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It’s Time to Make Chicago Police Pay For Their Misdeeds—Out Of Their Own Budget

Chicago hands out millions in settlements and legal fees for police misconduct. Its newly inaugurated mayor should take a dollar from the department’s budget for every dollar the city spends settling with its victims.

Police officers stand guard outside of the sentencing hearing for former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on Jan. 18, 2019 in Chicago. Van Dyke was sentenced to 81 months in prison for the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Scott Olson/Getty Images

In 2003, Sgt. Ronald Watts of the Chicago police pulled over 21-year-old Leonard Gipson and demanded drugs or money in exchange for not arresting him. As Watts took drugs out of his pocket, he said to Gipson, “These are yours.” Gipson was later coerced into pleading guilty to a drug offense, which resulted in a sentence of 482 days in boot camp. Gipson’s case was one of 63 overturned related to Watts alone. In 2018, Gipson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Watts and the City of Chicago and received $97,075 from the state of Illinois as compensation for his time in prison.

This year, 19 people who say Watts framed them filed federal lawsuits against the sergeant, the city of Chicago, and the police department. In 2016, the city paid $2 million to two officers who said they were labeled “rats” by their superiors and demoted for assisting in a federal investigation of Watts.

Gipson is one among thousands of victims of Chicago police misconduct: More than 100 people were tortured by commander Jon Burge and officers under his command between the 1970s and 1990s, and several Black men said they were wrongly arrested and “physically and psychologically abused” by six officers in at the notorious Homan Square police complex in 2013. The Citizens Police Data Project estimates that from 1988 to 2019 there have been nearly 250,000 allegations of misconduct lodged against the Chicago police.

Unfortunately, the consequences are felt not by police but by the city’s taxpayers: In 2018 alone, Chicago paid out a record $113 million in settlements and legal fees for police misconduct, according to an analysis by the Chicago Reporter. On average, the city pays out one such lawsuit every two days.

Police and budget crises for new mayor

Newly inaugurated Mayor Lori Lightfoot inherited both a costly police misconduct crisis and a staggering budget deficit.

When Rahm Emanuel finished his term in mid-May, he left behind more than $700 million in budget deficits for 2020 alone, closed 50 public schools mainly in communities of color, shuttered half of the city’s mental health clinics, and gutted public housing. Emanuel also pushed for a $95 million police training academy (that Lightfoot opposed) and hired 1,000 new police officers at an annual cost of $134 million.

Mayor Lightfoot should not view these crises in isolation. She is required by Illinois state law to increase the city’s pension contributions by a minimum of $227 million in 2020, and the first target for budget cuts should be the Chicago police. Lightfoot has already committed to mitigating losses from police misconduct suits with a proposal for an office of risk management, which would attempt “to identify officers with problems at the earliest possible stage.”

But she should take a more aggressive approach in curbing misconduct. In order to fund community reinvestment and facilitate police divestment, Lightfoot should reduce the department’s budget by $113 million in 2020 to match the city’s losses because of police misconduct in 2018.

Better yet, she could make that budgetary reduction permanent. At a roughly $1.5 billion annual expenditure—approaching 40 percent of Chicago’s general fund and 18 percent of its total budget—Chicago has one of the best-funded police departments in the country. For every $1 the city spends on policing, it spends just 6 cents on the Department of Family and Support Services and 12 cents on the Department of Planning and Development.

Meanwhile, the police department has not given Chicagoans any reason to believe that its gargantuan budget is an effective use of tax dollars. A 2017 Department of Justice investigation found that the department’s homicide clearance rate—the rate at which a killing is “cleared” by making an arrest or identifying the perpetrator—was a meager 29 percent, less than half the national rate. Data from 2018 shows that its clearance rate for rapes hit 32 percent, the lowest point since the 1960s.

At the same time, between 2015 and 2017, traffic stops tripled. Black Chicagoans comprised almost half of those stopped by police even though the city is approximately 30 percent Black. In 2016, the city raised $264 million from traffic and parking tickets, or 7 percent of the city’s general fund. Because the state of Illinois mandates driver’s license suspension for those who are unable to pay their tickets, these racially discriminatory traffic stops lead to arrests for driving on a suspended license and ultimately a cruel and counterproductive cycle of poverty and punishment. It seems like the Chicago Police Department spends more time raising revenue for its own operations than it spends effectively addressing serious crime—and if Lightfoot carries out her pledge to reform ticketing, the city will lose another extractive source of revenue.

Consent decree brings opportunity

Chicago police can tolerate a budget cut as well as matching reductions related to misconduct lawsuit losses. Such a plan might also serve as an incentive for the department’s brass to ratchet up internal discipline and finally address its misconduct crisis. Thanks to a federal judge’s cooperation in a consent decree, Lightfoot will also enjoy a historic opportunity to make city police more transparent and accountable to residents. The consent decree will cost local taxpayers approximately $25 million, another sum that could also be subtracted from the department’s budget. Or that $25 million could be considered part of its budget.

Research shows that high-profile police misconduct and use of force drives community distrust of police, which can contribute to increases in violent crime. In other words, police often cause the problems they are meant to solve. To remedy this counterproductive dynamic, Chicago can follow the lead of other cities and encourage democratic governance of police policies and practices. St. Paul, Minnesota, solicited public comment on its revised use-of-force policy, and the Community Advisory Board in Stockton, California, reviews proposed policies governing police use of surveillance technology before they’re finalized. If Lightfoot follows through on her commitment to community oversight, she wouldn’t be alone: A wave of progressive aldermen have joined the Chicago City Council, including six democratic socialists, and many of whom have committed to supporting community control of police.

Divestment from and community control over the police department should provide a solid framework for the increased community investments that Lightfoot has pledged to pursue. Divested funds could be transferred directly into participatory budgeting allocations dedicated to the neighborhoods that most need investment and safety. After all, community social norms are as effective or more effective than police and prisons in preventing violence. And community organizations focusing on crime and community life cause significant declines in violent and property crime.

With sufficient budgetary wiggle room, Mayor Lightfoot could even implement a Green New Deal for Chicago, employing residents to make their neighborhoods safer and healthier places to live. Chicago should reverse the terrible consequences of Mayor Emanuel’s austerity-driven policies and reinvest in the neighborhoods that need it most.

Jonathan Ben-Menachem is a criminal justice advocate who also writes about issues including policing and the criminalization of poverty.