photo of a hand holding money, the cash is on fire
“With this terrible tragedy, it might be a good time to push in this direction.” Credit: JP Valery/Unsplash

When then-Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke killed Laquan McDonald in 2014, the fallout prompted then-Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to launch an investigation of the police department’s use of force. That investigation, the results of which were released in 2017, found “CPD officers engage in a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force, that is unreasonable.” In 2019, the department was placed under a federal consent decree that ordered changes to everything from the use of force and foot pursuits to training and officer mental health.

Four years later, how much progress has been made?

The consent decree’s independent monitor, Maggie Hickey, expressed “significant concerns” in June about the department’s compliance with the decree, noting it was in full compliance with only 5 percent of its goals. And last year, a report by the Office of the Inspector General found the Chicago Police Department initiated an “overwhelmingly disproportionate” number of police stops of Black people and also subsequent use-of-force incidents. Some 83 percent of such incidents involved a Black person.

Five percent compliance in four years is a slap in the face of McDonald’s family and an insult to the whole city of Chicago. It shows not only that there is resistance to change but opposition to and active defiance of it. The Chicago police want to be free to continue to terrorize Black and Brown citizens.

For years, CPD was essentially lawless. Officers have routinely used unnecessary and unreasonable force, including deadly force. The evidence is the more than half a billion dollars the city has paid to settle police misconduct lawsuits since 2010.

Chicagoans know the names of Jon Burge, Reynaldo Guevera, and Ronald Watts: officers who tortured and framed countless Chicagoans. Yet how many know the names of the officers who witnessed and corroborated their reports to help frame innocent people? These men didn’t do this in a vacuum. They had help and protection from other cops. When Van Dyke killed McDonald, he initially claimed the 17-year-old had “aggressively” lunged at him with a knife, and other officers corroborated his claim on official reports.

But dashcam video showed it wasn’t true. Sergeant Stephen Franko and officers Janet Modragon, Daphne Sebastian, and Ricardo Viramontes were fired for allegedly covering up the murder.

Department leadership often laments the perception of police officers. Few trust the police anymore—and why should they? Judging from the department’s history, they have every right to fear them.

This is the situation Mayor Brandon Johnson inherited. The mayor is being pressed by activists who want fundamental changes to policing, including cutting the police budget. They want to see these changes implemented faster than the results of the consent decree have been. Homicide clearance rates are a common measure of a department’s effectiveness at contributing to public safety. Johnson alluded to this in his campaign when he spoke about promoting 200 detectives. This would help an ailing police department to get back on its feet and bring closure to families that really need it.

What, though, can we do about police misconduct? 

Quite a bit, if our elected officials are serious about creating change. I believe there is one power that can almost immediately, fundamentally change the way CPD works: pension forfeiture.

“Pension forfeiture for misconduct is pretty rare,” D. Bruce Johnsen, a George Mason University law professor emeritus, who has studied pension forfeiture specifically for police officers, told CNN after then-officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. “With this terrible tragedy, it might be a good time to push in this direction.”

Police officers tend to be rewarded with some of the most lucrative retirement benefits of any public-sector employees, allowing them to retire far earlier, and with bigger payouts, than most Americans.

In Illinois, an officer’s pension can be forfeited if they are convicted of a felony. It’s exceedingly rare for Chicago police officers to be charged with a crime, let alone convicted. This means officers like the ones who lied in their official police reports, and allegedly tried to cover up McDonald’s murder, will still get their pensions.

Then-police chief of Miami Art Acevedo told CNN in 2021 the threat of losing a pension could be a powerful deterrent to bad behavior.

“Imagine if this type of consequence had prevented Officer Chauvin from sitting on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds,” Acevedo told CNN. “Imagine if all of a sudden, it clicked in his mind, ‘If something happens to Mr. Floyd, I could lose my retirement.’ . . . If we could avoid one George Floyd, I’m all for it.”

The lawlessness that we see CPD participate in is compounded because officers who commit misconduct rarely face consequences. As a result, they have no reason not to do whatever they want, to whomever they want.

The mayor and legislators must come together and pass something that will give the mayor or the police superintendent the right to strip officers of their pensions for misconduct.

Furthermore, the money for misconduct settlements should come out of CPD’s budget. Otherwise, it’s the city that ends up paying victims. The CPD budget for 2023 is $1.94 billion; any money paid out in settlements for police misconduct should come out of that. The poor and dispossessed should not have to pay for the misconduct they are victims of.

Tools such as the consent decree are not working. It’s time for Chicago to use new tools and to fundamentally change the way the police conduct themselves. We must get rid of the bad officers, make misconduct cost them personally, and put the burden of paying for misconduct on the police department.

Anthony Ehlers is a writer incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center. Find out more about incarcerated journalists via the Prison Journalism Project.

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