EDITORIAL: Who’s watching when the police use deadly force in the suburbs?

SHARE EDITORIAL: Who’s watching when the police use deadly force in the suburbs?
One person was killed and two injured in a shooting May 7, 2022, in West Pullman.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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A string of police-involved shootings in recent years has led to a long-overdue effort to reform the practices of the Chicago Police Department. But in many suburbs, we now know, shootings by the police rarely lead to such a thoughtful re-examination.

In a series of investigative reports this month, the Better Government Association and WBEZ looked into 113 police shootings in suburban Cook County since 2005 and found that in not a single case was there disciplinary action leveled against the officer involved. Often, the shootings may have been justified. But the complete lack of disciplinary action suggests that police-involved shootings in the suburbs are not being properly questioned.

EDITORIAL

The BGA and WBEZ found at least 42 police shootings that raised particular doubts. In Chicago, such cases would be reviewed by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability. But COPA stops at the city limits.

This week, Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart is sending letters to all suburban police departments, offering to review their policies and procedures regarding use of force. We hope every department takes him up on the offer to find out if their procedures are up to date or whether new training is needed. The public needs to have confidence that police in every department are adhering to wise use-of-force policies that ensure force is used only as a last resort.

Under the current law, the Illinois State Police Public Integrity Task Force is called in when there is a police-involved shooting in a suburb. But that’s only to determine if the shooting was criminal. The task force doesn’t investigate negligence, whether the police made an honest mistake, or whether training in a particular department is sufficient.

Many suburbs with solid financial resources no doubt already require solid police training and conduct thorough investigations of police-involved shootings. But poorer municipalities, including many in the south suburbs, are financially squeezed.

The Illinois Legislature should require an independent review by an outside agency whenever there is a police-involved shooting in a suburb, an inquiry that goes beyond the question of whether the shooting was criminal. The state, perhaps acting through the Illinois Law Enforcement Training & Standards Board, also should draw up rules governing the use of force that would apply to police statewide.

In some instances when a police officer pulls out a gun, there might have been a way to defuse a situation instead. A police officer who feels threatened should know when to call for backup rather than get into a situation that seems to call for a gun.

Even when using a gun is justified, police must be trained to know how to avoid injuring innocent bystanders. That might have helped, for example, in a south suburban Robbins case reported by the BGA and WBEZ in which Jakeem Booker, 13, was hit by a stray police bullet while he was standing in the front doorway of his aunt’s house. In at least 20 cases, the BGA and WBEZ found, officers fired at moving cars. In 30 cases, the suspects were unarmed. And in several cases, the police shot each other or bystanders.

Police shootings take lives. They also can cost taxpayers a great deal of money if courts later rule in civil suits that the shootings were unjustified. Taxpayers in the suburbs have paid more $12 million to settle lawsuits in at least 25 police shootings.

No set of policies can ensure police will never make mistakes or shoot when it would be wiser not to. Police officers do a dangerous job in which they must make split-second decisions. But the lack of strong, uniform policies invites tragedy.

Suburban police departments — with a strong push from the state — must ensure that every officer is well-trained and every police shooting is carefully investigated.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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