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Ferguson makes the case for documenting police pointing guns

Inspector General Joseph Ferguson | File photo by Max Herman for the Sun-Times

Inspector General Joe Ferguson on Wednesday made a strong case for requiring the Chicago Police Department to document every instance in which a police officer points a gun at someone.

City Hall and retiring Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan have spent the better part of a year negotiating a draft, 200-page consent decree outlining the terms for federal court oversight over the Chicago Police Department.

The lone sticking point, U.S. District Judge Robert Dow Jr. was told last week, remains whether the department must document incidents in which officers draw their guns.

Ferguson co-chaired the Mayor’s Task Force on Police Accountability, whose blistering critique of the Chicago Police Department after the police shooting of Laquan McDonald set the stage for the U.S. Justice Department to do the same and laid the groundwork for federal court oversight.

On Wednesday, he weighed in — heavily — on the side of including mandatory documentation of the drawing of weapons in the consent decree.

The inspector general argued that pointing a gun — “separate from it being an officer” — is a “use of force that under the law constitutes an aggravated assault” because it involves the use of “potentially deadly force.”

That’s why it’s become a “pretty standard provision that those incidents be reported, tracked, analyzed and accounted for,” both in “the context of consent decrees and reforms outside of consent decrees,” Ferguson said.

“Beyond that — and I speak about this both from a professional context and a personal context because I’ve been on the receiving end of a gun being pointed at me in my past, it is a fundamentally perspective-changing event to occur,” Ferguson said. “To think that it has little to do with how the community perceives the police would be blinking reality. So, it’s a really important thing to fold into how it is that we monitor the use of force.”

Ferguson said he doesn’t buy the argument that reporting every instance when an officer draws a weapon would be overly burdensome. He argued that there are “very, very easy technologically-based fixes” for reporting those incidents.

“It is not a significant added burden. And the fact of the matter is, it is far too important to leave on the cutting room floor in terms of what we are monitoring and tracking with respect to use of force,” he said.

Nor was Ferguson swayed by the Fraternal Order of Police argument that documenting the drawing of guns would both hamstring police officers and open the door to labeling them unfairly.

He argued that, “This is a tracking mechanism and nothing more.”

“There’s no reason why it should hamstring them in doing their job if they’re utilizing their firearm — even if it’s simply for pointing purposes — in a way that’s [consistent] with the use of force policies of the department in the service of constitutional policing,” he said.

The inspector general was asked to describe his own “perspective-changing” experience with having a gun pointed at him.

It happened when he was a teenager working at a gas station when somebody tried to rob the place with a gun.

“When the robber ran, the police were arriving at the scene [and] thought maybe I was the robber. So in a single incident, I had a gun pointed at me by a criminal and then pointed at me by the police that told me to get down on the floor at gunpoint,” he said.

“It is a perspective-changing event. You do not forget being on the receiving end of a gun,” he said. “And the idea that the relationship between the police and the community is not significantly impacted by the pointing of a gun and that’s something that doesn’t need to be accounted for really is blinking reality.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel noted that, after hearing from Chicago Police brass, Judge Dow realized that, as the mayor put it, “This is more complicated and more difficult because you have split-second decisions having to be made by officers.”

Without saying where he stands on the issue, the mayor said, “I’m not usually one for being patient. But on this case, I think it’s more important to get it right than get it fast.”

On Wednesday, lawyers for the city and Madigan were back in federal court.

They told Dow they still had not reached an agreement on the gun question. They said they may wind up litigating the issue — putting the final decision in Dow’s hands.

Meanwhile, the FOP has tried to intervene in the case. A lawyer for the union again complained Wednesday that it had been frozen out of consent decree negotiations.

But Dow insisted “there will be a public process for this” — in his courtroom.

Contributing: Jon Seidel