Civil Rights & Police Accountability Clinic—Significant Achievements for 2020-21

The Clinic’s fight for police accountability continues. Our work remains centered on the federal civil rights consent decree over the Chicago Police Department (CPD) that we won in 2019. It hasn’t been easy. CPD continues to fight change. The Fraternal Order of Police has doubled down on denial and resistance to any public oversight, whatsoever. And notwithstanding our community-based clients’ power to enforce the consent decree, the CPD continues to fight for secrecy, deny the reality of abuse, and keep the community on the outside looking in.

While officers have shot and killed fewer people and appear to have engaged in fewer instances of violence as a result of the decree, CPD continues to inflict violence against Black people at ten times the rate of white people. In addition, CPD’s self-reported uses of force grossly underrepresent the Department’s actual uses of violence. 2020-21 saw mass public demonstrations and protest against racism and police violence. The Clinic found that officers reported only a tiny fraction of the instances of violence that they perpetrated in the protests. Officers refused to file required force reports even in incidents in which our clients videotaped officers beating protestors over the head with their batons. Despite video, no officer has been stripped of their powers as a result of failing to report force used against people raising their voices in protest.

Notwithstanding CPD resistance to change, Clinic students are holding the City’s feet to the fire. We have engaged in enforcement efforts, flowing from CPD’s unjustified violence against hundreds of people engaged in protest in Chicago. The public hearings in federal court that we initiated last summer resulted in a powerful report from Chicago’s Office of Inspector General, a forthcoming report from the Independent Court Monitor, and months-long court-supervised negotiations to revise CPD policies and practices related to activities protected by the First Amendment. While negotiations continue, we have already made meaningful changes to CPD policy that have the potential to protect all people exercising their First Amendment rights, including the right to protest. We are actively engaged in efforts to develop policy that prevents retaliatory arrests, prohibits unnecessary force, and requires swift accountability for officers who violate the rights of people engaging in peaceful protest.

Jocelyn Sitton, Marie Plecha, and Daniel Lastres have been leading a separate consent decree enforcement action to put an end to CPD’s practice of targeting Black and Brown families for violent raids of their homes, and pointing assault rifles at young children as a matter of standard practice. After social worker Anjanette Young fought to obtain and courageously released a horrifying video that the City of Chicago had fought to suppress of twelve armed male officers breaking into her home and holding her naked at gunpoint and in handcuffs, while she repeated pled that they were in the wrong home, Clinic students worked with Ms. Young and a coalition of community-based groups to draft and introduce the Anjanette Young ordinance into City Council. The ordinance draws from the lived experience of Chicago victims of these raids, data on CPD raids that we were able to uncover with the help of CBS 2 in Chicago, and research on national best practices for obtaining and executing search warrants. The Mayor and CPD continue to resist giving any public hearing on the ordinance. They also are vigorously fighting the Clinic’s efforts to enforce the decree, claiming that the decree somehow exempts CPD excessive and discriminatory force when it is perpetrated in peoples’ homes.

Vatsala Kumar and Alexandra Green have championed the Clinic’s advocacy to rewrite all of the CPD’s policies on the use of force, as a part of the Community Use of Force Working Group appointed as a result of the consent decree. The CPD rejected every one of the 155 substantive recommendations by the Working Group. In response, we published a scathing public letter in the Chicago Sun Times calling out the Mayor and CPD’s attempts to appropriate the Working Group to check the boxes off of community engagement requirements in the consent decree, without having any intention of engaging, much less following the recommendations of the group. Our public advocacy forced CPD to the bargaining table, overseen by the Independent Court Monitor. Through that process, we succeeded in winning a number of critical (if still imperfect changes) that restrict police force only to circumstances in which it is necessary, require officers to attempt to de-escalate conflict before resorting to force, and limit police force only to the least amount necessary under the circumstances. We also won dramatic policy changes that restrict police force against people with disabilities, youth, and other people especially vulnerable to harm and the overhaul of CPD policies on the use of Tasers and dogs as force options. While we forced meaningful change that has the potential to save lives and reduce harm, CPD still has a long way to go, before it will have a policy that truly prioritizes the sanctity of all human life.

Similarly, Erik Zimmerman has spearheaded Clinic efforts with the community consent decree coalition to compel CPD to enact and implement a policy that provides officers with clear guidelines on foot pursuits. Erik’s research demonstrated the inherent dangerousness of CPD pursuits, racial discrimination in those pursuits, and their all too common violent and even deadly ends. CPD has averaged seven foot chases a day, with nearly 30% of those chases resulting in police violence and 94% of the people targeted being Black. There have been 30 instances of deadly police force in foot chases in the last nine months of 2020 alone. Even though the City has long been on notice of the extreme dangers associated with CPD foot chases, it had resisted the Clinic’s efforts to implement any policy on foot pursuits until it found itself mired in headlines after Chicago police officers killed 13-year-old Adam Toledo and Anthony Alvarez after questionable foot pursuits. Clinic students continue to question how many people would be alive today if the Mayor and CPD hadn’t resisted putting in place a basic policy on foot pursuits, and we continue to fight to ensure that CPD implements an appropriate policy on foot chases, as opposed to simply implementing a policy that persists in encouraging officers to engage in unnecessary foot chases.

