Chicago Police excessive force complaints bring critics

The crowd control tactics of the Chicago Police Department — notorious  for their botched response to protests following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 — are under scrutiny after accusations of excessive force used against student protesters and a recently unveiled mass arrest policy.

Three excessive force complaints were recently filed against at least five officers over the removal of activists protesting outside the Art Institute of Chicago, according to Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) records obtained via open records request. 

“I was very concerned that CPD’s well documented historical animus towards protesters was on full display,” said Sheila Bedi, a professor at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, of the tussle between cops and students protesting the Israel-Gaza war in downtown Chicago. “CPD officers appeared to be escalatory, they appeared to be using force that was unnecessary and only heightened the risk for both protesters and police alike.”

The criticisms of the department’s tactics come as tensions build over the Democratic National Convention in August, where protesters fear they won’t get a chance to be heard by President Joe Biden and other party leaders. Democrats also fear a potential repeat of 1968 where raucous clashes between police and protesters diverted eyes away from the convention and on to TV screens, leaving a blight on Chicago's reputation for holding political conventions.

The complaints came during a crackdown on students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago calling for the institution to divest from Israel outside of its namesake art museum on Michigan Avenue on Saturday, May 4. Police arrested 68 protesters, a department spokesperson said.

The arrests come amid a fight over a new Chicago police mass arrest policy revealed in February that critics say would allow for stronger crackdowns on protesters.

Bedi, the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and others filed a motion in federal court in April alleging it “eviscerates protections required by the First Amendment” and asking a judge to scrap it before the DNC.

The proposed policy allows police responding to "crowds, protests and civil disturbances" to make mass arrests, according to the draft directives. Critics say a vague definition of civil disturbances will allow cops to squash protests. They also say the mass arrest procedure loosens requirements for documenting uses of force against a member of the public and will allow police to get away with harming protesters.

In court filings, the city has denied allegations the mass arrest policy violates the First Amendment and argued it is in keeping with reform efforts. A police department spokesperson said it will cooperate with the investigation into the excessive use of force complaints.

In one complaint to the accountability office, a woman who was arrested alleges an officer hit her and she was taken to a hospital for her injuries. It’s unclear if she was hospitalized as a result of allegedly being hit. 

In another complaint, police allegedly “violently” trapped in protesters with metal barriers, causing them “to struggle to breathe & remain standing.” “Several times officers reached over & around the baracade [sic], shoving & elbowing the crowd directly. One officer pushed against me directly with his head in between my breasts,” it reads.

The showdown can be seen in a video recorded by a Chicago Sun-Times reporter, including one officer pushing two protesters in the head with his open hand.

The People’s Art Institute called the police treatment of protesters “brutal” in a statement, alleging students were “slammed onto the ground, hit, kneeled and stepped on, dragged, aggressively grabbed and elbowed.”

“This direct police violence bloodied two people so seriously that they were taken to the emergency room, and many more were held in jail for hours without access to food, water, or phone calls,” school faculty wrote in a letter to administrators.

The crackdown reminded Bedi of police misconduct cases she is still litigating from 2020. 

The clinical professor of law told USA TODAY she was concerned about what the police response to thousands of protesters showing up for the DNC would be given the response to a relatively small number of students.

“Police officers who show up to a protest have to be trained to deal with people saying things they might not like,” she said. “The whole point of a protest is to give a voice to potentially unpopular opinions.”

The response showed little has changed for the department despite the bombshell findings of the local inspector general’s investigation into the police response in 2020, she said. 

The extensive, scathing report by the Chicago Office of the Inspector General covered failures to report and document uses of force, including "baton strikes and manual strikes;" failures to use body cameras; and officers covering badge numbers and nameplates. The report covered from May 29 to June 7, 2020, when police made 1,500 arrests.

Deborah Witzburg, the city’s inspector general, declined to comment on the student protests, the mass arrest policy or the city’s DNC preparations, but noted  “we at the city and everybody else should be learning a lot from the 2020 response when we think about the DNC planning and preparedness for the DNC.”

“The DNC is a very, very different enterprise,” she caveated, comparing the months of planning involved to the spontaneous protests in 2020. But, “we would be very, very foolish to not apply lessons from the 2020 response to this situation.”

The inspector general’s report led to the police enacting a new First Amendment policy, according to Bedi’s motion, that was “crafted to prevent another 2020” botched law enforcement response. 

Alexandra Block, director of criminal legal systems and policing at the ACLU of Illinois, is the lead attorney in the motion to scrap the police department’s proposed mass arrest policy.

The recent complaints against officers should be “taken seriously and investigated promptly,” Block said, so any lessons can be applied in time for the DNC.

“If COPA has corrective feedback for officers, they should know quickly what they need to do and change quickly to correct their actions,” she said, noting the department should share information on how it intends to handle DNC protests. “The training to respond to protests, that’s something that should be made public, which officers have been trained, how have they been trained,” she said.

The department’s proposed mass arrest policy would make crackdowns on protests even more likely by suspending regular use of force reporting, according to the motion, violating the free speech policy enacted as a result of 2020.

The DNC “is precisely the sort of event this First Amendment policy was designed for,” according to the filing. “Yet, in preparation for the DNC, CPD recently proposed a new policy that contradicts” it and encourages mass arrests of protesters while allowing officers to get away with excessive force violations.

“The mass arrest policy risks rampant violations of First Amendment rights during the DNC,” the filing says. 

In its response to the motion, the city has said the mass arrest policy is does not violate its First Amendment policy, noting it mandates officers to not "use force to punish, retaliate against, deter, or respond to the lawful expression of First Amendment rights" and comply with the free speech protection policy in several instances.

COPA issued a response to the policy at the end of February that generally supported it with several key reservations, including clearer orders on when officers should turn on body cameras, when batons can be used and ensuring officers report misconduct. 

A decision in the filing isn't expected for at least a few weeks, Block said.

Previous Post Next Post