Doubt about police in Chicago manifests itself on racial lines in monitor's survey, legal challenges over traffic stops

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Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — Many Black Americans’ distrust for police, both in Chicago and around the country, has been highlighted repeatedly in 2020, most recently this week with outrage over the controversial result of an investigation into the death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville.

Chicago had its own watershed moment on policing and racism with the 2014 shooting of Black teenager Laquan McDonald by a white officer later convicted of second-degree murder, touching off efforts for sweeping reform. But a recent community survey on policing that is part of that effort points to a continuing, wide racial divide between how Black and white residents view cops, including a persistent issue: the street stop.

That Black residents are targeted for stops by Chicago police at a higher rate than white residents has been detailed in federal lawsuits, by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, the Justice Department and even a police task force chaired by Mayor Lori Lightfoot herself.

But the problem remains, and continues to have an impact on how Black Chicagoan’s view the police, according to the survey, which was conducted by the independent monitor who is overseeing the federally court-mandated reform of the Chicago Police Department.

While nearly 80% of white residents surveyed said police make them feel safer, fewer than half the Black residents who took part felt the same. Just a third of young Black men surveyed felt that way.

Overall, the survey, which included Black, white and Hispanic residents, showed a shared lack of confidence in the department, with only about half of all respondents saying Chicago police officers are trustworthy.

“At this moment in history, when communities across the nation are demanding changes to policing, the findings of this survey give us additional insight into police-community relations in Chicago,” wrote Maggie Hickey, the monitor, in a filing to the court. “The overarching implication of these survey results is that the CPD has serious work ahead to gain the trust and confidence of Chicagoans.”

The monitor’s survey included interviews with 1,000 residents between November 2019 and February 2020 – notably before the May 31 slaying of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest.

The survey found that Hispanic Chicagoans overall closely tracked with the opinions of white residents, but they were more negative on specific questions about police ability to solve crime, community cooperation and fear of retaliation from officers for filing a complaint.

A key takeaway, however, is that Black Chicagoans have the most negative experiences with police, especially for the specific younger demographic the monitor focused on — young Black men between the ages of 18 and 25:

— While 77% of white Chicago residents and 67% of Hispanic residents think police make their neighborhoods safe, only 47% of Black residents feel the same. That figure fell to 34% among a group of young Black men who were surveyed separately in a pool of 346 respondents.

— 37% of young Black men and 15% of Black Chicagoans overall reported being stopped by Chicago police while walking on the street during the past year, compared to 4% for white Chicagoans and 2% for Hispanics.

— For stops in cars, young Black men again reported the highest rates at 52%, followed by 34% for Black Chicagoans, 19% for Hispanics, and 9% of white residents surveyed.

— More young Black men, 19%, reported Chicago police pointing a gun at them, compared to 2% for all those surveyed.

“Black Chicagoans report experiencing and perceiving the CPD much more negatively than other Chicagoans do,” the survey report reads. “White Chicagoans consistently rated the CPD most positively, tend to trust CPD officers, report being treated well by the CPD, and generally indicate higher satisfaction with the CPD overall.”

A higher number of street stops just for Black residents can have far-reaching impact, experts said, especially for young Black men.

“It impacts their civic participation,” said Paul Butler, a professor of law at Georgetown University and former federal prosecutor. “A number of studies have found negative encounters with police and the criminal justice system make people less likely to participate in civil society. … It has long-term detrimental affect on democracy.”

Butler, who wrote the book, “Chokehold: Policing Black Men,” said the traffic stop data was the “most revealing” data point in the report.

For his criminal procedure class at Georgetown, Butler arranges for interested students to have a ride-along with a police officer to observe traffic stops, including how common a minor traffic violation is.

The point is to show that while many people violate traffic laws, not everyone gets stopped.

“Traffic stops are discretionary and often pretextual, meaning the cops don’t care you changed lanes without signaling,” Butler said. “They just want to stop someone. … Study after study has found that police use this power to target young black men in cars.”

Rashawn Lindsey is one of several plaintiffs in one federal lawsuit filed against the city of Chicago and the department on behalf of Black Chicago men who allege they were victims of unconstitutional stops.

