Could the Justice Department enact national policing reforms?

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Theodore Daffin, who says he was a victim of police brutality, shows his scars during a July 12 public forum hosted by the U.S. Department of Justice at Truman College. - MAX HERMAN/FOR THE SUN-TIMES
  • Max Herman/For the Sun-Times
  • Theodore Daffin, who says he was a victim of police brutality, shows his scars during a July 12 public forum hosted by the U.S. Department of Justice at Truman College.

Several hundred people gathered in the sweltering gymnasium of Truman College Tuesday to share personal stories of shootings, beatings, and robberies by Chicago police officers, and call for the U.S. Department of Justice to "do something" about police abuse. It was the third of four community forums organized by the DOJ's Civil Rights Division designed to solicit public participation in the agency's investigation into CPD.

Theodore Daffin, a middle-aged African-American man, made his way up to the microphone with the help of a walker. He then lifted up his shirt to reveal deep-set scars as he described an attack he says he suffered at the hands of Chicago police officers. "They cut my belly in the shape of a woman's vagina," he said.

Eric Russell, spokesman for the family of Bettie Jones—who was shot and killed as she opened the door for police officers last December—captured the community perception of cops as predators: "They kill us and then they sue us," Russell exclaimed to uproarious applause. "Bettie Jones made doughnuts every day at the bakery for the very people that shot her," he said.

Family members of other victims of Chicago police shootings, including the sister of Stephon Watts and the mothers of Darius Pinex and Michael Westley, also testified about their difficult quests for police accountability.

DOJ attorneys Nicole Porter and Emily Gunston listened patiently and empathetically for two and a half hours as a fleet of department staffers recorded every testimony.

"Everyone needs to understand that if [city agencies] fight us on this case they will lose," Gunston said as she explained why the investigation requires significant time. It could take months or years before the results of the DOJ's investigation in Chicago, which launched in December, will be published. "We respond to every single call, we respond to every single e-mail," Gunston said.

Including the one in Chicago, there are currently six open DOJ investigations of police departments around the country. In addition, 19 other local law enforcement agencies are in various types of legal agreements with the federal government to remedy patterns or practices of civil rights violations. The most common arrangement, a consent decree, imposes court oversight of reforms.

But even if the DOJ's investigation in Chicago is able to collect enough evidence of systematic civil rights violations to take CPD to court and impose reform with a consent decree, it would take many more years and millions of dollars to attempt to change policing culture in the city.

And even then, reform is not a given.

The Oakland Police Department, for example, has been under a consent decree for 13 years, and thus far the city has spent more than $13 million to pay for auditors, officer-monitoring equipment such as body cameras, and court fees. Observers say that policing in the city has improved, with a large drop in use-of-force incidents and class-action lawsuits alleging police misconduct. However, an 18-year-old woman recently alleged that she had had sex with multiple officers during a time when she was forced into prostitution as a minor. The revelations have rocked the department and deflated perceptions of meaningful reform, with three police chiefs resigning in nine days in June.

In addition, police killings and other forms of abuse continue nationally. At least 585 people have been killed by officers across the country since the start of 2016—including 16 in the days since the highly publicized shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile last week.

The onslaught of shootings, and the parade of investigations into local agencies, raises this important question: Is the DOJ capable of delivering a national solution to police misconduct, or must the agency continue to tackle the problem one police department at a time?

Legal experts say national reform is highly unlikely given a perceived lack of political will.

Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People's Law Center, has years of experience working with the DOJ's Civil Rights Division through litigating on behalf of Illinois prisoners.

Currently the majority of DOJ's budget is spent on the ongoing "war on drugs," through the FBI and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Mills says. Only a tiny fraction of the agency's budget is spent fighting police misconduct. Changing those budgetary priorities would take action from Congress, which earmarks appropriations to various DOJ activities.

"The problem is politics, not power," Mills says. "There's not a strong enough commitment in the public at this point to solve the problem."

Making matters worse, Mills argues that the DOJ essentially incentivizes the same practices that end up leading to its own civil rights investigations. The vast sums of money spent on the war on drugs have allowed law enforcement agencies to militarize and to be more aggressive and punitive in their approach, Mills says: "Were they to reverse [budgetary priorities] they would see a big change."

The DOJ could sidestep this problem with another approach: making grants to police departments conditional on documented compliance with the Civil Rights Act and other federal laws.

Since 1994 the DOJ has allotted nearly $15 billion to police departments around the country in Community Oriented Policing Services grants—and that's just one of various grants it offers.

CPD received at least $5 million in DOJ grants between 2007 and 2013. And according to the DOJ, CPD received more than $3.1 million to hire 25 officers last year. (CPD spokesman Jose Estrada could not say how much money the department received in total DOJ grants last year.)

The threat of taking that money away from local law enforcement agencies could have real teeth, because it would impact a police department's bottom line.

"Federal money is a huge lever, much better than individual enforcement actions," such as the DOJ's current investigation in Chicago, Mills argues.

Precedent does exist for forcing civil rights compliance by threatening to withhold federal funds. Notably, school desegregation efforts were stalled for a decade after Brown v. Board of Education until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allowed the federal government to withhold funding for segregated schools. Less than ten years later, nearly every southern school was integrated.

Change in policing practices could come even more swiftly than that, according to Mills. If federal grants were conditional on departments fulfilling standards such as low numbers of misconduct lawsuits and use-of-force cases, "you're putting the burden on people who want the money to prove that they're in compliance with the standards."

And, Mills adds, because the public demand for policing services is high— especially from white middle-class citizens with political clout—pressure on departments to comply with new grant conditions could build quickly.

For now, however, there is a lack of political will to employ such a strategy, Mills says. And with impending administrative change at the White House (and subsequently the DOJ), it's possible the Civil Rights Division would be asked to shift its attention from police misconduct to, say, freedom of religion cases, as was the case under George W. Bush.

Many in the audience Tuesday were aware of this, and some chose to address the crowd instead of the DOJ lawyers.

"I'm asking white people to end racism," said Pamela Hunt, whose mother, Ernestine, migrated to Chicago from the Jim Crow south. "Because I can't control it. Just as black people are asked to be accountable for the crime that happens in our community, I'm asking white people. These officers commit mayhem from Monday to Saturday, then on Sunday they go into their community, they go into their church and they get all kinds of support. Where are the white men? Where are the white business leaders? Where are the white pastors? I can't control racism, I can't control hatred. That is truly the white person's burden."

The burden on the DOJ, meanwhile, is to continue its fact-finding in Chicago—and an ever-growing list of other cities.

U.S. Department of Justice holds its final Chicago forum 6:30 PM Thursday, July 14, at the KROC Center chapel, 1250 W. 119th. If you would like to report an incident to the DOJ's investigations team, call 844-401-3735 or e-mail community.cpd@usdoj.gov.

DOJ CPD Incident Info Form

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