Rushin said.

And when it comes to making reforms, the CPD is likely on its own for at least the duration of the Trump administration, Rushin said. Under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department launched investigations of more than two dozen police departments, and the DOJ report issued in December usually would have been followed within a few months by a consent decree.

Consent decrees typically require a city to hire a team of experts to help draft policies, but more importantly, they also collect data on how those policies are followed, Rushin said. If the monitoring team finds that the policies on paper are not being followed in the street, a federal judge can force the city to act, even where changes are unpopular with rank-and-file officers or require major hits to the city budget.

Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, last month cast doubt on the role of the federal government in reforming police departments.

“He’s pretty clearly established a belief that the federal government should not be involved in local police reform,” Rushin said. “I’d be pretty surprised if there was [a consent decree for CPD.]”

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