He was walking down a street in Englewood when he was stopped in April 2015, according to his lawsuit.

Lindsey, an 18-year-old high school student at the time, had heard plenty of stories from family and friends about harassing stops by the police. But Lindsey also said he also believed that police had a tough job and deserved the benefit of the doubt.

“I was under the impression that police are just doing their job, they usually have a split second to make their decision,” Lindsey, now 23, said in an interview with the Tribune. “I felt like a lot of people were over-exaggerating the stops. (But) in that moment, right after that moment, I was like, ‘it’s not an exaggeration. This really does happen. The way it happened to me.’”

Lindsey said he was walking home with his cousin and a friend when an unmarked Chicago police vehicle rolled up from behind back in 2015. He was wearing headphones and didn’t immediately understand what was happening until his cousin called out from behind for him to stop.

“I turned around, and there’s Tasers on me,” Lindsey recalled, seeing before hearing the officer say, “‘Hands up or we Tase you.’”

Lindsey said he, his cousin and their friend were handcuffed together and placed against the hood of the police squad while officers searched them.

They were not arrested, but before allowing the three to leave, Lindsey said police asked for their names. Lindsey’s attorney, Antonio Romanucci, said the stop was documented by the department in a contact card, which are filled out by officers when they make a street stop but not an arrest.

The cards have been controversial. While officers are supposed to document the specific facts that justify the stop, a major review by the ACLU of Illinois showed not only that Black residents were stopped more often but that officers failed to articulate a reason.

Before Lindsey and his friends left, Lindsey said he heard one of the officers remark, “I guess you’re one of the good ones.”

“We were all like, ‘what the hell?’” Lindsey said. “I didn’t feel safe and I just wanted to go home.”

But the stop has had also had more lasting impressions on Lindsey.

“My perspective on police kind of flipped when I got stopped,” he said.

He said he now doesn’t want to have anything to do with police, and he sees police officers and the entire criminal justice system as “intertwined.” He stays home more and takes Ubers to avoid walking around and when he is out, and he is vigilant about where police are.

“I notice every police officer that rolls past me,” he said. “If they are sitting somewhere, I notice them all.”

Lindsey, who likes playing computer games, is working on getting a technology certification that would allow him to apply for IT jobs. “My dream job is to (design) games at home,” he said.

The community survey conducted by Hickey and her team is the first to be done under the court-mandated reform. It will be used to assess police performance and repeated every other year, providing a baseline to see whether the department improves its relationships with residents.

For anyone following policing in Chicago, the survey findings may not be surprising.

The city has already entered into an agreement with the ACLU to better track and document all investigatory street stops and protective pat-downs, a process that is being monitored by a retired federal magistrate judge.

Meanwhile, the department has started to work toward implementing sweeping changes laid out in the consent decree, which was entered into after the Department of Justice found in 2017 that Chicago Police had engaged in widespread civil rights abuses.

But Romanucci argued that what this year has shown is what happens after years of over-policing in Black communities.

Chicago was among the cities to see widespread protests over the death of Floyd in Minneapolis, as well as looting during civil unrest. The survey was released the week of racially-charged events in Kenosha, where police shot a Black man in the back during an arrest attempt caught on video, sparking violence.

This week Chicago and cities across America saw marches over the end of the investigation into the death of Breonna Taylor, which saw no police officers directly charged in her fatal shooting in her home during the execution of a “no-knock” warrant.

Romanucci said part of the reason for Lindsey’s lawsuit is to apply pressure for change.

“Stop-and-frisk is part of the systemic marginalization of Black people that also includes redlining, food desserts,” he said. “These are random stops to harass and destroy trust.”

When asked by the Tribune about the findings of the survey, the CPD issued a statement, saying the report reflects how the “transformational reform and trust that we are working towards cannot be achieved overnight.”

The statement also noted recent department efforts to establish trust in city neighborhoods, including having police recruits tour them with a youth organization and partnering with other city departments on weekly clean-up efforts in some areas.

“We remain diligent in our efforts to build a more transparent, accountable and professional police force,” the statement continued.

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©2020 Chicago Tribune

Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS