Emanuel all talk, little strategy when it comes to implementing police reform

Photo by Stacey Rupolo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel with police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, left, on March 28, 2016. (File photo)

I was a little surprised to see Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson say that he’s planning to establish a new hotline for officers to anonymously report misconduct by their colleagues.

That’s because it’s been almost a year since Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the department “will create a third-party hotline for members of the Chicago Police Department to report misconduct.” It was one of a number of reforms Emanuel said CPD would “immediately” put in place.

That was in April 2016, when Emanuel announced that CPD was “immediately implementing nearly a third of the recommendations from the Police Accountability Task Force,” according to a release from his office.

Yet last month, the chair of that task force, Police Board President Lori Lightfoot, noted that “the vast majority” of the task force’s recommendations “have not been implemented.”

That’s the problem with Emanuel’s politically-driven approach to governance. He’ll hold a press conference, make an announcement and then move on to the next problem, with little attention to follow-up.

Take the wild claims he initially made for his Infrastructure Trust, which never raised the hundreds of millions promised and left projects still dependent on public financing. Or take the promises of his first anti-violence initiative, Get In Chicago, which has since been abandoned. Then there’s Emanuel’s tax-increment financing reform task force, whose recommendations he greeted enthusiastically in his first year in office – then never bothered to implement.

The lack of follow-through or success matters a lot with police reform, particularly with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions saying the Justice Department is “pulling back” from seeking a consent decree here, which would specify tasks and set deadlines.

Johnson’s announcement of CPD’s “Next Steps for Reform” may have been in response to Lightfoot’s demands that the city issue a specific plan. And while she praised Johnson and his commitment to reform, she also pointed out that “Next Steps” is just a list of promises. “This isn’t everything,” she said. “It’s not the specifics of the project plan.”

Chicago has to move with all deliberate speed with police reform– but it also has to get it right. A comprehensive plan that not only sets specific deadlines, but also organizes actions that build on each other, is crucial.

One example is highlighted in the Justice Department’s report on CPD: After Emanuel determined that Tasers would be issued to each police department member – as a strategy to reduce incidents like the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald in 2014 – training in Taser use was rolled out so quickly that it was essentially worthless. “Officers were not effectively taught how or when to use a Taser as a less-lethal force option,” according to the report.

On top of that, officers were being trained under a department policy on Taser use that the Justice Department said fails to meet constitutional standards and “permits the use of Tasers in situations where it is unreasonable.”

Obviously, the Taser policy needs to be fixed; indeed, the plan Johnson released promises that CPD will review and revise its Taser policy. Just as obviously, that should have been done before the entire department was trained under an inadequate Taser policy.

But Tasers were a key element in the mayor’s communication strategy around police reform, which he describes as “technology, training, and transparency.” Emanuel loves alliteration, and it often seems like he thinks a problem is solved when he comes up with a catchy phrase.

Under Emanuel’s leadership, police reform may also be subject to shifting political winds; changes in the department’s proposed new use-of-force policy seem to reflect this. In October, while the Justice Department was still investigating, CPD rolled out an initial draft that won praise from experts. Last week, after Sessions announced he was backing off, a second draft was released. Advocates called it “a huge step backwards” and warned that it, too, may not meet constitutional standards.

Yet the department is now hiring hundreds of new police officers and putting them through a training system that the DOJ described as pathetically outmoded. Promised training improvements “cannot be allowed to languish or to be handled in a quick, reactive manner, which is how officers characterize previous trainings,” according to the DOJ report.

As a broad coalition of criminal justice and anti-violence groups noted in a recent report, “It is unclear whether adding more police into an unreconstructed system of inequitable deployment and insufficient oversight and training can positively impact violence.”

Resources and priorities are key here: The city is now spending tens of millions of dollars hiring police while its training system, according to the DOJ report, is severely under-resourced. The danger here is putting the cart in front of the horse.

Our globe-trotting Energizer bunny of a mayor may not be capable of the sustained attention this requires. He is all tactics, no strategy.

Emanuel has appointed a respected police reform advocate, Walter Katz, as deputy chief of staff for public safety. He is reported to be starting in his new position on April 10. Let’s hope he has the vision and wherewithal to develop a strategic, sustained approach to this issue.

That could mean standing up to a mayor who is obsessed with putting points on the board.