Research News

Can Chicago Restore Public Trust in Police?

IPR’s Wesley Skogan sees more oversight as a way forward


police stops infographic

IPR policing expert Wesley Skogan led a 2015 survey asking 1,200 randomly selected Chicagoans about their experiences with Chicago police that helped to inform the task force’s recommendations.

Creating key oversight functions, including a powerful civilian oversight board and an independent inspector general for public safety, will help restore the trust of the public—and even its own officers—in the “internally and externally troubled” Chicago Police Department (CPD), said IPR political scientist and policing expert Wesley G. Skogan. 

Skogan was one of the 46 experts on the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force that produced the hard-hitting report on the CPD released earlier this month. The 190-page report begins with the “tipping point” of the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by a CPD officer in October 2014, and goes on to document widespread racial disparities, excessive use of force, accountability failures, and inadequate recruitment and training.

Wesley Skogan
Wesley G. Skogan 

Beyond these “hard truths,” the report also offers more than 100 recommendations to address the current ills facing the CDP, which include relaunching community policing, dismantling several current agencies and boards, making statutory changes, improving training, renegotiating with police unions, and adding body cameras.

The recommendations were informed, in part, by a 2015 survey that Skogan led, asking randomly selected Chicagoans about their experiences with the CPD. The survey results showed that almost 70 percent of young African American males in Chicago reported being stopped by police in the previous 12 months, a number that was far higher than any other demographic group. The task force report also detailed the personal experiences of young Chicagoans, including those of a high school student who described being stopped six or seven times, placed in a squad car each time, and then kicked out without an apology or explanation. 

“These stops—and how they were conducted—had clearly left a deep mark on how youths and young adults view the police,” the report said.  Due to this and other long-standing negative experiences laid out in the report, the “community’s lack of trust in CPD is justified,” it stated. 

Community policing could be one of the ways to address the problem, and in the past, the CPD had been a world leader in this area through its Chicago’s Alternative Police Strategy (CAPS). In recent years, however, the program fell on “hard times," becoming “a shadow of its former self” because of a lack of focus in the department and cuts in funding, Skogan said.

Skogan called for reinvigorating the CAPS program and increasing academic research on the CPD. Such research is important for evaluating policing programs, and for creating and validating the types of training that can reduce bias among police, Skogan noted. And that is not the only way research can inform policing-related policy.

“Research is very much involved in terms of tracking and monitoring citizen complaints and public reactions to reform,” Skogan said. “Research is also very much involved in figuring out what the effect of any of this is on crime.”

In addition to the research-based recommendations, Skogan highlighted other key proposals aimed at restoring public confidence and reducing racial bias, such as implementing a civilian oversight board.

The proposed civilian oversight board would have more powers than the current police board, and it would look at all instances of misconduct, not just appeals. It would also give the new inspector general the power to independently audit the CPD and the police oversight system, as well as monitor the system for racial bias.  

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Racial disparities in police-initiated stops
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Click image to enlarge infographic)

In addition, Skogan said the task force specifically recommended allowing confidential complaints to encourage reporting by individuals who fear retaliation, and separating officers from one another until all have given official statements in shooting cases. Deploying these would necessitate changes in the contract between the city of Chicago and the police union.

According to Skogan, this is the sixth task force the city has assembled to address policing issues since the 1940s, but “this one is different.” Continued civilian protests and the sweeping victory of police-reform candidate Kim Foxx over incumbent Anita Alvarez for Cook County state’s attorney in March signal the public’s deep dissatisfaction with the department. 

The Department of Justice has also launched its own investigation into the CPD. The fact that federal investigators and task-force members are conducting parallel investigations will all but ensure that the city winds up adopting a series of measures to address the issues, Skogan said.

But the department could jump in front of these investigations by proactively implementing many of these reforms, Skogan urged. He also pointed out that the public should not lose sight of the CPD’s bright spots, such as their work to gain insight on individuals’ quality of contact with police.

“The organization is so sprawling that good things and bad things can coexist at the same time,” Skogan said.

Wesley G. Skogan is professor of political science and an IPR fellow. He served on the task force’s Community Engagement Committee and advised the Police Oversight Committee.