Published in collaboration with The Marshall Project
Just a few months ago, the Chicago police department was regarded as America’s laboratory of police science.
As the country’s most violent big city struggled to contain an epidemic of deadly shootings, the police force opened itself up to top criminologists, law professors and sociologists. Theories drawn up at Harvard and other bastions of elite thought were being taught to, and in some instances practiced by, the nation’s second biggest police agency. Superintendent Garry McCarthy, Chicago’s top cop at the time, preached a gospel of reducing crime by fostering healthy relationships between police and the communities they serve—especially black communities. The police would be transformed, as the reformers put it, from “warriors” to “guardians.”
At a time of heated debate over the conduct of America’s cops, this line of thinking proved especially appealing. Policymakers nationwide were intrigued by Chicago’s alliance of academics and law enforcement, and the “Chicago model” of policing strategies influenced departments from Oakland, Calif., to New York City. The Justice Department is spending millions of dollars promoting ideas hatched in the Chicago workshop. A policing task force formed by President Obama after the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., recommended that cities adopt some of Chicago’s strategies. Think tanks at Yale, John Jay College of Criminal Justice and UCLA are touting its innovations.
But days after Thanksgiving, Chicago’s reform engine stalled. Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired McCarthy, calling him a “distraction,” after protests erupted over the delayed release of a police video that showed a white officer firing 16 bullets into a black teenager, Laquan McDonald. An array of academic theories and programs nurtured by McCarthy are now in limbo.
On March 15, angry Chicago voters threw out the state’s attorney, Anita Alvarez, in a primary election viewed as a referendum on police excesses and the perceived indifference of city hall.
On April 11, another teenager was shot dead by an officer. And two days later a committee appointed by the mayor excoriated the police for a long history of entrenched racism and abusive conduct. The same day, the city council confirmed McCarthy’s successor: Eddie Johnson, a department veteran who is not known as a reformer.
Meanwhile, the city is on track for its bloodiest year since the late 1990s, with double the number of homicides in the first three months of 2016 compared with the same period last year. Justice Department lawyers are in town preparing what is expected to be a years-long federal takeover of the police department. Even the United Nations has weighed in, dispatching a delegation to study racial disparities in the city’s law enforcement.
Police officers, their supervisors and their unions have hunkered down. “If we are going to be hammered for everything that we do,” then it’s safer to do nothing, says Sergeant James Ade, who runs Chicago’s police sergeants’ union. “If we don’t do anything, then we can’t get hammered.”
All of which begs the question of how a city with so many problems became the template for America’s efforts to reform police-community relations. If the Chicago model has failed this city, does the fault lie with the model, or with Chicago? And what does that mean for other cities where police are struggling to redefine their mission?
It takes only 20 minutes to drive from the tony enclaves that ring Chicago’s skyline to the city’s most violent police district, the 11th, on the West Side. The district—known as Harrison, a reference to the street address of its station house—is a three mile wide stretch that includes some 75,000 residents. One was Bettie Jones, a 55-year-old African-American grandmother who rented a three-bedroom apartment in the Austin neighborhood, a gang-infested sliver where roughly one family in three lives in poverty.
In the early hours of the day after Christmas, Bettie Jones answered a rapping on her front door and admitted a young police officer responding to a call from the landlord, who lived upstairs. The landlord had summoned police to subdue his teenage son, who had a history of mental-health issues. He reported that the teenager was trying to break into his bedroom with a bat.
Moments later the officer, 26-year-old Robert Rialmo, fired eight rounds from his 9mm Smith & Wesson handgun, killing his intended target—the teenager, who had run downstairs brandishing the bat—along with Bettie Jones. She was hit in the chest and collapsed backward into her apartment, her blood streaming onto her living-room floor.
By nightfall, the police department had issued a press release describing Jones’ death as an accident. Rialmo was pulled off the street, and in a bizarre twist he filed a $10 million lawsuit against the landlord in February, contending that the sequence of events set off by the teenager had caused him “extreme emotional trauma.”
