Each of us wants government to work for the people, not its own interests. When we see public officials manipulating the system to make money for themselves or family members, we all feel a sense of outrage, no matter the party.
Shouldn’t our police be held to the same standard?
A recent report exposed anew the practice of “trolling” by CPD officers. Trolling is when an officer actively seeks a traffic stop, an arrest for disorderly conduct or other violation at the end of a work shift, so the officer can artificially manufacture the need for overtime. According to Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson, many trolling arrests are made “as a result of escalating a situation which could have been within the officer’s discretion to dismiss.”
In other words, trolling exposes Chicagoans to unnecessary arrests and increased contact with law enforcement with no increase in public safety. For Chicagoans of color, these additional contacts with law enforcement jeopardize not only liberty, but may jeopardize life itself. It is time for the city to reign in this practice.
In the inspector general’s new report, a follow-up to a 2017 report, Ferguson writes that the Chicago Police Department “did not acknowledge the existence” of trolling and other abusive practices “even though CPD management acknowledged the practices during the audit.”
The refusal to acknowledge the continued existence of an abusive practice is another instance of the police department hiding the ball. This lack of transparency exacerbates the fundamental distrust between the community and the department, and ultimately harms reform efforts.
Trolling, like all police practices, must be considered in the larger context of history. For decades, Chicago police have engaged in troubling and unlawful practices. There is a justified belief in communities on the South and West sides that police officers instigate and escalate unnecessary encounters with residents, causing inconvenience and harm without any benefit to the neighborhoods.
That this inconvenience and harm could be the result of some officers’ efforts to personally enrich themselves brings further pain to these communities. That the department refuses to acknowledge that this practice takes place is more insulting.
Recent reform efforts have signaled some willingness on the part of the city to engage in a truthful look in the mirror when it comes to the harms done by the department. But reform efforts can be successful only if the police department gains some semblance of trust in our communities. Abusing residents, turning a blind eye to abusive practices, and refusing to earnestly engage with watchdogs is business-as-usual for the department.
This is not the path to reform.
This retreat from transparency erodes public trust and drains vital city resources, and it is a step in the wrong direction. Chicagoans should not have to worry that a police officer may initiate and escalate contact — increasing anxiety and putting lives at risk — in an effort to gain a few extra dollars. But instead of identifying and correcting officers who engage in this practice, the department has taken a strategy of feigning ignorance.
This calls into question the police department’s willingness to be a full participant in any of the reform efforts currently underway, which will be useless without transparency and an acknowledgement of harm done by the department as first steps.
Here is a place to start. The Chicago Police Department must acknowledge that trolling exists and develop a plan to track, correct and prevent its officers from engaging in abusive practices for personal enrichment. It is the only way forward.
Elizabeth Jordan is a staff attorney for the ACLU of Illinois.
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