Trump is Right that Chicago Needs Federal Help — Just Not the Help He Intends

When issues around police reform arise, the primary retort is to blame “black-on-black crime” as a means of deflecting the issue. We have seen a form of this with the recent actions of President Donald Trump. On June 30th, he sent in federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to curb violence in Chicago by cracking down on illegal gun sales and increasing gun crime penalties. This will provide an unhelpful focus on the community without similar scrutiny on law enforcement. While illegal gun sales and other types of criminal activities do play a role in violence in Chicago, accountability plays a large role in crime.

A clear-cut example of this is with the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Evidence of this lack of accountability was found in the previous administration’s Department of Justice (DOJ) report where they show only 2% of all complaints against the CPD were sustained. One of the more striking statements from the DOJ report was that they found evidence of unnecessary and unreasonable force with frequency and that this force has been historically tolerated. It gets even worse if we investigate further into this 2% statistic across racial and geographic lines. In a recent study of citizen complaint data[1], my co-author and I find that African-American men who live on the Chicago Southside are 2.3% less likely to have their complaints of excessive use of force sustained than other groups. Given that there is already a low probability of holding “bad actors[2]” accountable for their actions, it is even worse when the victims are African-American or live on the Southside. It is not just the community that is concerned about a lack of accountability, but law enforcement officers themselves have this concern. In Pew Research Study on policing, only 27% of the police officers in the sample find that officers who are doing a poor job are held accountable.

The outcome of this is that there are diminished incentives to cooperating with the police when the community is subject to unnecessary use of force and when unreasonable use of force is tolerated by the police.

In a place like Chicago, this is where the federal government can step in, but not with troops but with consent decrees. Consent decrees play a vital role in ensuring accountability and beginning the process of police reform. As evidenced by consent decrees in cities like Los Angeles, Detroit, and Cleveland, these can be beneficial for police departments that are afflicted with these “bad actors.” A recent analysis of these pattern-or-practice investigations have shown police departments who have gone through this process have generally improved their policing and have improved their image with the local community.

Thus, the answer is to improve accountability, which the city of Chicago has begun the process by eliminating the Independent Police Review Authority and replacing it with the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and providing significantly more funding to the agency. This will provide the pathway to lowering crime while improving community relations in Chicago.

[1] This was data compiled by the Invisible Institute (similar to the data used in the Justice Department’s report).

[2] This is the term used by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.