Latonya Jones, one of Bettie Jones’ 19-year-old twin daughters, says the incident confirmed what her mother had warned the children about the local police. “She would tell us, ‘I don’t want y’all outside late all the time. Because these police out there are trigger-happy. And they’re ready to shoot anybody. I don’t want y’all out there. Be in this house with me.’”
What happened next disclosed another side to the neighborhood’s mistrust of police. A week after their mother’s funeral, Bettie Jones’ younger brother Lawrence called 911 and filed a burglary report. His 22-inch television was gone. And so was his sister’s diamond ring. His niece’s clothes and Nike Air Jordans were missing too. Local gang members had apparently kicked in the front door, looted the blood-splashed apartment, then posted selfies of their invasion on Facebook.
“I didn’t have a problem with calling the police,” Lawrence Jones says. “Regardless of the fact that my sister was murdered by the police.” But the family says police took down their story and never followed up.
“They ain’t doing nothin,’” says another Jones daughter, 34-year-old Latoya Nicole. “They are like, ‘We don’t care.’” Her sister Latonya added, “I felt they were saying, ‘F-ck my momma.’”
That’s life in the 11th police district, residents say: Too much policing and too little policing—both at the same time. Too much “warrior,” not enough “guardian.”
Police in the city—speaking scornfully and without department permission—say the idea of a “guardian” force implies passivity and weakness. You don’t stand guard in a war zone, they say.
“If you want to be a guardian in Chicago, be prepared to start going to a lot of cops’ funerals,” says Rialmo during a series of interviews with the Marshall Project, his first since the shooting.
Rialmo, 6 ft. 2 in. with a dusting of facial hair and arms covered with sleeves of tattoos, comes from a family of first responders. His father, who is Mexican American, is a city fireman; his mother’s brother, a mix of Italian and Irish, is a veteran cop assigned to police headquarters.
After high school, Rialmo spent six years with the Marines, including an assignment in Iraq, where he patrolled the streets of Tikrit as a machine gunner on a humvee. He had always wanted to follow his father into the fire department. But because the test for police officers came sooner, he took that instead and became one of many war veterans who have gravitated to policing.
He ended up assigned to the 11th, the heart of Chicago’s most persistent problems.
Rialmo, at his lawyer’s insistence, would say little about the death of Bettie Jones. “I feel terrible about it to this day, and will for the rest of my life,” he says, “but people don’t know how it was to be in that situation, and ‘sorry’ will never cut it.” Of his lawsuit, he says he filed it as a way of defending his name, and he doesn’t expect to see any money from it.
But he had plenty to say about the theorists experimenting with the city’s law enforcement. “They could send Sigmund Freud on some of these calls, and he wouldn’t be able to do anything,” Rialmo says.
Chicago has long had a reputation for violence and a citizenry made cynical by decades of machine politics. McCarthy, the ousted superintendent, describes it as a place where “culture trumps policy.”
Cops in Chicago confiscate more illegal guns than those in New York City and Los Angeles combined. Gang audits have identified nearly 700 factions of street crews across the city’s 22 police districts. On Bettie Jones’ block alone there are three warring factions: Travelling Vice Lords, Four Corner Hustlers and Cicero Insane Vice Lords.
Local rappers have branded the city Chi-raq. It’s no stretch. Chicago’s 2015 citywide homicide rate was 17 per 100,000 residents, compared with a national rate of four. In Chicago’s 11th police district the rate is 62. (Iraq’s rate is 20.)
The 11th is impoverished and segregated. Nearly all the residents are black. In Bettie Jones’ neighborhood, one in four residents is unemployed. Three of 10 households receive food stamps. Twenty-five percent of adults over the age of 25 have never earned a high school diploma or its equivalent.
Bettie Jones moved here from Tennessee as a little girl. Although the father of her five children helped the family financially, the couple never married. Bettie Jones was thus part of another neighborhood statistic—more than a third of Austin households are run by poor black women.
Her only son is in state prison, serving a four-year sentence for residential burglary. Her ex-partner’s son from another relationship, whom she raised, was a member of the Travelling Vice Lords and was murdered in a drive-by shooting.
