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Op-Ed Mon Dec 07 2015
By Susan Bandes
Mayor Rahm Emanuel says he didn't watch the video of a Chicago police officer shooting a citizen in cold blood because he then couldn't be asked about it. Which is the perfect Chicago move. In fact, it crystallizes the city's longstanding attitude toward police abuses: if nobody has access to information, nobody can be expected to act.
The body that's supposed to be keeping police accountable, the Independent Police Review Authority, does almost nothing to track patterns of police misconduct and brutality. When reviewing a complaint, it does not make inquiries into any previous complaints against the same officer. Although the agency says it now has an early warning system for repeat offenders, that system identified only six percent of the officers with 11 or more complaints.
This is a critical failing as most brutality is committed by a small number of repeat offenders. Consider police officer Jerome Finnigan of the scandal-ridden Special Operations Section. He amassed 68 complaints, but was never disciplined. His career ended only when he was sentenced to 12 years in prison for robbing suspects and attempting to murder a fellow cop.
And of course there's Jason Van Dyke, the officer who was charged with first-degree murder for Laquan McDonald's death. He had at least 19 misconduct complaints, including at least 10 for excessive force. He had never been disciplined either.
There are many things the city could learn from existing data, if it chose to. For example, it could identify precincts that receive a high number of complaints. Remember Area Two, which housed Jon Burge and several other officers who were torturing suspects for over a dozen years? The Office of Professional Standards (the agency the IPRA replaced) never upheld a complaint against any of them. It treated each complaint as isolated and therefore unbelievable, instead of tracking the patterns.
It may seem odd to turn away information that could help combat the scourge of police brutality. It certainly seems counterintuitive to pay out tens of millions of dollars a year to complainants, as Chicago does, instead of learning how to fix the problems that led to the complaints. But ignoring and erasing patterns is a time-honored strategy for deflecting blame.
As the mayor revealingly said about the McDonald slaying, "One individual needs to be held accountable." Whose needs are being served by this story of the single rogue officer? It does no favors to all the good cops who act with courage and professionalism. They would be far better served by a system that actually identifies and disciplines the bad cops.
The rotten-apple theory protects the mayor, the attorney general, and other powerful governmental actors by suggesting that they are not to blame -- that they couldn't have known in advance.
The philosopher Karl Popper defined ignorance not as the absence of knowledge but as the refusal to acquire knowledge. And that is what Chicago is dealing with: a longstanding, concerted effort to turn away knowledge that would help combat police brutality.
Let's skip the usual delaying tactic of a "task force" and begin making good use of the information we have. We need an effective database for police complaints, independent from police control, and available for public scrutiny. Police abuse flourishes in Chicago not because we lack information but because our representatives ensure they never see the data that shows systematic dysfunction and rot.
Susan Bandes is the Centennial Distinguished Professor of Law at DePaul University and a 2015 Public Voices Fellow of The Oped Project.