The most important statement in the Justice Department’s damning report on the Chicago Police Department has nothing to do with police behavior. Released on Friday, the report found the Chicago police guilty of a “pattern or practice” of unconstitutional force. But it turns out that the Justice Department has no standard for what constitutes a “pattern or practice” (the phrase comes from a 1994 federal statute) of unconstitutional police conduct. “Statistical evidence is not required” for a “pattern or practice” finding, the DOJ lawyers announce, citing unrelated court precedent. Nor is there “a specific number of incidents” required to constitute a “pattern or practice,” they proclaim.
Having cleared themselves of any obligation to provide “a specific number of [unconstitutional] incidents” or a statistical benchmark for evaluating them, the DOJ attorneys proceed to ignore any further obligation of transparency. The reader never learns how many incidents of allegedly unconstitutional behavior the Justice Department found, nor how those incidents compare with the universe of police-civilian contacts conducted by the Chicago Police Department. No clue is provided regarding why the DOJ lawyers concluded that the alleged abuses reached the mysterious threshold for constituting a pattern or practice. Instead, the report uses waffle words like “several,” “often,” or “many” as a substitute for actual quantification. This vacuum of information hasn’t stopped the mainstream media from trumpeting the report as yet another exposé of abusive, racist policing. EXCESSIVE FORCE IS RIFE IN CHICAGO, U.S. REVIEW FINDs, read the headline on the New York Times’s front-page story, which went on to note that the excessive force was “chiefly aimed at African-Americans and Latinos.”
The report does disclose that the DOJ attorneys reviewed 425 incidents of less-than-lethal force between January 2011 and April 2016. But what proportion of total force incidents those 425 events represent or how many of those 425 incidents the federal lawyers found unconstitutional isn’t revealed. As to how many stops and arrests were made over that same time period that didn’t involve the use of force, the reader can only guess.
We also learn that the federal civil rights team identified 203 officer-involved shootings between January 1, 2011, and March 21, 2016. How many of those were bad shootings? Fifteen? One hundred? The reader is left in the dark. The massive New York Police Department averaged 48 shootings a year from 2005 to 2015. The per-capita rate of officer shootings in the NYPD is therefore much lower than in the Chicago Police Department, which is about a third the size. But Chicago’s crime rate is much higher than New York’s; CPD officers confront many more armed and resisting suspects. It would have been useful to know how the ratio of officer-involved shootings to criminal shootings in Chicago compares to other cities. We don’t even learn how many of those 203 officer-involved shootings in Chicago were lethal.
The absence of any quantified evidence for DOJ’s judgment of systemic abuse is all the more significant, since it was only yesterday that Chicago law enforcement was the darling of the left-wing academic establishment. In 2010, the New York City Bar Association held a forum on the New York Police Department, during which Columbia University law professor Jeffrey Fagan and Yale University law professor Tracey Meares both touted the Chicago department as a model that the big, bad NYPD should emulate. (I participated on that bar panel as well.) Meares and her Yale colleague Tom Tyler have used the Chicago Police Department as a laboratory for their concept of “procedural justice and legitimacy.” The Obama administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing incorporated the procedural justice idea from Chicago into its May 2015 report; the Justice Department distributes the Chicago procedural justice curriculum to other departments, according to Time magazine. John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor David Kennedy worked with Chicago on his theory of violence reduction. Garry McCarthy, who was superintendent of the Chicago Police Department during the period covered by the DOJ’s report, presented himself as a “reform” commander focused on community relations, and he was received as such by academia and the media. The Chicago PD’s extensive collaboration with academic researchers was the hot topic during a November 2015 conference of the American Society of Criminology, reports Time.