Can Chicago Police Be Both Transparent and Effective?

Politics Features Transparent
Can Chicago Police Be Both Transparent and Effective?

This past week, Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) released hundreds of videos and material related to investigations of police misconduct. This is the city’s latest attempt to improve police transparency and accountability following the tragic shooting of Laquan McDonald in 2014. For more than a year after the shooting, Chicago officials would not release the video of Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald until forced to by a judge’s order, revealing endemic racism, political corruption, and a longstanding code of silence within the police department.

Since then, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has instigated a number of reforms in order to restore the community’s trust in the police. IPRA also established a new policy in which videos which depict police brutality against a civilian must be released to the public within 60 days. These are good steps to ensure that police brutality and oversight will no longer be ignored in Chicago.

But my question is: what happens next? Could this release of videos dissuade Chicago police from effectively and proactively doing their job for fear of being watched and judged? If these initiatives succeed in providing more transparency to police actions, will there be a subsequent backlash within the force?

University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman, who also founded the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project, was asked the same question in a recent interview with Chicago Tonight. His response was reassuring, saying that the release of videos shouldn’t have an effect on police behavior. “Honest police officers welcome transparency, welcome accountability,” Futterman said. “If a police officer doesn’t want public accountability and public scrutiny of his or her acts as a police officer, he or she has no business being a police officer. It’s that simple.”

Futterman’s right – it should be simple. But how accurate is his statement in light of the so-called “Ferguson Effect?”

What is the Ferguson Effect?

This trend, referring to the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was first coined to describe the rise in crime rates in St. Louis following public scrutiny of police, attributing the increase in homicides to criminals empowered by a less aggressive police force. This theory was later proved to be false, as crime rates were increasing well before the 2014 shooting. Now, the trend more commonly refers to a decrease in police activity following the release of a video showing police misconduct, with an implication that police officers refrain from aggressive action for fear of being watched.

Before we go any further, the term “Ferguson Effect” should be clarified. There are many who use this effect to blame the Black Lives Matter movement and other protestors for an uptick in crime rates. This is simply untrue. First of all, a call for transparency and accountability from the police is completely justified. Community members absolutely have the right to feel like they can trust their own police force. Second of all, there is no clear connection between police transparency and an increase in crime rates, but there is a connection between transparency and a change in police behavior.

In a detailed examination of the Ferguson Effect, Vox noted that “police officers are less likely to engage in what’s called “proactive” policing. They’re less willing to spend any more time in communities than is absolutely necessary to address crimes that have already happened.” So while transparency doesn’t necessarily contribute to an increase in homicide rates, it does contribute to a more hands-off police approach. In other words, the correlation between transparency and homicide rates is unclear, but the correlation between transparency and less proactive policing is.

This is further evidenced by a study criminologist Robert Ankony conducted in 1999 on how alienation from the community affected policing behavior. Ankony concluded that “a high perception of alienation among police officers from the citizens of the community where they patrol reduces morale and spawns police indifference and inactivity.”

Of course, this trend doesn’t necessarily apply to every city. Some cities experiencing a spike in crime rates have also experienced public scrutiny of police misconduct; others have not.

In terms of the less proactive policing definition, is the Ferguson Effect happening in Chicago?

According to the data, yes. In April, FiveThirtyEight provided an analysis of crime data in Chicago that clearly shows that in the midst of an increase in gun violence, there has also been a decrease in arrests, a trend that started around the time the video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting was released in November of 2015. Since the video was released, there was a 69 percent decrease in nonfatal shooting arrests and a 48 percent decrease in homicide arrests, a drop too significant to be attributed to temperature changes or chance, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Could paperwork be a factor?

Anthony Guglielmi, the spokesman for the Chicago Police Department, denied this trend, attributing the arrest slowdown to an increase in a new form of paperwork under Chicago’s stop-and-frisk program. For many years, police officers would typically fill out contact cards after stopping anyone that did not lead to an arrest. These small cards contained identifying information of the person, including name, address, and physical description. However, the contact cards were found to unfairly discriminate against young African American men without any justification, even incorrectly identifying residents as gang members. A survey taken in 2015 found that 68 percent of African American youths reported being stopped, while the number was just 38 percent for young white men.

The American Civil Liberties Union took notice of how contact cards were being used as a method of racial profiling. After the police made a settlement with the ACLU, as of January, officers must now fill out a two-page investigatory stop report (ISR) after each interaction with community members, detailing exactly why the stop was made. However, the extra paperwork is deterring some officers from making stops, contributing to what some officers are calling the “ACLU effect.”

