Community groups: toughen rules on when police point guns, or lives in danger

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A coalition of community groups contends in newly-filed court papers that lives would be put at risk if the union representing Chicago police successfully delays terms regulating when officers may point their guns at civilians.

The coalition position, laid out in a brief filed Thursday in the Northern District of Illinois division of U.S. District Court, urges that the court not only speedily implement the regulations but also adopt even more stringent regulations on when Chicago police officers may point their weapons at civilians.

“Lives depend on it,” said Craig Futterman, one of the attorneys for the coalition—which includes groups ranging from Black Lives Matter Chicago to the Urban League to the local NAACP officials, as well as several individuals—in a telephone interview Thursday on the importance of the issue.

The brief filed on behalf of the coalition notes that the Seventh Circuit, headquartered in Chicago and which oversees appeals of federal cases from Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, has in past decisions considered the pointing of a gun as creating the threat of deadly force. The brief cites what is described as both the physical risk of accidental shootings and psychological trauma resulting from pointing guns at civilians.

It was filed as the court considers a request by the local Fraternal Order of Police to delay the implementation of the Chicago Police Department’s proposed Firearm Pointing Incidents Policy that was mandated by the consent decree filed this January. The city opposes the proposed delay.

The consent decree grows out of events following the 2015 release of the video of Officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting teenager Laquan McDonald. The U.S. Justice Department undertook an examination of whether there were systemic patterns and practices within the department that led to unconstitutional acts.

The department investigation occurred during the final year of the administration of then-president Barack Obama. But though then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch reported that the department was beset by “deficit in trust and accountability,” as the Trump administration took office the new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, fought against consent decrees, under which the city agrees to reforms that are supervised by a court.

With the federal government balking at taking action, then-Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued the city over the systemic problems that had been identified, two months after a similar lawsuit by the coalition. Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police superintendent Eddie Johnson worked with Madigan to hammer out the agreement. Community groups questioned if it went far enough, and the police union opposed the decree as too restrictive.

In January, U.S. District Judge Robert Dow approved the agreement. As part of the consent decree, Judge Dow empowered the plaintiffs in the coalition lawsuit to bring actions to enforce the decree.

Under the firearm pointing policy, police officers would be permitted to point a firearm at a person “when it is objectively reasonable to do so under the totality of the circumstances faced by the member on the scene.”

The FOP contends such a change would be required to be a subject of negotiation under the collective bargaining agreement.

In the newly-filed brief, the community groups propose the court not just reject the delay but adopt an even more strict regulation on when officers can point a weapon at civilians.

“While there should be no delay in the adoption of a firearm policy, nor should the parties to this suit allow for the implementation of a policy that does not vigorously protect Chicago communities, the current policy, proposed by the City, fails to meet this measure,” the brief reads.

Some departments characterize pointing a firearm at a person as a use of force, but Chicago does not. As a result, the pointing of a gun is not subject to reporting and accountability provisions written into the consent decree, said Alexa Van Brunt, one of the coalition’s attorneys. Under the policy, pointing a firearm at a person is viewed similarly to a stop or seizure, Van Brunt said.

That characterization, she said, is simply wrong: “It’s not just a seizure, it’s a use of force.”

Futterman emphasized that because pointing a firearm would not be characterized as a use of force under the policy, it would not be subject to reporting provisions that could lead to more transparency surrounding the circumstances under which police point firearms at individuals.

“If it’s important enough and serious enough to actually point a gun at somebody, it’s certainly important enough to document and say why you did it,” he said.

In the brief filed today, the coalition members suggest alternate firearm policy language which would both explicitly characterize pointing a firearm as a use of force and prohibit officers from pointing their firearms at a person unless “there is an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm to the officer or another person.”

While the federal court does not currently have jurisdiction over the proposed language change — it can only rule on the FOP’s motion to delay — Van Brunt said the coalition was seeking to “educate” the city and the court on what best practices for firearm policy might look like with their desired language.

One way the language around this provision could be influenced is through public opinion, at least through July 31. The public has an opportunity to comment through the CPD website on the matter until this date.

Even while balancing this challenge, preventing any further delay remains a priority according to Futterman.

“It is beyond urgent to implement a policy that strictly limits and prohibits police officers from pointing guns at people unless there is an immediate threat to life or great bodily harm,” he said.