“This is a slum,” says West Side historian Willie Burton as he drove past the trash-strewn lots, and clusters of teenage street hustlers, near the site where Martin Luther King Jr. led protests in 1966. King’s assassination two years later prompted riots from which the area has never recovered. The neighborhood’s onetime economic driver, the headquarters of retail giant Sears, Roebuck and Co., moved out in 1973, leaving a nearly vacant expanse of boarded-up buildings.
“All you have to do is look at the streets that you are walking around, and you can see the result of the riot,” Burton says. “You don’t get nothing out of it.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the deadliest jurisdiction is patrolled by the least experienced officers. Seasoned and better-connected officers tend to work the safer neighborhoods on the North, Northwest and Southwest sides. This is the result of an unusual “bidding” system negotiated by the police union in 1980, which allows officers to use their seniority to claim shifts with better hours or in low-crime neighborhoods.
Approached at a police-community meeting, the commander of the 11th, Deputy Chief James Jones, acknowledged that the deployment of the least experienced cops in the most dangerous neighborhood is a problem. “They know how to play video games, they know how to tweet, they know how to Facebook,” he says. “They don’t have any personal skills. They never learned.”
Policing in Chicago was a hot topic in mid-November as scores of experts in law enforcement, criminal justice and sociology gathered in Washington for the annual convention of the American Society of Criminology. Just a week later, footage of the shooting of Laquan McDonald would become international news. But at the Washington Hilton several of the daytime panel discussions, and much of the evening chatter at the hotel bar, hummed with excitement about Chicago’s police-science laboratory.
Garry McCarthy had built a network of academics he liked to call for advice while serving in New York City’s police department and as chief of police in Newark, N.J. After Rahm Emanuel appointed McCarthy to head the Chicago force in 2011, the city quickly became a hotbed of research. Scholars embraced by McCarthy have launched study after study: how Chicago cops respond to 911 calls after undergoing mental-health training; whether an algorithm can predict violent gang behavior; why friends of shooting victims tend to get shot too.
“Crime strategy needs to focus on the people, places and things that are going to cause crime,” McCarthy says in one of his most extensive interviews since being fired. “And that’s where the academics come in.”
Two scholars in particular, Yale Law School professor Tracey L. Meares and David M. Kennedy of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, were the talk of police researchers at the conference.
Kennedy used Chicago to refine a program called the “violence reduction strategy,” which tries to draw gang members away from the vortex of violence by offering them social services, hopeful messages from their neighbors and stern warnings from law enforcement. Meares, along with her colleague Tom R. Tyler, developed a program called “procedural justice and legitimacy” to train police departments to overcome the mistrust of residents they serve.
Kennedy’s program predated McCarthy, and it was confined at first to one district, the 11th. But when McCarthy arrived he welcomed Kennedy’s staff into police headquarters and expanded violence reduction citywide. He also gave Kennedy his blessing to try an unusually proactive tactic. Rather than address gang members in a group setting, street cops and local social-service workers started to show up unannounced at the homes of young men considered at risk based on arrest records and their involvement in neighborhood disputes.
“You are giving people a heads-up that they are on your radar,” says Christopher Mallette, the director of the program, who has conducted 1,300 home visits since July 2013. “You are giving people a heads-up that they are about to get shot, and it’s statistically proven that they are going to get shot, and unfortunately they do get shot—many of them.”
But Chicago’s gang violence is expansive and multigenerational. Some estimates put the number of gang members at more than 100,000, with scores of sects and factions. Even when a violence-reduction specialist persuades one gang member to leave the fast-money lifestyle of the narcotics trade for a minimum-wage job, there are dozens more who will ignore the advice.
Nonetheless, police departments in New York City, Baltimore and at least a half-dozen other cities have adopted the home-visit model since it was pioneered in Chicago.
Meares’ role, with the procedural-justice program, has been to help teach the historically abusive police force the value of treating people with respect and fairness.
Procedural justice rests on a theory that sounds like common sense. Residents are more inclined to trust cops, and to help investigators solve crimes, when they feel that a police officer has taken the time to understand their side of the story. At the same time, officers need to work in an environment where they feel appreciated by their commanders and unafraid to report bad apples. “It is a way of defusing the ‘warrior,’” Meares says.
