Chicago police plan for 1.5M ‘positive’ interactions ‘deeply problematic,’ attorney general says

The state agency is warning that police Supt. David Brown’s goal for bolstering community engagement amounts to ‘a quota system’ that’s ‘rife with significant downsides.’

SHARE Chicago police plan for 1.5M ‘positive’ interactions ‘deeply problematic,’ attorney general says
A Chicago police officer helps pour pop into cups for kids in the 6400 block of South Cicero Ave. last May.

A Chicago police officer helps pour pop into cups for kids in the 6400 block of South Cicero Ave. last May.

Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Four days after Chicago closed the book on its most violent year in a quarter century, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and police Supt. David Brown pinned their hopes on a novel crime-fighting approach.

Brown, Lightfoot’s choice to usher in court-ordered reforms outlined in a federal consent decree, set a goal for the year of logging at least 1.5 million “positive community interactions,” of PCIs — a three-fold increase from 2021.

The effort to prioritize such exchanges — like helping change a tire or giving directions — was presented as a way to build trust and crack cases.

The department has encouraged community outreach for years but has never enforced it at such levels. A Sun-Times investigation now raises serious questions about Brown’s plan — and even its legality.

While officers must record each interaction, they often leave out crucial information that makes it virtually impossible for the department to verify that an account is accurate, according to a review of internal records.

Many records are missing the officer’s name or their star number. Others don’t give detailed information about the location where a PCI occurred.

And not a single record contains information about who was helped or what made the interaction positive.

The state attorney general’s office found so many problems with the program that it has urged the city’s lawyers to “suspend or at least pause” the effort to notch 1.5 million interactions, calling it “a quota system” that is “rife with significant downsides.”

“As you are likely aware,” a Feb. 7 memo obtained by the Sun-Times says, “the use of quotas in law enforcement — whether described as goals, targets, performance standards or activity metrics — is deeply problematic.”

Setting such a high, ill-defined goal could even backfire, tempting officers to “coast” after reaching their targets, counter to the spirit of community policing, according to the memo.

The attorney general’s office, which is overseeing City Hall’s compliance with the consent decree along with a federal monitor, sent the memo in response to a policy proposal submitted by the Chicago Police Department that sought to more clearly define PCIs and offer guidance to the officers tasked with conducting them.

In a lengthy list of comments and recommendations, the attorney general’s office urged the police department to avoid using “crude performance measures” that exclude “the quality of interactions” and risk “having officers treat community members as statistics to be collected, and not as human beings with problems, concerns and needs.”

104 PCIs a day for a single cop

The department began conducting PCIs under former Supt. Garry McCarthy. They have become part of a broader shift toward community policing, an approach increasingly embraced by law enforcement agencies nationwide.

A department directive describes them as “brief, spontaneous, high-visibility” encounters that are “positive, informative, helpful or constructive in nature.”

PCIs reported by officers spiked in the weeks after Lightfoot and Brown announced the goal of 1.5 million, according to a Sun-Times analysis of data obtained through an open records request.

Through Jan. 20, the latest data provided, the police had logged almost three times as many PCIs per day in 2022 on average compared to 2021.

In the first 20 days of this year, they logged 78,560 PCIs, up from 3,341 in 2021, just before last year’s program started to ramp up.

But information about each interaction often is missing key data that would be needed for any audit of how the program was performing.

For example, take Officer Sergio Pacheco from the Odgen district on the West Side. He logged 1,565 PCIs during the first 20 days of this year — more than double the officer who came in second. They were reported over just 15 days, giving him an average of 104 PCIs each day.

The data don’t provide any information about who he or any other officer talked to, including race, gender or age. It also doesn’t say how many people were involved in the interactions or what was positive about the encounters.

Pacheco, who has been a Chicago cop since 2018, declined to comment.

He was named in a federal lawsuit filed by 21-year-old Alycia Moaton, an activist who accused Pacheco and other officers of wrongfully arresting her during a racial justice demonstration downtown in August 2020. Moaton said she was sprayed with a chemical agent and groped by an officer during a search, then knocked down by police and called obscenities as Pacheco and other officers took her into custody.

The suit was dismissed this month after a settlement was reached, a person familiar with the matter told the Sun-Times. Pacheco was removed as a defendant two days before that.

