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‘This can never happen again,’ ranking cop says in scathing inspector general report on Chicago’s response to summer riots

Officers were “outflanked, under-equipped and unprepared” and the Chicago Police Department “critically disserved both its own front-line members and members of the public,” says the report, which one alderman called a “complete shock.”

A man in a Joker mask stands near a burning Chicago police squad on May 30 in the 200 block of North State. The man was later identified as Timothy O’Donnell in a federal complaint charging him with arson.
A man in a Joker mask stands near a burning Chicago police squad on May 30 in the 200 block of North State. The man was later identified as Timothy O’Donnell in a federal complaint charging him with arson.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

After the first wave of protests and vandalism that paralyzed downtown Chicago last summer, a top mayoral aide and the police superintendent congratulated each other for how the city’s officers did their jobs.

“Thank you for all your incredible work last night — you made Chicago proud,” the aide told police Supt. David Brown, who responded, “officers made the city of Chicago and the police profession proud!!!”

Their email exchange came on May 30, the day after the unrest began on a Friday.

Over the rest of that weekend, though, Brown and his staff were caught off guard by growing civil disturbances downtown and in the city’s neighborhoods, according to a 124-page report released Thursday by the city’s inspector general, Joe Ferguson.

Officers were “outflanked, under-equipped and unprepared,” and the Chicago Police Department “critically disserved both its own front-line members and members of the public,” the report says.

Anti-police demonstrations were gathering strength across the country, but Brown said he “had not seen any reason for concern leading into that weekend,” according to the inspector general’s report.

And Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she didn’t assume there was a “potential for peaceful protests to turn violent,” the report said.

The damning report was based on 70 interviews with cops, city officials and protesters, most of whom aren’t named, along with more than 100 hours of videos from officers’ body-worn cameras and police data on arrests and uses of force.

“This can never happen again,” one unnamed command-staff member told the inspector general’s office.

A protester gives a Chicago police officer the finger during last summer’s protests in the Loop.
A protester gives a Chicago police officer the finger during last summer’s protests in the Loop.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

The disorder in Chicago between May 29 and June 1 stemmed from the May 25 death of George Floyd, the Black man who was asphyxiated — according to an autopsy — because a Minneapolis police officer had knelt on his neck.

No one had authorized overtime pay for officers to work downtown on the night of May 29 during the first protests, leading to a lack of manpower — an “Achilles heel” for the department — one unnamed commander said.

Police supervisors said the night was chaotic, with officers running from one crisis to another without a plan.

Brown has described the strategy as “leapfrog,” the report said.

About 1,000 people were arrested in connection with the protests and looting on May 30 and May 31, mostly for disorderly conduct and curfew violations, with about 50 people arrested for looting. But breakdowns in the mass-arrest process resulted in some suspects getting released without charges, the inspector general said.

In a statement, the police department said it conducted an internal review after the unrest, focusing on “accountability, planning and preparedness, command and control, training, and communication” during large-scale responses. “The results of this after-action review have since informed the department on how to best respond to similar situations while protecting public safety and the rights of all individuals involved,” the statement said.

Chicago police officers clash with protesters near Kinzie and State as thousands in Chicago joined national outrage over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, Saturday afternoon, May 30, 2020.
Chicago police officers clash with protesters near Kinzie and State on Saturday, May 30, 2020 as thousands in Chicago joined national outrage over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Police tried to keep the after-action review out of the hands of the inspector general, claiming it was subject to attorney-client privilege, but eventually agreed to turn it over on Feb. 3, according to the inspector general’s report.

Lightfoot’s office said: “The fact that CPD under the leadership of Superintendent Brown has owned responsibility for its challenges and embraced the opportunity to do better is noteworthy. There were a number of lessons learned ... that were put into place over the course of the summer and fall — notably in connection with the federal election.”

According to the inspector general’s report, many cops were told to report directly to Guaranteed Rate Field for staging during the unrest, but that meant they didn’t have body cameras, which were stored in their police districts. That could come to haunt the department later when it needs videos to defend officers’ actions or discipline them for misconduct.

Some commanders, who weren’t named in the report, said they had ordered officers that weekend to remove tape obstructing their name tags, which officers sometimes do to keep protesters from filing complaints against them. Officers also underreported their use of force, including the use of baton strikes, the report said.

