The slow pace of police reform victimizes Chicagoans — and drains their wallets

Critics tell us that payouts now in the hundreds of millions are a sign that the city and police department are not serious enough about reform. If they were, Chicagoans would see real accountability, better policies and better outcomes.

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Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A few years ago, the more optimistic among us may have thought the days of large payouts in cases of alleged police misconduct would gradually slip away into the history books.

Such wishful thinking.

In September, the City Council OKd nearly $25 million in settlements in three lawsuits against the police department.

Also in September, Inspector General Deborah Witzburg reported that, from 2018 through 2020, Chicago taxpayers shelled out $250 million in settlements and judgments arising out of legal claims against the Chicago Police Department and its officers.

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In November, a council panel approved a $5 million settlement for the family of a teenager, Michael Elam Jr., who was killed in a police department shooting.

The numbers keep piling up. So do the tragic stories of people who have been victimized by police.

Fixing both problems should be at the top of the next mayor’s agenda.

Resisting reform?

On Tuesday, city residents testified before U.S. District Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, who is now overseeing Chicago’s court-ordered police reform. During the hearing at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, many of them related accounts in which they said they had been unfairly victimized by police.

Meanwhile, Mary Grieb, who is representing the Illinois attorney general in the 2019 consent decree on police reform, said the city and the police department have resisted reforms, although Grieb acknowledged progress has been made.

While the city touts dozens of rewritten or revised policies, Grieb said important units in the police department that are needed to reach reform goals are understaffed and six policies are overdue for being finalized. Among those overdue policies are those dealing with sexual misconduct and mandating officers to wear body-worn cameras.

That is far from being a stellar report card, especially since finalizing policy is just a first step that must be followed by officer training and then full-scale implementation.

Meanwhile, as critics continue to tell us, the city’s payouts are an alarming signal that the city and police department are not serious enough about police reform. If they were, Chicagoans would see real accountability, better policies being written and implemented — and better outcomes.

“People are losing faith in this promise for change,” said Craig Futterman, a clinical law professor at the University of Chicago who has worked with community members on police reform, told us. “The police department and the city have resisted every effort to actually engage people who have been most impacted.”

$96 million every year

With proper reform, police misconduct would be nipped in the bud long before officers engaged in acts that victimize Chicagoans and ultimately cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

And the ever-mounting costs, as we’ve noted, are stunning.

Lawyer G. Flint Taylor in June calculated that taxpayers had spent more than $210 million on just those police torture cases involving former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his so-called “midnight crew” of officers. That number that will keep growing as more of these cases are adjudicated.

In March, a Washington Post analysis found Chicago had spent almost $528 million to settle misconduct claims between 2010 and 2020. The Post also found Chicago, New York and Los Angeles paid out the most money in police settlements.

And in early November, the Better Government Association reported that police settlement and judgment data from the city’s Department of Law shows $63.3 million spent between January and July 2022 — and that didn’t include an additional $25 million that was not yet included in law department data. The BGA also found that since 2010, the city has paid an average of $96.3 million each year on settlements and judgments. Spending on lawsuits has been over-budget for 12 of the last 13 years.

Those payouts are a stain on the city.

The cost of police misconduct won’t go away quickly. Some of the cases coming to a close now are years old. Others will be working their way through the system for years. Also, because the city, which is self-insured, has had the practice of financing settlements by selling bonds, those costs will be paid back in years to come, even if there aren’t any new cases.

In her September report, Witzburg said data on police misconduct is collected so badly the city can’t learn from its mistakes. That’s more than troubling.

Yes, the police department has a difficult job. But if CPD isn’t learning from what it’s doing wrong, the mistakes — and their high cost, in taxpayer dollars and victims’ shattered lives — will continue.

The betterment of Chicago depends on fixing the mess.

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