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The Chicago Police Department: Historic Harms, the Current Crisis and the Possibility of Transformation

Professor Sheila Bedi
Tuesday, June 9, 2020

In response to the recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and untold others as well as the long history of white supremacy, police brutality, and anti-Black racism that enabled these killings, the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP) recently announced “Toward Transformative Justice: A Community Roundtable Series on Race, Racism, and Policing.” The roundtable series seeks to provide members of the Evanston and Chicago community with an inclusive space that bridges Northwestern research and community activism, sharing knowledge about the intertwinement of policing practices and racism in order to communally imagine a different future.

On Tuesday, June 9th 2020, the first installment of the series, attended by more than 110 participants, featured a talk by Sheila Bedi, Clinical Professor of Law at Northwestern Law School, under the title “The Chicago Police Department: Historic Harms, the Current Crisis and the Possibility of Transformation.” Professor Bedi opened her presentation by emphasizing the “power of proximity:” those most directly impacted by policing in Chicago and beyond often know most about both the impact of policing and the possibilities for creating a more just and less oppressive future; Northwestern’s incarcerated students, some of whom Bedi has taught through NPEP, thus provide invaluable perspectives on these questions as do local organizers.

Bedi’s overview of the history of the Chicago Police Department (CPD) drew a straight line from today’s crisis back to the protests and unrest in 1919 that followed the drowning and possible stoning of a Black young man in Lake Michigan at the hands of white Chicagoans. Numerous accounts of Chicago police’s abuse of force during those protests led to the production of a report that called for police reform and equally emphasized the importance of changing deeper economic and racial injustices. Neither of these demands for change were implemented. The ensuing pattern of “police violence-reform recommendations-failure to change,” according to Bedi, has structured the history of Chicago policing ever since, leading to the killing of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969, the torture perpetrated by CPD commander Jon Burge and his associates in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, up to the police killing of Laquan McDonald in 2014, and the myriad instances of abuse of force witnessed during the 2020 protests. One reason for cautious optimism can be found in the recently established “consent decree” between the federal government and the City of Chicago that grew out of a Department of Justice investigation of CPD, the largest of its kind in the U.S., that delineates necessary changes to CPD. Bedi emphasized, however, how difficult enforcing this decree has been and detailed some efforts her own law clinic has pursued to strengthen the consent decree.

Speaking to the possibility of lasting transformation that would break the impasse of failed attempts to reform CPD over the last 100 years, Bedi proposed four demands, all centered on the notion that power needs to be shifted away from police towards the communities police are supposed to serve. First, the scope of police responsibilities must be reduced: mental health, addiction, schooling, domestic violence—police officers are poorly equipped, often by their own admission, to handle these challenges yet are supposed to intervene in all of these areas. Resources thus need to be reallocated to institutions that are better equipped to handle these challenges, shrinking the police budget in the process. Secondly, Bedi emphasized that a police officer’s main tool—arrests—is merely reactive instead of proactively protecting a community and simultaneously places a huge burden on Black and brown communities that are disproportionately affected by the enormous number of arrests for minor offenses. Arrests themselves should be understood as acts of violence and their number consequently be severely limited. Third, incentives for officers engaged in abuse of force, such as overtime pay triggered by arrests at the end of a shift, must be removed as part of a larger rethinking of the incentive structure inherent in policing. Lastly, in response to the failure of police to reform themselves and City Council to meaningfully alter police conduct, Bedi emphasized the need for robust civilian oversight, centered in those communities most affected by policing.

Professor Bedi’s talks was followed by comments by McKayla Stokes, Mariah Young, and Terah Tollner, three students from Professor Bedi’s law clinic who spoke about their experiences working with Black organizers in Chicago, especially Black women, as well as the importance of the Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC), a proposal currently under discussion in City Council that has the support of a broad alliance of Chicago organizers. An extensive Q & A session touched on a number of issues drawing out the implications of the talk: police unions as a major obstacle to reform; the possibilities of police and prison abolition; incarceration’s overall negative public safety impact; the public health consequences of policing; as well as the militarization of police in recent decades.

In the context of current attempts to radically alter the structure of public safety in the U.S., Bedi encouraged participants to pose the question: “What investments actually create healthy and safe communities?” That the police are not the answer to this question became increasingly clear as the roundtable event progressed.

Jonas Rosenbrück, Director of Volunteer Development, NPEP
Ph.D. Candidate, Comparative Literary Studies & German