In a last ditch effort to undermine criminal justice reform efforts, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions solidified his opposition to consent decrees by limiting their use by the federal government. Prior to his firing, Sessions lamented consent decrees as “unjustified restrictions on proper policing” and sought to rollback their application. For Sessions, these provisions, including data collection, only serve to restrict law enforcement while placing officers at greater risk of harm. While seemingly helpful for officers, Sessions’ blanket opposition to the consent decree blocks essential accountability measures that ensure officer wellbeing and improve the policing profession.
One can look to disagreements over data collection provisions in Chicago’s consent decree for evidence of this. As an example, a contentious point surrounds a possible requirement for officers to report every time they point their gun at a citizen.
Fortunately for us, officers do not casually point guns to direct traffic or to manage everyday interventions. In fact, on the continuum of escalating use of force, the use of firearms to control a situation immediately propels it to the top of the list. Because of this, encounters that warrant the use of guns are noteworthy in helping to reveal stressors that impact officers’ actions and their decision-making capabilities.
Like Sessions, The Fraternal Order of Chicago has argued that requiring data collection like the aforementioned gun data creates more problems for police by adding an endless stream of “bureaucracy, paperwork, and ambiguous policies that ultimately will be used to arbitrarily discipline officers.” Rather than merely being paperwork fated to collect dust on someone’s desk, however, the data in question is intended to be used by law enforcement and public officials to gain a greater scope of policing realities in an objective and transparent manner. Far from simply inundating officers with useless bureaucratic work, such a policy can provide departments with tools for examining necessary areas of training or disconnects between official policies and officer actions.
Chicago’s is the second-largest police department in the nation with over 11,900 officers spread across twenty-five districts. Each of these police districts faces a unique set of issues impacting their officers and communities. For this reason, practices and culture changes that decrease instances of misconduct in one district may wholly fail when implemented in another. Given this, officials must develop ways of outlining possible improvements tied to a district’s specific needs.
Understanding instances of police violence that can ultimately boil over into deadly use of force requires a deep data reservoir, collected at the local level. Instead of conducting generic courses on proper gun use, departments can make training more meaningful by zeroing in on common situations or egregious violations among officers tracked in the data. As an example, if a police officer were to point a gun at a three year old, he or she could receive training for dealing specifically with cases where children were involved.
Looking at data merely as a metric for public accountability detracts from its usefulness for law enforcement. Put simply, data-driven training and reforms tailored to the particular pressing issues of a district allow for more effective results than one-size-fits-all reform measures. And, in a city in which taxpayers reportedly paid close to $662 million in fees related to police misconduct from 2004 to early 2016, such a framework should be a welcome development.
This is not to say that the FOP and Sessions must forsake officers’ voices by automatically accepting all provisions outlined in the consent decree. However, the organization does officers and community shareholders a disservice by refusing to participate in talks and failing to acknowledge the number of existing problems within the Chicago Police Department.
Rather than harming officer safety, reform efforts like data collection help to paint a more robust picture of policing practices that extends beyond individual encounters. In a way that current policies fail, such efforts allow problematic patterns of behavior to be identified and addressed before they result in tragic events. This strengthens much-needed community support of police departments, increases officer safety and saves taxpayers money—all of which are measures Chicagoans should support.
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