Chad Williams, former civilian commanding officer of the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) audit division resigned this past August over the department’s failure to work towards reform. In his email of resignation to Mayor Lightfoot, Williams stated, “Unfortunately, my disappointment with the inability of this department’s top leadership to even feign interest in pursuing reform in a meaningful manner has made it impossible for me to remain involved.” Williams’s resignation reignites the conversation surrounding CPD’s controversial reputation, a topic recently in the spotlight in July 2021 when Gov. Pritzker’s criminal justice reform bill went into effect, increasing training hours and gearing up for statewide body camera use by 2025, offering a new vision for police accountability in the future. However, reformers outside the department, and some like Chad Williams who have worked within it, believe that reform remains stagnant.
CPD: A History of Misconduct
Williams joined CPD in 2018 and oversaw the audit division, which is responsible for evaluating its procedures and conduct. The year before, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit against the City of Chicago regarding Chicago’s repeated instances of police conduct. As a result, the Attorney General Office and the City of Chicago worked together to put CPD under a consent decree which took effect in 2019. The 2019 consent decree is an order by the federal government for CPD to reform its training procedures, use of force, crisis responses, etc. It creates a specific timeline for reform and serves as an “enforceable plan,” ensuring the guidelines stipulated by the federal government are followed and the required reforms are implemented within the established time frame. As such, Williams spent his time with CPD addressing their controversial reputation.
In spite of his work, CPD reports of misconduct and excessive violence persisted throughout his tenure and continue to make headlines today. Thirteen year-old Adam Toledo’s death by police fire in Chicago’s Little Village on Mar. 29 sparked major outrage and protests across the city, as bodycam videos showed what appeared to be an unarmed Toledo chased down and fatally shot. Public criticism was outspoken, calling for disciplinary action for the officer, Eric Stillman, who has been placed on administrative duty as the incident is deliberated on, but has not been charged with or punished for Toledo’s death.
Misconduct and controversy pervade not just CPD’s rank-and-file, but its leadership as well. John Catanzara, Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge 7 President, has incited backlash several times in recent years, most recently his comments sympathizing with the January 6th Capitol insurrection. These comments, much like his 2017 Facebook post expressing support for then-President Trump while in uniform, went largely unpunished with only a reprimand, and Catanzara only recently retired as an officer on Nov. 16, though he retains his role as FOP President, a three-year term ending in 2023.
A 2020 audit of the force suggests that these cases are not outliers, but symptoms of a larger culture of uncorrected misconduct. Conducted by Chad Williams just months after Adam Toledo’s death, the audit found that 6,153 CPD officers, or about 47 percent of the department, had received one or more complaint investigations, about 20 percent of which were sustained.
Despite controversy after controversy, CPD has largely failed to take responsibility for the issues its police force has accrued, issuing reprimands but rarely enforcing stricter punishments for officers that ignore department procedures or use excessive violence. Williams’s resignation reflects a sense of disillusionment among reformers at CPD’s repeated failures to address these issues in a meaningful way. In his August 2021 email to Mayor Lightfoot, Williams remarked that the reforms made have been merely a superficial, ‘check the boxes’ plan aimed at minimizing negative media coverage on CPD, rather than addressing the more pervasive problems within the department.
Creating Meaningful Reform in CPD
Currently, there are a few measures in place in the city of Chicago to monitor police misconduct. The Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) was formed in 2007 as a reorganization of the Office of Professional Standards, an entity created in 1974 intended to investigate police brutality, which in reality worked directly with CPD and had little effect on exposing and reducing police violence. The IPRA works independently from CPD to review allegations of police misconduct. Another organization, Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which was created in 2016, conducts investigations on instances of police misconduct, releasing body cam and video footage of police violence, and works with Chicago’s government in creating policies that prevent further police violence.
Despite these protocols, activists and many civilians within CPD believe there is still significant work to be done. In “Re-imagine Chicago,” a WBEZ interview from June 28 with Sasha-Ann Simons, a journalist and host of the WBEZ Chicago talk show Reset, Williams describes the reform process as an “ongoing conversation.” He recommends that “even when things are going really well, we have to make sure that everyone involved, the community, the department, all of the nonprofits” are involved in creating change. In the same “Re-imagine Chicago'' interview, Deborah Witzburg, former Chicago deputy inspector general for public safety, echoed Williams’ sentiments, speaking on the necessity of both bottom-up and top-down changes that engage citizens to address the failings of CPD leadership and officers alike.
Witzburg offers three suggestions for improving police responses and accountability. First, she recommends reevaluating what should be handled by CPD and what should be outsourced to other groups. Second, she emphasizes the importance of improved training and supervision, such as educating officers in mental health and domestic violence de-escalation strategies. Finally, she suggests that there be a government entity familiar with the workings of Chicago overseeing CPD behavior. These steps, Witzburg believes, are practical measures with the potential to greatly improve CPD’s working procedures, create a system of accountability for officers, and foster trust between police and the communities they serve.
‘Culture Eats Policy for Breakfast’ and Other Obstacles to Reform
These suggestions from figures like Williams and Witzburg offer practical reforms to increase police accountability. However, in light of Williams’s resignation, there are clearly deep-seated problems within the department that are preventing these reforms from taking hold. In Williams’s “Re-imagine Chicago” interview, he discusses both these difficulties and potential strategies for overcoming them based on his experience in the audit division.