McCarthy ordered his 12,000 officers to undergo procedural justice training, a 6 1/2-hour class aimed at indoctrinating police in the value of treating residents with respect. The Chicago department is the first in the nation to commit so fully to this approach. In a 2012 interview on Chicago public-radio station WBEZ, McCarthy explained his views on the subject: “Let’s say you get pulled over and get a ticket, but the cop was really nice. The research finds that you could leave that interaction feeling good about police even though you got a ticket,” he says. “The point is, it’s not just the outcome that matters. The process is important, hence the name: procedural justice.”
Bruce Lipman, a lieutenant at the police academy, was tapped to oversee the procedural-justice program. Now retired, Lipman spent a recent afternoon in an espresso shop near police headquarters, going over the PowerPoint slides that made up his original procedural-justice class and the ongoing refresher course, PJ 2.
The classes included activities like writing exercises in which officers described cops’ views of the community and what they imagined to be the community’s views of cops.
At a time of heightened concern about the behavior of police, procedural justice was quickly embraced beyond Chicago. Lipman has presented his work to Obama’s task force on 21st century policing. Procedural justice was the first “pillar” of the policing recommendations in the White House’s May 2015 report. The Justice Department folded the Chicago curriculum into its general guide given to police agencies that ask about the theory. And in January, Illinois began requiring all police officers in the state to complete procedural-justice training once every three years.
McCarthy welcomed other academics to evaluate the effectiveness of the new training. Northwestern University political-science professor Wesley Skogan surveyed police, chosen at random. Nearly all of the 714 officers who participated, including some who didn’t go to the training, thought that it was important to spend the time to talk to people; but only half of the officers agreed that “citizens have good intentions.”
While Skogan interviewed the officers, Dennis Rosenbaum, a criminal-justice professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, focused on city residents. Rosenbaum’s project is called RespectStat, a community-satisfaction score for each of the city’s police districts. The rating was to be based on what crime victims and motorists involved in police traffic stops reported back to Rosenbaum’s researchers. It was designed as a companion to the ubiquitous CompStat, which police departments across the country use to rate their precincts based on crime levels.
“We need a new system of measurement that encourages the police to treat the public with dignity,” says Rosenbaum.
But with McCarthy gone, RespectStat is on hold. So are Skogan’s police surveys. And the department has scaled back procedural-justice training. Some of the reformers worry that the current effort to remake the city’s police will go the way of earlier, short-lived reforms in the 1960s and 1990s.
Kennedy says the fact that Chicago remains violent does not mean the experiments aren’t effective. “Cities are not set up as social-science experiments, and a lot of this takes time to evaluate in a formal way,” he says. “A particular piece of work can be working, and can even be working at a very high level, and still get swamped by other things. That is clearly happening in Chicago right now.”
Robert Rialmo graduated from the Chicago police academy in March 2013 during a fiscal crisis. Mayor Emanuel had ordered $190 million in police budget cuts. The number of police districts was reduced. Detective units were consolidated. Mental-health clinics were closed. Specialized units that focused on gang violence were dissolved. The sergeants’ union complained that there were too few supervisors on the streets. There hadn’t been an exam for the rank in seven years.
Under the circumstances, McCarthy’s alliance with academia—with its research grants and theories that cost the city little or nothing—seemed like a windfall.
“What I found when I got here was crime strategy was simply about deployment,” McCarthy says. “That’s why people always talk about whether or not we had enough police officers. Sometimes it’s not how many you have, it’s what they’re actually doing, and giving them the right tools and holding them accountable, and running the department like a business.
“The world changed in 2007 with the financial crisis that this country faced, and it hasn’t recovered yet,” he added. “In policing, we know that we’re not going back to levels [of officers] that we were at back in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s because it’s just not possible.”
But many street cops were skeptical of the new ideas, regarding them as a thin patch on a threadbare force. “They keep saying do more with less,” complained one veteran officer. “In law enforcement, you can’t do more with less.”
