Advocates fear new proposed Chicago cop guidelines signal retreat from reform

Jeanne Kuang / Injustice Watch

Police Supt. Eddie Johnson speaks at a news conference in January to announce the Justice Department’s report on misconduct in the Chicago police department.

Civil rights advocates expressed alarm that proposed guidelines released this week on Chicago police use of force may signal a retreat from the effort to curb excessive force by officers. The concern comes as the Trump administration shifts its focus from pushing Chicago and other departments to the threat of court if they do not address systemic misconduct.

The revisions, released by Supt. Eddie Johnson, toned down the original proposed guidelines released last October, starting with the original declaration that upholding “the sanctity of human life” is “the Department’s highest priority.” The new guidelines add language to emphasize that police officers’ lives as well as the lives of civilians and suspects matter equally.

Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo said the new draft, which still must go through comment from police and community members, reflects more input from officers in the field. “When you have people who are not police officers tell officers what to do without their consideration, it becomes dangerous,” he said.

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City officials insist that they remain committed to police reform, both curbing abuse and regaining community trust. In a statement, the city said the guidelines meet “the needs of the Chicago community while serving the fundamental purposes of law enforcement.”

But advocates of reform fear the guidelines reflect a step back from reform that comes as the U.S. Justice Department shifts its emphasis from guarding against police abuse to attacking violent crime.

University of Chicago law professor Craig B. Futterman said that in trying to appease the police union, “there has been the insertion of squishy language that does no service to the public or police.”

Sheila A. Bedi, associate professor at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, said, “for those who are concerned with seriously reducing lethal and non-lethal uses of force, this policy isn’t going to get the job done.”

The reform effort began amidst widespread protests by community groups, including Black Lives Matter, after the video of police officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting teenager Laquan McDonald was made public in November, 2015. The U.S. Justice Department launched a study into whether misconduct by Chicago police was a result of flawed patterns and practices of the department; meanwhile Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed a task force to examine the department problems.

The task force report, issued last April, found that racism and the failure of department officials to respond to incidents of abuse were two factors that left the community distrusting the police. Nine months later the U.S. Justice Department, in the last days of the Obama administration, issued its report finding widespread failures by the department that “result in unnecessary and avoidable incidents of force.” 

The Justice Department said then that it would work with the city to achieve an agreement, enforceable in court, on the reforms that would take place. Since then, the new administration has shifted its focus. During his confirmation hearings, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressed doubt about the wisdom of consent decrees; more recently, he suggested that criticism of police undermine their effectiveness and encourages more crime.

Illinois American Civil Liberties Union Director of Communications and Public Policy Edwin Yohnka said of the revised proposed use of force guidelines, “It’s a huge step backwards. I think this really demonstrates that the CPD thinks the pressure to reform is really off since the Department of Justice won’t really be a partner in this process.”

The new proposed guidelines dial back the original language requiring police to show restraint.  Police are no longer required to “use the least amount of physical force reasonably necessary;” the current draft allows officers to make their own judgment call on how forceful to be in situations of arrest, attack prevention, and overall control of a subject  to maintain their personal safety, as long as the amount of force is “objectively reasonable.”

The Justice Department findings in January specifically found that the department had failed to train officers to de-escalate tense situations to avoid the likelihood of force. The new proposal acknowledges that de-escalation is an important alternative to force, but not one that should be practiced at the expense of officers’ safety. Such tactics should be only used, the new draft states, when it is “safe and feasible to do so.”

Bedi called that omission the most troubling change. With that change, she said, the new proposal “does not meet the constitutional standard of use of force policy.”

Police union officials agree that the department needs to reform its training and do more to help prepare officers. Angelo said in an interview that the police had relied too much on videos and given too little actual instruction. “We believe there needs to be some kind of extensive face-to-face with officials and policy advisors who can communicate why this will be important to police officers on a daily basis,” he said.

Futterman said some of the revised proposed guidelines could bring welcome change, including a clear policy on deadly force and a clear ban on officers using force to retaliate against citizens who may hurl insults as they exercise their First Amendment rights.

The department will accept comments until March 16 on the proposed guidelines, and Angelo predicted a long road ahead to change. “This is something that no one should be rushing into and (should be) taken lightly,” he said.

Futterman, however, worried about whether reform even will be possible without the threat of the Justice Department taking legal action.

“What I know is that the police department and the city have proven incapable of changing on their own,” he said. “Without external pressure, without a meaningful hammer, things won’t change. We’ve had a long history of experience that teaches us that.”