“Be the change. Join the next generation of Chicago Police Officers.”
That’s the pitch, in big letters, at the top of the Chicago Police Department’s webpage for new recruits.
Raising the question: Be the change in what?
Certainly, the police department is looking for new, young officers eager to help change all of Chicago for the better.
But there’s a second meaning in the slogan, clearly intended in these times: Be the change in the Chicago Police Department itself.
Be the change in fighting crime hard while resorting less to deadly force. Be the change in doing more to respect civil rights. Be the change for a more diverse police force, one that better reflects the neighborhoods it serves. Be the change in committing to long-overdue reforms for a safer, more effective approach to policing.
Change happens best from the bottom up, and in that respect CPD’s current struggle to fill hundreds of vacancies as unhappy officers quit and retire is a problem, yes, but also an opportunity.
Looking for buy-in
True police reform requires one thing above all else — a buy-in from the police themselves — and that buy-in has never been there. Certainly not enough, and certainly not if measured by the resistance of the Fraternal Order of Police, the union for rank-and-file officers.
We honor the service of every officer who is moving on. They served our city in a dangerous job. We are sorry to see them go. But City Hall and the Chicago Police Department should embrace this moment for what it is, an unprecedented chance to achieve reforms — wholly and enthusiastically — that have been resisted for too long.
Recruit to reform. Train to reform.
A more racially and ethnically diverse police force is the first order of the day, though a new study suggests just how difficult this will be to achieve.
The study, released in July by the city’s Office of Inspector General, found that CPD’s hiring practices, which typically stretch for more than a year, disproportionately reduce the number of Black candidates, especially women. Black candidates make up 37% of the applicants to be police officers, the study of data from 2016 to 2018 found, but just 18% of the prospective officers invited to the police academy.
The IG’s solution to the problem — speed up the hiring process so as not to lose good candidates who are unable or unwilling to wait so long — is easier said than done. Vetting applicants properly takes time and, as Fran Spielman of the Sun-Times reports, CPD’s training academy already is gearing up to churn out new officers like a conveyor belt to fill more than 1,000 vacancies.
But new evidence seems to roll in monthly, in the form of studies and disturbing videos, that a more diverse police force is the first prerequisite of a better police force. It is a value that can’t be compromised.
Why diversity matters
In February, a study published in the journal Science found that white Chicago Police officers used force more often and made more arrests, especially when interacting with Black people, than Black and Hispanic officers did in similar situations.
Last week, an update to an annual study required by Illinois law — the Illinois Traffic and Pedestrian Stop Study — found that the Chicago police were stopping Black drivers overwhelmingly more often than white drivers. The study found that Chicago police stopped more than 204,000 Black drivers in 2020, Block Club Chicago reported, compared with just over 35,000 white drivers.
Similar studies conducted in other cities have found similar racial disparities that cannot easily be explained away. The Chicago Police Department is hardly an outlier in this way, which is no excuse for allowing the disparities to continue.
One of the most comprehensive national studies, published in May 2020, looked at 95 million traffic stops by 56 police agencies between 2011 and 2018. It found, as reported in the Washington Post, that while Black people were much more likely to be pulled over than whites, the disparity lessened at night, when police were less able to distinguish the race of the driver. The study also found that Blacks were more likely to be searched after a stop, though whites were more likely to be found with illicit drugs.
And then there is the anecdotal evidence of the need for change — the videos and photos that say more than all the studies.
We watched as Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by a white Chicago cop. We watched as George Floyd died under the knee of a white Minneapolis cop. We watched a strange video just this week of a white Chicago cop physically grappling with a Black woman who apparently was walking her dog at North Avenue Beach after hours. What was that all about?
A word about the cameras that recorded those videos: They are everywhere now and not going away. Out of sheer self-interest, you might think a smart cop would stop fighting reform and start adopting the new rules.
The Chicago Police Department has an unprecedented opportunity, given the hundreds of vacated positions that must be filled, to ground the new rules and values into a new generation of sworn police officers.
The FOP fought the 2019 federal consent decree that laid out a blueprint for reform, such as new guidelines on when to use firearms and Tasers, when to give chase and how to work with the mentally disturbed. But the training academy, every training officer and every supervisor can and should instill those new ways of thinking and working into every recruit.
Change works best when it is owned. Seize the moment, Chicago.
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