The inspector general’s report documented numerous examples of chaos in the police department over that weekend. Among them, on May 31, the department tried to rent 150 vans for transporting officers because so many police vehicles had been damaged or destroyed the day before. But a rental company didn’t have that many vans, so police officials had to travel across Illinois to pick up vans from a dozen locations and drive them back to Chicago.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered the bridges on the Chicago River raised May 30 to keep looters out of the Loop.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered the bridges on the Chicago River raised May 30 to keep looters out of the Loop.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

The report also raised questions about two major logistical decisions by the mayor on May 30: raising the bridges on the Chicago River to keep rioters out of the Loop and stopping CTA trains from coming into the Loop.

Brown didn’t seem to understand that city transportation workers had to trek downtown to raise the bridges. He wondered “whether there was not simply one person who could simply press a button and raise a bridge,” the report said, adding that “during the protests at the 2012 North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Chicago, raising bridges had been discussed and rejected as an ineffective tool for emergency crowd control.”

The report also focused on the mayor’s decision to stop CTA trains from entering the Loop starting at 6 p.m. on May 30.

“Proponents of this decision within CPD believed that peaceful protesters had left downtown by this time, and that suspending train service would stop people from coming to vandalize and loot the area,” the report said. “One command staff member specifically mentioned stopping people coming from the city’s South Side as an objective.” But protesters said they found it difficult to exit the Loop because the bridges were raised and trains were bypassed.

Despite the widespread destruction and theft across downtown on May 30, there was apparently little concern among police higher-ups that the wave of criminality would ripple into the city’s neighborhoods.

“The superintendent reported that CPD had received no intelligence to suggest that looting would spread throughout the neighborhoods, and suggested that there were no events in other cities which might have foretold this,” the report states. “The department did not have plans in place to respond to the looting.”

Once the looting stopped, Lightfoot emailed the leaders of the police department and Office of Emergency Management and Communications to ask for statistics on how many calls for service were received May 31.

Lightfoot wrote that “we need to be able to demonstrate that in fact police were assigned to the south and west sides because the narratives that we saved downtown and let black neighborhoods burn persists. Of course, totally untrue, but it persists,” the report said.

The property damage and violence in the city that weekend reached historic levels. In the Near North police district alone, 86 businesses were either vandalized or looted on May 30. And 18 people were killed across the city on May 31, making it the single deadliest day in Chicago in 60 years.

Former Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy talks with officers before a protest march during the NATO summit in Chicago on May 20, 2012
Former Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy talks with officers before a protest march during the NATO summit in Chicago on May 20, 2012.
Sun-Times file

Garry McCarthy, hailed for his front-line leadership during the protests of the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago when he was police superintendent, wasn’t surprised by the inspector general’s criticism of the police department’s performance during last summer’s unrest. But he didn’t think Brown deserves all the blame.

“I’ve been very disappointed in David Brown’s performance since he’s been here. But it’s unfair to castigate David as he walked through the door dealing with the pandemic, then at the same time getting hit with riots. He couldn’t have possibly been familiar with the disorder procedures that we had established way back in 2012,” McCarthy said.

He said the department is suffering from too much turnover and too few veteran leaders.

“I don’t know who’s running the show,” McCarthy said.

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), the former Chicago police officer chairing the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety, said he was in “complete shock” after learning about the report.

“Given the nature of what this city dealt with — the riots and looting in the short time in which it came about — I thought, as it was reported by our police department, that they showed great restraint, No. 1, and did an overall good job in protecting the residents of this city,” Taliaferro said. “A report of this nature, as it’s been told to me, just completely tears the statements made by our superintendent apart.”

The inspector general’s report doesn’t offer any recommendations, but Taliaferro said, “I’m hopeful that this report will bring change about how we handle mass situations like riots and looting. They’re certainly going to happen again.”

Protesters march on Lake Shore Drive near 47th Street on May 31, 2020, the third day of protests in Chicago over the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody on Memorial Day in Minneapolis.
Protesters march on Lake Shore Drive near 47th Street on May 31, 2020, the third day of protests in Chicago over the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody on Memorial Day in Minneapolis.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times