Rialmo’s policing career illustrates many of the problems. After completing the police academy—which he dismisses as “a complete joke,” long on theory and short on useful information—he began a three-month street training cycle by following a field training officer on rounds of the West Side. That, he says, was his real education.
But budget cuts, attrition and lack of interest from veteran officers have eroded the ranks of field training officers. “Our FTO program has really fallen on hard times,” says Lipman, who worked as an FTO from 1991 to 1996.
In a written response, the police department said the new superintendent is committed to rebuilding the FTO program. As Rialmo was completing his probationary status, McCarthy expanded a patrol strategy that called for rookie officers to swarm the most violent neighborhoods, or “impact zones,” on foot. Rialmo was assigned to walk the streets of the 15th district, which adjoins the 11th. He quickly sized up his new environment—“hardcore gangbangers”—as unfriendly territory where passersby gave him blank stares when he mumbled hello. The rookies never really engaged.
“They would drop us off at a gas station and we’d sit there for an hour, and then maybe make a lap around a block or two, and then go back there and hang out there for a little while,” he says. “And you just bounce from different places where you can go feel normal for a second.”
(New York City, where the tactic originated, scrapped its “Operation Impact” in the summer of 2015 after years of criticism that inexperienced patrol officers lacked social skills.)
McCarthy inherited an agency with a long history of cynicism and patronage. In the 1990s, the police union, in an attempt to encourage more diversity on late patrols, urged city officials to pay cops extra money to work the night shift. City and police officials whose minions would not get the extra money rejected the idea, according to Dean Angelo Sr., president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police and a fourth-generation cop. “They say, ‘What about us?’”
McCarthy was no stranger to politics, but he says he was surprised at the extent to which the local Democratic machine influenced the police department. “There is always politics. The politics here in Chicago in the police department was so strong, previously you had elected officials, like alderman, who would select their district commander,” he says. When he took the job, McCarthy says, he demanded an assurance that he would be able to make his own appointments and run the department the way he wanted. “And that ruffled a lot of feathers with people here in Chicago, because that’s not the Chicago Way.”
The disconnect between police headquarters and neighborhood cops—of all backgrounds—is still palpable. A 52-year-old black officer says she could not understand why commanders frequently change beat assignments, which makes it impossible to forge alliances with local shopkeepers, block captains and other neighborhood sources. “You should have the same beat because you get to know the people, the good guys and the bad guys, and you get to know what’s going on,” she says.
Lipman, the retired lieutenant, thinks the procedural-justice program is not intensive enough to significantly win over wary cops. “We should have posters up at every roll call,” Lipman says. “We should have had awards developed and identified officers who are practicing procedural justice. There are a bunch of little things that cost virtually nothing to do that we have never done.”
Lipman’s team of a dozen procedural-justice trainers has been reduced by half since its inception in 2012. He noted that the department wouldn’t even reimburse his officers for the coffee and snacks they bought for the classes. “The culture here is the complete opposite of procedural justice,” Lipman says.
The department also does a poor job of policing itself. University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman, who runs the school’s Police Accountability Clinic, found that police internal-affairs investigations into false arrests, theft and other accusations led to disciplinary proceedings in one case out of a thousand. “They violated every single canon of a professional investigation,” Futterman says.
Even when the police department is cooperating, extracting information about the force is difficult. Ron Safer, a former federal prosecutor who was asked by city hall in 2013 to review the police disciplinary system, says he was told that the project would take three months to complete. It took Safer’s team nearly two years, working with records that were mostly not computerized.
Safer’s report was released in December 2014 to little reaction from city officials. Safer found that it took an average of 328 days for the independent police review authority, which is responsible for investigating allegations of police abuse and shootings, to resolve a complaint. The police internal-affairs bureau, which handles officer misconduct and corruption allegations, clocked an average of 215 days. If an officer challenged the claim, it took almost three years for the city and the police union to resolve the issue.
“There was an unfortunate tolerance for police officers lying in investigations or falsifying police reports.” Safer says. “There is very little accountability. Nobody within the police department is accountable for the actions of their subordinates.”