Perhaps the most telling barometer of the state of police reform in Chicago is the Mayor’s and CPD’s active resistance to Clinic efforts to end incommunicado detention of people locked in the bowels of CPD stations vulnerable to abuse. The City continues its all-out resistance to granting people in custody their right to a simple phone call. Mikaila Smith and Erik Zimmerman have led a team of students that seeks a writ of mandamus, on the behalf of the Cook County Public Defender, the National Lawyers Guild, and a number of community-based organizations, to order CPD to provide people in custody with prompt phone access, as required by law. At the same time, the Clinic succeeded before the state General Assembly, which passed, as a part of the 2021 Illinois Safe-T Act, a law that guarantees people in police custody phone access “as soon as possible,” and in no event longer than three hours from being taken into custody. We have drafted a similar Chicago ordinance, which has been introduced into City Council by Alderman Leslie Hairston.

The Clinic has also succeeded in challenging provisions in Chicago police collective bargaining agreements that impede transparency and accountability. Building off of last summer’s victory in the Illinois Supreme Court, in which the Court struck a provision in Chicago’s collective bargaining agreement with the Fraternal Order of Police that required the City to destroy police misconduct records that are more than five years old, the Illinois Legislature passed a bill that was drafted by Clinic students more than four years ago word-for-word that requires the permanent retention of all records that relate to complaints of police misconduct in Illinois. With the Governor’s signature, it has now become the law in Illinois. Clinic students supported by the generous guidance of the Akerman Law Firm have also begun consent decree enforcement efforts to ensure that the City exercises required “best efforts” to eliminate other obstacles to accountability and transparency from the new collective bargaining agreement, presently under negotiation.

Clinic students also made substantial progress in the fight for community oversight over police in Chicago. Building from work of previous Clinic students, including the ongoing contributions of clinic alum Sarah Kinter, student advocacy by Alexandra Green, Vatsala Kumar, and Erik Zimmerman have placed Chicago on the precipice of historic legislation. The Clinic has supported the unification of two powerful community coalitions in the advocacy for a single ordinance and a public referendum, Empowering Communities for Public Safety. This advocacy has earned the pledged support of a veto-proof of City Council. The Mayor and Police Superintendent nonetheless continue their fight to resist community oversight and have endeavored to stall any vote in City Council.

Taking lessons learned in the Chicago police consent decree process, we are actively working with Clinic alum Isabella Nascimento (now at the ACLU in Minneapolis) to coordinate with people who have been most impacted in Minneapolis to ensure that they will play a leading and empowered role in the process of change there—a process ignited by Officer Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd, the Minneapolis Police Department’s (MPD’s) efforts to cover up that murder that were eerily similar to efforts to cover up Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke’s murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in Chicago, and the United States Department of Justice’s investigation into a pattern and practice of civil rights violations by the MPD.

While our consent decree victories have no doubt propelled us to take on a greater share of public impact litigation and policy work, we have also maintained our commitment to work with individual clients in need. For example, the Clinic student team of Laura Herrera, James Jones, Gabe Slater, and Harsha Tolappa has made significant strides with Corey Batchelor in his fight for justice in his civil rights wrongful conviction lawsuit, arising from Chicago police detectives’ abuse of him when he was only 19-years-old. The Detectives coerced him into giving a false confession to a murder that he did not commit. This work grew from Clinic student victories won twenty years ago that led to the appointment of a special prosecutor that investigated and documented the pattern and practice of police torture that occurred over more than two decades under the leadership of disgraced Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge. In addition to taking the deposition of one of Commander Burge’s so called “ass kickers” who coerced Corey Batchelor to falsely confess, Laura Herrera led the student team in winning our right to conduct discovery on the pattern and practice of Chicago police torture that caused his wrongful conviction. The student team, together with recent Clinic alum, Lee Stark, have fought for and developed powerful evidence of a Chicago police practice of using staged polygraph examinations as part of its procedures to systematically coerce false confessions from people like Corey in CPD custody. We expect expert discovery and a jury trial to occur in the coming academic year.

Finally, on the topic of wrongful convictions, Clinical Professor Craig Futterman was appointed to a committee to work with Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx to review the integrity of the convictions of nearly twenty people who gave incriminating statements to a group of Chicago police detectives who framed innocent people, including the Englewood Four for serious crimes that they did not commit and engaged in a pattern of perjury to cover up their abuse. The Clinic established an independent review committee from the State’s Attorney’s Office and drafted procedures to revisit these convictions that draw from best practices around the United States. Relatedly, Alex Braverman and Elise LeCrone have launched new investigations into claims of police torture brought before the Illinois Torture Commission.

Professor Futterman has also been appointed to work with his Clinic students on a legislative committee for the State of Illinois to explore the elimination of police qualified immunity, a doctrine that immunizes police officers from liability for constitutional violations.