Increase in positive interaction calls in Chicago

The map below shows the increase in positive interaction calls by police district. Every district saw a soaring rate of calls between 2020 and 2021 with the 10th district seeing by far the largest increase.

‘Impossible to assess’

About 33,000 of the nearly 628,000 PCIs logged since 2020 — about 5.3% of the calls — don’t have an officer’s name listed. And about 3.8% don’t include an officer’s star number.

The location listed for the interactions also is inconsistently reported. Some give the block address, while others list the name of a location, such as a restaurant or generic train station.

In 14% of all PCIs reviewed by the Sun-Times, the data don’t include the police district, instead only a designation for a citywide police radio channel.

Only 9% included information about a police beat, making it even harder to determine where the PCIs occurred.

The poor record-keeping was noted in the attorney general’s office’s memo, which said that has plagued similar programs across the country, “making it impossible to assess and learn how these departments can continue to improve.”

In setting the goal for the new year, Brown said PCIs were tools for “engaging the community [and] building trust.”

Lightfoot lauded the effort, saying community trust is the “secret sauce” to solving crimes.

But the attorney general’s office warned that setting a goal or quota for PCIs “risks exacerbating known disparities in trust levels between certain communities and CPD.”

Without a carefully crafted program and training, the memo said, officers will prioritize interactions with residents who are “easier” to engage rather than those who are distrustful of the police.

Officers alsomight be driven to “misconduct, fraud and corruption,” making up or wrongly describing their actions to meet the requirements, according to the memo. Supervisors focused on meeting the goals might “wrongly encourage or tolerate misreporting, fraud and other misconduct,” it said.

Just before the Jan. 4 news conference, Brown and Lightfoot had threatened to demote supervisors who couldn’t deliver more PCIs and arrests, the Sun-Times reported.

The attorney general’s office urged the department to develop a system to audit PCIs to eliminate the potential “fraud or abuse.”

Difference in positive interaction calls between 2020 and 2021

All police districts saw a sharp increase in calls between 2020 and 2021, but minority neighborhoods saw some of the largest jumps.

Minority Police Districts

Majority White Police Districts

‘First point of contact’

Police representatives didn’t answer questions from the Sun-Times, instead responding with a written statement that repeated many of Brown’s points from the Jan. 4 news conference.

“The department’s focus on getting officers out of their cars, out from behind their desks, and out into the community is not about a quota; it’s about changing our culture and making a difference,” the police statement said. “In many situations, officers are the first point of contact for residents and wear many hats. They are first-responders, liaisons and ambassadors, and community members themselves.”

Annie Thompson, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, declined to answer questions about the memo, saying her office “continues to work collaboratively with CPD and the city to resolve the comments we submitted during the consent decree’s review process.”

The office’s memo was signed by Senior Assistant Attorney General Aaron Wenzloff and also sent to Maggie Hickey, a former federal prosecutor appointed by an independent monitor overseeing the implementation of the consent decree.

Hickey wouldn’ comment. Last month, she said the police department’s “great data challenges” make it hard to come up with best practices. She said the department’s community engagement was “still not sufficient” and called it a “very cumbersome organization when it comes to data.”

The goal-driven system of PCIs ultimately could affect the department’s compliance with the consent decree, which prohibits the use of numeric quotas and stems from a 2017 lawsuit the attorney general’s office filed against the city over the police killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

Last month, Hickey said the department has reached full or partial compliance with just over half of the points in the federal court order.

Shareese Pryor, who negotiated the consent decree and oversaw its enforcement while previously working for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, also raised alarms about the quality and nature of the PCIs. She said they’re not the best tool for gaining trust in minority communities with “a history of over-policing and negative police encounters.”

The three police districts that recorded the most PCIs last year were all in predominantly minority areas on the West Side that have high levels of violent crime and drug activity.

Violence in Chicago Police Districts

These maps show the number of homicides and shootings (both fatal and non-fatal) in all of Chicago's police districts between 2020 and 2021.

Pryor and Michelle Garcia, the deputy legal director for the ACLU of Illinois, said PCIs could be used as a pretext for stopping and searching people.

“It’s up to the cops to decide what’s positive,” said Garcia, a former Justice Department official. “They’re the ones doing the reporting. There’s no auditing. ... If anything, it allows and encourages more unconstitutional stops.”

Contributing: Jesse Howe

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