According to Williams, effective reforms are not just changes in the rules, but processes that require significant time, effort, and resources in order to be implemented. This also requires increased communication and training between the city government and CPD, and between CPD leadership and individual officers, so that the entire police force understands the changes being implemented. For behavior and accountability to change, the rank-and-file of CPD must be made aware of the standards to which they are being held.
Williams also describes an inherent struggle in changing protocol or enacting reforms in “an organization that is as old and entrenched in its culture as the Chicago Police Department.” At CPD, there is pressure to not “step in the wrong spot or do anything that would negatively affect those above you.” Witzburg echoes these sentiments, saying that reforms recommended by her office are largely ignored by CPD, creating significant stagnation in the reform process. Evoking the adage ‘culture eats policy for breakfast,’ she says that “a problematic institutional culture will never be overcome, even by good policy-making.” Without a culture open to reform, reform will never take hold.
The Fraternal Order of Police poses an added obstacle to necessary cultural change. In an article from the National Lawyers Guild, Illinois Attorney Elizabeth J. Andonova argues that the FOP “makes a significant effort to shape narratives of police misconduct incidents to protect officers.” She alleges that these rhetorical techniques have kept many officers from facing disciplinary action for misconduct, exemplifying yet another cultural roadblock to instituting meaningful reforms.
Confronting apathy and disillusionment within the force, even separate from entrenched institutions like the FOP, is of paramount importance. As Witzburg remarks, “policing in Chicago is not a good system with a couple of bad people in it; it is a bad system with a lot of really good people in it.” Given this belief that the police system is historically flawed, it is not difficult to see how many CPD officers, as well as city officials, become frustrated with the current state of the department and its hesitation in enacting reform. In 2021, CPD is set to lose over one thousand officers to resignation or retirement, the highest figure since 2018. While this may simply be turnover, many officers, like Williams, appear to be disillusioned with the current state of CPD and its unwillingness towards change.
Overcoming Problematic Police Culture Nationwide
The future of CPD reform is uncertain, but an issue of paramount importance: Witzburg terms the recent CPD controversies a “crisis in transparent and accountable policing.” Citizen support for police reform is widespread. A 2020 Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans believed police departments nationwide were in need of major reform, 36 percent believed they were in need of minor changes, and only 6 percent believed no change was necessary. Accountable policing, in CPD and nationwide, is an issue that involves not only law enforcement bodies, but the communities they serve, who are largely pro-reform.
CPD’s entrenched culture appears to be the greatest roadblock in the reforms for which citizens are advocating. To begin these reforms, CPD may benefit from looking at national suggestions for improving a problematic police culture.
Ferguson, Missouri, where today’s Black Lives Matter movement took form, offers one suggestion: eliminating incentives for officers to charge citizens. In an investigation following Michael Brown’s death, the Justice Department found that Ferguson officers were “encouraged to ticket as many people as possible with the explicit goal of raising as much revenue as possible from fines and fees.” This led to the department targeting vulnerable groups, Black residents, the LGBTQ community, etc. Similar protocols involving explicit quotas to increase revenue also exist in places like New York City. Disincentivizing arrests and tickets may serve as one reform to the problematic culture in many police departments, including CPD.
Minneapolis, Minnesota, the site of George Floyd’s death, suggests two other potential reforms: increased training in de-escalation strategies and limitation of the power of the Fraternal Order of Police. Despite policies requiring officers to stop use of excessive force by other officers, Derek Chauvin was not stopped by the officers with him. A 2016 Police Executive Research Forum survey found that police officers spend a combined 107 hours on self-defense and gun training, and only eight hours on de-escalation tactics and crisis response strategies. Though de-escalation training is required in Minnesota, further redistribution of training hours may have prevented such an outcome. The benefits of redistributing training hours can be seen in places like Louisville, Kentucky, where a study found that officers completing de-escalation training received fewer citizen complaints and 28 percent less incidents of excessive police force. Limiting police union power is another possible solution. The Minneapolis union president Bob Kroll publicly discredited outcry over Floyd’s death, defending the officers involved and belittling the efforts of protestors. Minimizing the power the FOP has in the proceedings of police departments across the country, including CPD, has the potential to counteract some of the problematic institutional hesitation to reform.
One national example of promising police reform efforts which CPD may look to is that of Camden, New Jersey. Camden is famous for eradicating its existing police force and rebuilding an entirely new one, overhauling its prior practices and instituting a number of progressive reforms. The new Camden police force’s practices center on training that discourages escalation whenever possible and requires that officers step in when they see instances of excessive force. In a move that created significant backlash, the reforms also ended officers’ existing union contracts, addressing the cultural issues brought on by the FOP. These changes came largely as a result of activists' efforts, who put pressure on government officials to institute these policies. As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said, in response to how to address this violent and problematic police culture, “the most effective way to do that was to start over.” These efforts were successful in reducing crime as well as the rate of police brutality.
A look at these American cities demonstrate the necessary changes to police department procedures to combat a long-standing culture of corruption and misconduct. Stories of police brutality in Ferguson and Minneapolis point to procedural changes which would require greater accountability, in order to combat police culture. Furthermore, an example like that of Camden, New Jersey, demonstrates that even those reforms may not be enough, and that major overhaul of the department may be necessary to eradicate the problematic ideologies that pervade CPD.
Chad Williams’s resignation is likely only the beginning in terms of public outcries for reform or total upheaval. Looking to national examples of police reform, the Chicago government and CPD leadership are tasked with policymaking that will address not only police brutality, but also its institutional and cultural roots, to begin seeing meaningful change.
The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by Mikasi and can be found here.