Safer’s findings were echoed April 13 by the mayor’s police-reform committee, which pointed out that this is at least the sixth time since the late 19th century that the Chicago police department has vowed to fix itself.
The committee’s recommendations include adding new positions devoted to police oversight and staff diversity, and public databases that would track complaints against cops. And, in an ironic twist, the task force wants Chicago to join the John Jay College–based program that is teaching other cities how to be more like Chicago when it comes to procedural-justice training.
Reformers also urged the police department to revive RespectStat. It’s not clear yet to what extent Eddie Johnson, the new superintendent, will keep the strategies tied to the Chicago model. An African American who had been the department’s chief of patrol, Johnson has maintained a tough-on-crime persona, urging black residents to “step up” and aggressively parent their kids.
Johnson told the local CBS news affiliate that in his 27 years as an officer, he “actually never encountered police misconduct.” The Chicago Police Department declined to make Johnson available for an interview. The department issued a statement saying that Johnson supports procedural justice and the violence-reduction strategy.
“Supt. Johnson is a very big proponent of the procedural justice training and believes that we need to expose officers to a variety of cultures in order to be the most successful at making Chicago safer,” a department spokesman wrote. “CPD is firmly committed to build lasting partnerships that will earn public trust and create a safer Chicago.”
The Chicago model may not have worked wonders in Chicago, but it is still drawing converts in cities across the nation.
Later this year, New York police department training instructors will begin to teach patrol officers an eight-hour course on procedural justice. Chicago’s curriculum on how to breed community trust, now considered the industry standard, is the foundation for the NYPD class. Cites as varied as Oakland; Minneapolis; Pittsburgh; Gary, Ind.; Fort Worth; Stockton, Calif.; and Farmington, N.M., have made the pilgrimage to Chicago to learn how to train trainers in procedural justice.
Devotees of the Chicago model say Chicago’s seemingly unwinnable struggles with gangs, poverty and other social ills are products of a distinct political culture and a legacy of abandoned reforms. They say they have refined strategies like procedural justice based on the lessons of Chicago.
“You are not transplanting Chicago’s culture,” says NYPD deputy commissioner Tracie L. Keesee, the department’s training chief, explaining why New York is still pursuing Chicago’s pioneering strategies. New York simply adopted “the framework.”
Keesee, a former Denver police captain with a doctorate in human communications, says New York’s version of procedural justice, unlike Chicago’s, will include lessons in the city’s history, so that young cops understand why they encounter hostility in certain neighborhoods.
The Oakland police department, which is in its second year of teaching procedural justice, began expanding the program this month beyond its 740-member uniformed force to include 911 dispatchers and other civilians. Unlike the Chicago version, which has cops teaching cops, Oakland has tweaked the program to bring in black clergy and other community leaders as instructors.
“For better or for worse, it’s just the fact that Chicago—both before and after Garry McCarthy —is known as the poster child for uncontrollable violence,” David Kennedy says in his office at John Jay’s Manhattan campus. “In our work, saying, ‘Yeah, they’ve done it in Chicago,’ can give you bona fides, but it can also provoke a response that goes ‘Yeah, and it’s obviously not working. So why are you talking to us about this?’”
“Change takes time,” he continued. “It doesn’t matter what it’s up against. It just takes time. We thought, and I still think, that Garry was doing an amazing job. And the city blew up anyway.”
Some longtime critics of Chicago policing hope that under the watchful oversight of the Justice Department and the pressure of Black Lives Matter protesters, city hall will compel the police to change. “It feels like a different moment from all the other scandals that I lived through,” says Futterman.
Safer, the former federal prosecutor whose report on the police department was shelved, remains skeptical. “You will not solve the police problem in Chicago by changing the disciplinary system,” he says. “It has to be done and it will make some strides, but it won’t solve the problem. We have abandoned areas of this city. Those are areas where gangs thrive.” He added, “Those are situations that will not be solved by police reform.”
Latonya Jones would agree. A few weeks after her mother was killed, she listened quietly to an explanation of reforms planned for the Chicago police department. “I don’t feel like this is gonna stop,” she says. “All people think about is shooting at people.”
This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.