However, it’s unclear if this is the real reason why arrest rates are down in Chicago. For instance, New York City police also decreased the number of stops they made after similar scrutiny from the ACLU, with a drop of 93 percent between 2011 and 2014. But that didn’t lead to an increase in crime. Instead, there was a 35 percent decrease in murders and a 36 percent decrease in shootings during that same time period. So scaling back stop-and-frisk programs does not necessarily explain the decrease in arrests and increase in crime that we’re seeing in Chicago.

Furthermore, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, a sergeant in a south side police district confirmed that officers were decreasing their stops not just because of the time spent on more paperwork, but because they feared being questioned over the stops. “We’re avoiding all the gray areas,” the sergeant said.

Ruth Wedster, a former training division commander for the Chicago police, agreed that officers are most likely feeling a general reluctance to make stops, for fear that their written justification will be scrutinized. “Officers are afraid that they are going to make a mistake in how they articulate [the reasonable suspicion] on paper,” Wedster told WBEZ. “And it’s going to turn into a civil-rights violation. It could mean losing your house. It could mean losing your career. Ultimately they could end up in jail.”

The data seems to confirm this mentality. During the five weeks between the release of the video and the implementation of the ISR, the overall arrest rate dropped seven percent, making it unlikely that an increase in paperwork is the sole cause of less proactive policing.

How does community trust affect policing?

Guglielmi also claimed that another major reason for the decrease in arrests falls on uncooperative civilians. It is true that community members have a hard time trusting the police. In a recent poll, more than 50 percent of Chicago residents said that police would make a situation worse or would not make a difference. And just this past Memorial Day weekend, a young man who had been shot was heard telling neighbors not to call the police as he was bleeding.

Why is this true? Obviously, unnecessary police brutality against minorities is a major source of distrust among the community. In the same poll, 62 percent of Chicago residents said they believed that the police are more likely to use deadly force against a black person than a white person. But a lot of this distrust also has to do with the insane number of stops police were making when still using the contact cards.

David Lemieux, a retired Chicago police detective, told WBEZ that the “good citizens of the community that are not involved in any crime and that may even be the victims of crime . . . have been treated as criminals or as potential criminals,” and that these stops fueled a general lack of trust between the community and the police.

So yes, there is a community distrust towards the police, but part of that lies within the perceived and real discrimination that occurs with unjustified stops. It all comes back to a need for transparency.

We can see now that transparency has, at least indirectly, caused police to pull back on proactive policing. But exactly why they are pulling back remains relies on a combination of possible factors, such as a decrease in racial profiling, or a fear that videos and reports could be judged and scrutinized.


What can be done? How do we both have police transparency as well as police who feel like they can do their job?

It’s a complicated issue, to be sure, and as this is a relatively new trend for most cities, there isn’t a lot of data to rely upon. The clearest takeaway, however, is that there needs to be a restored sense of trust between the police and the community.
“Effective community policing requires that police officers work closely with local citizens in designing and implementing a variety of proactive crime prevention and control measures,” Ankony observed in his study. “To accomplish these initiatives, it is crucial that officers feel closely integrated with the majority of citizens in the community they serve.”

Not only does trust allow citizens to cooperative effectively with the police, leading to more solved crimes, trust also allows the police to feel a sense of engagement with the community, and resume proactivity leading to hopefully more arrests.
How can trust be restored? More transparency, for one. Some, including Futterman, say that the new policy of releasing videos after 60 days does not go far enough, and that videos should be released within 24 to 48 hours. The new policy even allows videos to be held for much longer under indefinite extensions, which should not be the case. Honesty from the very beginning of an investigation will go a long way in making people feel informed.

More community programs can also help build relationships between residents and police officers. For example, the 48th ward has a “Safe Summer Nights” program, which includes weekly events where community members are encouraged to play basketball with neighborhood police officers.

The Chicago police have also announced a few initiatives to curb gun violence. And while these initiatives are important, what will make them all the more effective is a sense of trust. Because gang violence these days tend to lean towards personal disputes, it is all the more important for residents to cooperate with the police in helping them solve crimes.

Coming back to the original question, yes, an increase in police transparency can definitely affect policing behavior, both directly and indirectly. There is the direct result, where police are reluctant to be proactive for fear of scrutiny. And then there are the murkier consequences, where officers are encouraged to make less unjustified stops, which could decrease racial discrimination and build trust, but could also be a reason why we’ve seen a recent drop in arrest rates. I have to believe that in the long-run, as transparency and police-community relationships improve, we will see that an accountable police force can be an effective one too.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin