Chicago might have one of the largest police departments in the country, but amid a series of high-profile police shootings and persistent calls for reform, the Windy City is turning to some smaller cities for guidance.
At a press conference Wednesday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and interim police superintendent John Escalante announced the implementation of policy changes meant to better train police officers on how to respond to and resolve tense situations without resorting to deadly force.
Chicago has become the latest battleground for police-reform advocates in recent months. Its use of force policies and practices are currently being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice, and many protesters have called for Emanuel to resign.
Emanuel, who returned home early from a family vacation in Cuba after a 19-year-old college student and 55-year-old mother of five dead were killed by police gunfire over the weekend, said the reforms were meant to “inject some humanity into the work of our police department and our police officers.”
The reforms include doubling the department’s number of Tasers from 700 to 1,400 to ensure that every squad car is equipped with one; training officers on how to use Tasers properly; and communication techniques for safely de-escalating tense situations. Police officers involved in fatal shootings will now be put on desk duty for a minimum of 30 days, during which they can seek professional counseling and undergo a required re-training process before they are deemed physically and mentally capable of returning to duty. Previously officers were sent back into the field just 72 hours after a deadly shooting.
The changes, Escalante explained, were inspired by the best practices of 15 other police departments, including those of New York City, Seattle, Portland and Cincinnati.
Like with the deaths of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, Michael Brown in Ferguson and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, the 2001 police shooting of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed black teenager in Cincinnati, was a tipping point of a long history of tensions between Cincinnati’s police and its African-American community.
Thomas’ death sparked violent riots and prompted intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice that ultimately resulted in top-down, department-wide policy changes that have been heralded as a national example of effective police reform.
Among the many changes implemented in the wake of Thomas’ death were required training for officers to to recognize possible signs of mental illness and how to properly deal with people suffering from mental health issues. All Cincinnati police officers were given updated Tasers and their patrol cars were equipped with computers so they could quickly access a suspect’s complete criminal history while out in the field.
In response to complaints that Cincinnati police stop minority drivers more often than whites, the department implemented the use of “contact cards,” which officers are required to fill out with details such as the race of the people in every car that they stop. The department did away with its previous 35-year-old age limit for new recruits and suggested that new recruits have college degrees. In 2002, the Citizens Complaint Authority was created to conduct independent reviews for each incident in which a Cincinnati police officer used deadly force.
Though officers were resistant to the idea of having their behavior subjected to outside scrutiny, USA Today reported in 2011 that “CCA data show improvement in the number of investigations against officers and a reduction in the number of complaints sustained against officers.”
“In 2004, the first year the CCA started keeping data, it investigated 193 complaints, some with multiple allegations of misconduct,” according to USA Today. “The CCA sustained 92 allegations, or almost half, exonerating officers in 119 allegations.”
In 2010, the group investigated 83 misconduct allegations, 51 percent of which were exonerated.
But announcing policy changes and successfully implementing reform are two different things.
For example, this September Attorney General Loretta Lynch praised the Seattle Police Department for having “turned the corner” with a number of new policies on the use of force and crisis intervention training that had also resulted from a Justice Department investigation. But as of November, several community groups accused the Seattle Police Department of being too slow to actually adopt the reforms.
A similar situation has been unfolding in Portland. This fall, three years after a federal investigation determined that mentally ill people were regularly subjected to excessive force by Portland police officers, the department had yet to fully undergo the changes ordered by the DOJ.
One reporter asked Wednesday whether “looking to much smaller cities to solve the problem” indicates that “Chicago is behind the learning curve.”
Emanuel argued that the important thing these cities have in common is not their size but the fact that their reforms came out of a resolution with the Justice Department.
“They don’t just have a use of force policy, they have a more nuanced policy in terms of how police respond to the community,” Emanuel said, pointing to Seattle’s new early interdiction policy for troubled officers as an example.
“Just because Seattle is a different-sized city doesn’t mean we can’t learn a lesson from it,” he said.