CHICAGO — Most people can agree: Paperwork sucks.
And this year, Chicago cops have a lot more of it to do now that a two-page report —rather than an index-card sized checklist — must be filed every time they stop someone on the street.
So far this year, that has resulted in police officers citywide making dramatically fewer investigative stops even as shootings and murders have skyrocketed.
Law enforcement experts will tell you it's a situation that’s more complicated than a minor inconvenience and could have devastating consequences for the city.
Here’s a recap of the police stop stats:
In the first 11 days of the year, officers filed just 3,916 investigative stop reports compared to 16,698 during the same time period last year, according to police data.
That’s a 79-percent decrease, and arguably evidence that officers are avoiding the kind of proactive policing better known as the “stop-and-frisk” investigative stops pushed by former top cop Garry McCarthy. That approach led to thousands of gun arrests and illegal guns being confiscated every year.
Indeed, gun confiscations and arrest are each down more than 35 percent this year.
That reality has put Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration in a precarious position as he focuses efforts on rebuilding trust in the scandal-plagued police department.
Some law enforcement experts say the drop in investigative stops pits the need for extreme measures to stem shooting in extremely violent neighborhoods against a push initiated by the ACLU to protect the civil rights of innocent people stopped on the street by police.
And it’s all happening as morale among the rank-and-file has reached an all-time low in a police department that’s the subject of a federal probe in the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting.
The lengthier reports required when investigative street stops are made by police stems from an agreement negotiated between City Hall and the ACLU. The agreement was to prevent a lawsuit related to the police department’s lack of documentation of investigative stops that an ACLU study alleged unfairly targets innocent minorities.
Last year, officers who stopped someone on the street were required to fill out an index-card sized called a “contact card” that took just a few minutes to complete.
Starting Jan. 1, those same types of encounters require officers to fill out a much longer form for each person stopped.
Here are the old contact cards:
And the new reports: (Story continues below)
So far, Rahm Emanuel’s administration has acknowledged the downturn in investigative stops without hammering rank-and-file officers publicly.
While Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo says current working conditions have created the department’s worst morale he’s seen during his 35-year career, interim police Supt. John Escalante says he’s doesn't think morale is particularly low, instead describing cops as frustrated over a lack of help from the community in solving crimes. He expects investigative stops to increase when cops get better training in coming weeks.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said “district-wide training is just about to start on [Jan. 18] and we anticipate the numbers to increase as more users are trained.”
Emanuel has publicly expressed empathy for officers who are “operating, obviously, with greater public scrutiny that you can't ignore," and has made more regular visits to police roll calls in an apparent attempt to show his support for the rank-and-file who he believes are “determined to see their job through” during stressful times.
Still, law enforcement experts will tell you the currently tense situation boils down a question of our city’s priorities:
Is it more important to go after the flood of illegal guns into Chicago that City Hall and police officials have consistently blamed for the city's shooting epidemic or to require better oversight of how police stop people on the street to protect against racial profiling?
Moreover, will the new intense scrutiny on how police officers do their job by politicians, civil rights groups, the media and the U.S. Justice Department inadvertently cause a loss of focus on doing everything possible to fight against violence in Chicago neighborhoods infamous for senseless shootings?
Those are difficult questions to answer.
ACLU senior staff attorney Karen Sheley says Chicago Police can, and should, be able to do both. It is important that Chicago’s police department fights crime without violating the Constitutional rights of innocent Chicagoans, especially minorities living in violent parts of town, she said.
Read the ACLU Stop & Frisk Report -- And Settlement -- Below
“The point of our agreement is to make sure there’s oversight, when officers do stops they are constitutional and based on reasonable suspicion and not on a person’s race,” Sheley said.
“It doesn’t mean don’t do [proactive] stops. When you look at other cities' street stops, [the reports] are a way to measure police activity and the work officers do on a daily basis. You don’t see an increase in crime when officers make fewer of these stops, there’s no evidence to support that those things are connected in a strong way,” she said.
Sheley said she’s familiar with similar complaints about the amount of time it takes to fill out similar forms from officers in other police departments that were required to file additional paperwork related to traffic stops under pressure from the ACLU.
But Sheley argues those gripes shouldn’t overshadow the need for accountability. She said law enforcement experts reviewed the agreement with the city, offered training suggestions, and experts will be tracking the data and reporting it to the public.
“It’s important to collect this information because these stops are really invasive of privacy and involve putting hands on people when there’s no supervision as to whether it’s constitutional or appropriate,” she said.
On the other hand, Angelo, the police union boss, said part of the problem that’s led to fewer investigative reports so far this year that is that politicians and groups like the ACLU — people who don’t know much about policing — are "dictating what police officers do.”
“Everything is a numbers game, and the people on the street providing those numbers are the police officers. All this is something that needs to be addressed before things get out of hand,” Angelo said.
Angelo didn’t elaborate on that, but the anonymous and often controversial Second City Cop blogger put it this way in a recent post: “Pro-active policing is dead and with it, large tracts of Chicago.”
Since the video of the police shooting that left Laquan dead was released there has been intense, unrelenting scrutiny on police officers, while City Hall has focused on rebuilding trust between Chicagoans and the police department.
Angelo told DNAinfo Chicago there also should be focus on rebuilding trust between rank-and-file officers and City Hall. That goes for aldermen, too.
“Everything is accusatory finger-pointing. Everything is deflective. And I believe some people, because of politics, don’t want the [anti-police] rhetoric to stop,” Angelo said.
“There’s no one publicly coming out and showing support of officers on the street. They don’t think anyone has their back.”
It’s become clear, Emanuel has heard those concerns.
Mayoral spokesman Adam Collins issued this statement Wednesday: “There’s no question that there is much more attention being paid to our officers right now. But there is also no question that we have thousands of brave men and women in this city that put their lives on the line each day and work tirelessly to keep our city safe. You don’t hear their stories, because they’re doing their jobs. But they are not deterred, they are determined to continue driving a reduction in major crimes and to build bridges of understanding with our residents.”
Angelo says he has hope that the fractured relationship can be repaired and believes that in the end the federal investigation might be a “win” for the officers the FOP represents.
“We’ve met with [justice department investigators] twice now and have a good sense of what they’re looking at, and we’re OK with the direction they’re going,” Angelo said, without offering specifics of the ongoing probe.
“We think it is going to end in something that will eventually benefit police officers with things like more training, state-of-the-art equipment and more tools in the tool belt. We think it will be a good thing. We might even get more bodies [additional officers] on the street.”
How it all will play out remains uncertain as Chicago cops continue fight crime in such a politically charged, federally-investigated working environment.
The problem is much bigger than a little extra paperwork.
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