A failure of police work at the top during George Floyd protests marked a setback for Chicago

In a scathing 124-page report, Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson says officers were left “outflanked, under-equipped and unprepared.”

SHARE A failure of police work at the top during George Floyd protests marked a setback for Chicago

A man in a clown mask walks past a burning Chicago Police Department SUV on May 30 near State and Lake in the Loop as thousands of protesters in Chicago joined national outrage over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

We’re reminded of the old slang word “flatfoot” for a police officer, because the leaders of the Chicago Police Department sure were caught flat-footed by last year’s vandalism, arson and looting after the death in Minnesota of George Floyd.

That failure, as scathingly documented in a new report, marked a huge setback for our city.

We honestly don’t understand how this could have happened. After so many years of supposed police reforms. After so many decades of supposed rethinking, revisions and revampings.

It just can’t be allowed to happen again.

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A big-city police department must be prepared for all sorts of unexpected emergencies. But in a 124-page report, Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson details how CPD’s leadership left police officers “outflanked, under-equipped and unprepared.” Not only was the city exposed to unnecessary dangers, but so were front-line officers. Their safety was compromised right along with the people they were trying to protect.

Failure to heed warning signs

It is dismaying to learn, if you accept the findings of the report, that the police brass assured City Hall that there were no serious signs of possible violence erupting in Chicago in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death under the knee of an officer in Minneapolis — though many officers and supervisors were warning of just that.

Granted, Police Supt. David Brown was brand-new to the job of police superintendent, but that’s hardly an excuse. Nobody seemed to know where to find the playbook for when a legitimate protest turns ugly.

The report — based on 70 interviews with cops, city officials and protesters and more than 100 hours of video from police body cams — confirmed what many of us sensed at the time as we watched and read the news reports over 10 days in late May and early June. Buildings were being vandalized and looted on multiple nights, yet the police appeared powerless to do anything about it.

Responsibility for this “confusion and lack of coordination,” in the words of the report, goes straight to the top. Those interviewed described a chaotic time when there was no overarching plan, police rushed from one scene to another, cops gave up on arresting looters because they had no transport vehicles available, and suspects were released because of breakdowns in the mass-arrest process.

Officers were unsure who was in charge. They were unsure of their assignments. In some parts of town, they were outnumbered by the rioters.

Moreover, the report documents that officers employed more force than was previously known, using batons and pepper spray on protesters. Some officers covered their names and numbers on their stars, a practice usually used to avoid citizen complaints, though the officers said it was to protect their families.

Raising bridges backfired

The report also questions the wisdom of raising every downtown bridge except at LaSalle Street and preventing L trains from stopping in the Loop so as to keep rioters from coming downtown. That is direct criticism of decisions made by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Brown.

Chicago Department of Transportation officials told the inspector general’s investigators that emergency officials simply didn’t understand how complicated it would be to raise the bridges. And once those bridges were up, peaceful protesters said, they found it awfully hard to leave the area where others were looting and destroying property. They wanted to comply with a curfew the city had imposed, but the raised bridges made that harder.

Because almost all the bridges were up, some police officers said, they could not move from place to place as necessary to do their jobs. And, others said, raising the bridges may have pushed the looting and vandalism into neighborhoods outside the Loop.

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In yet another indication of a failed policing strategy at the top, rank-and-file police officers told IG investigators that protesters freely battered them, threw projectiles at them, spit on them and verbally abused them.

An old tune

Much of this might never have happened had the police response been properly organized, with proper training, from the start.

The Police Department says they’ve taken steps to address these failures, with new policy fixes, since the protest. But, with respect, haven’t we heard that tune so many times before?

We are told all that police morale is low. We are also told that CPD must do more to rebuild trust with the communities it serves.

But a failure of police work at the very top during 10 days of chaos last summer — from May 29 to June 7 — took the department in the wrong direction.

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