Inside the Chicago Police Department’s race problem

An accountability task force appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel found that the Chicago Police Department has engaged in a long pattern of institutionalized racism that has alienated black and Hispanic residents. For more on what the report means for Chicago, and how officials are planning to reform the city’s law enforcement services, John Yang talks to Lori Lightfoot of the Chicago Police Board.

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    Next: a stinging report on police tactics in a city where civic tensions have been running high.

    John Yang has our story.


    Chicago has seen months of outcry aimed at the nation's third largest police force. Just this week, demonstrators marched after the latest fatal shooting of a black teenager.

    Now, after a four-month review, a police accountability task force has delivered a damning assessment.

  • LORI LIGHTFOOT, Chicago Police Board:

    Many people said that they believe that the police that they encountered were fundamentally racist.


    The report says the police department's own data gives validity to "the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color."

    Exhibit A, 74 percent of those shot by police in recent years were African-American, even though blacks make up just a third of the city's population. It all came to a head last fall, when police dash-cam video showed a white officer killing black teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014.

    Facing a firestorm, Mayor Rahm Emanuel created the task force, and sacked the police superintendent.

    MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL (D), Chicago, Illinois: Congratulations.

  • EDDIE JOHNSON, Superintendent, Chicago Police Department:

    Thank you, sir.



    Yesterday, the city council unanimously approved Chicago police veteran Eddie Johnson as the new superintendent.


    I promise the citizens of Chicago, the elected officials and the rank-and-file police officers I will do my best, my absolute best, to regain the trust and to resolve some of this violence that we have out here.


    Both Johnson and Emanuel say they're now reviewing the task force's recommendations.

    We're joined from Chicago by Lori Lightfoot, who headed the task force that issued that report. She's a former federal prosecutor and now the president of the Chicago Police Board, an independent oversight agency.

    Lori Lightfoot, thanks so much for being with us.




    Your report really pulled no punches. It said at one point that the community's lack of trust in the Chicago Police Department is justified.

    And we have seen that lack of trust on full public display. Was there anything in what you learned assembling this report, anything that surprised you?


    Well, I think nothing specifically surprised us, but the depth of the anger and the frustration across a wide demographic of folks, particularly within the African-American community, really resonated with us.

    So, I won't say surprises, but it absolutely struck at the core of much of our thinking and how we knew we needed to move forward with some of the bolder recommendations that made its way into the final report.



    Sorry. Go ahead.


    No, go ahead.

    I was just going to say we heard from a real cross-section of folks, doctors, lawyers, professionals, average working-day folks, that were speaking of their frustration, and with real personal experience about the way that they have been treated by the police.


    At one point, the report asked how we got here, or how Chicago and the Chicago police got here.

    And a lot of it seemed to go to the attitudes of the officers on the street. You talked about in part racism. You talked about the mentality of ends justifying the means. A lot of the recommendations in this report — and there are many of them — go to policy changes, new procedures, new offices.

    How do you get at, though, the attitudes of the cops on the street?


    Well, look, I want to make — be very clear that what we were reflecting is what we heard from the community.

    There are a number of police officers out there every day who do their job the right way. I hope that, if our recommendations are adopted, that it will actually empower those officers who want to truly serve and protect, who want to have the support and resources of their supervisors, of the leadership of the department, so that they can police in a way that is both effective and respectful and understands and reflects the nature of a true partnership with members of the community.

    And I think if we get to that place, and if the recommendations that we have made actually adopted, I actually think that this will empower police officers who are out there struggling and looking for leadership on a number of different issues, particularly in the area of training, in procedural justice, in cultural literacy.

    There are a number of other different things that we found and that we pointed out that all go to engaging the community in fighting crime and addressing many of the ills that the police officers are called upon to address every single day.


    We reached out to Mayor Emanuel's office today, and he said that — the office told us that he's not going to be speaking on this for a while. He wants to digest it and read the report.

    I understand that the task force did meet with the mayor yesterday when you presented the report. What did you take away from that meeting?


    Well, what we took away is that he's going to take his own measure of the very detailed findings that we have made, the specific recommendations.

    This is a very dense document, and we did a very deep dive on a range of different issues. And, certainly, it was our expectation that he would take the time that he needed to both understand what we were saying, what the recommendations were, and then think about the best path forward for the city and for the department.


    What are you hearing from the public and from the police department today?


    I think we're hearing a range of things.

    People have a diversity of views and reactions to what is in the task force in terms of its finding and its recommendations. I think we stood up in an environment in which there was tremendous skepticism about all forms of government, and certainly anything with the current political structure.

    People told us time after time that they wish us luck, but they didn't believe it would really make any difference. And, frankly, what we have heard from a lot of folks that engaged us with that level of skepticism is that they are pleasantly surprised by the way in which we addressed hard truths that reflected the things that have been said in many neighborhoods going back decades and that we presented a reasonable, but bold and aggressive path forward.


    That skepticism, everything — all the recommendations require action either by the mayor, the city council, or the department itself. There's a Justice Department investigation.

    What do you think is going to happen? What do you hope is going to happen?


    Well, what I hope is going to happen is that the feeling in the community that really cuts across the entirety of Chicago, that this is a moment for bold action and for change, my hope is that that sentiment in the community will help inform, frankly, the political stakeholders to empower them to do what is necessary to move the department forward.

    The police department is one of the most critical and essential departments and institutions really in our city, as it is in all large urban areas. We need them to be successful in their mission, because there are people in crime-ravaged neighborhoods who need the police every single day.

    And so creating a path forward, speaking truth as to what has happened at an individual and institutional level was absolutely essential for us to be able to move forward. But there is a path forward.

    And we need to focus on how we heal the rift between the police department and the communities that it's sworn to serve and protect.


    Lori Lightfoot, thanks for joining us.


    My pleasure to be here.

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