A statistic recently cited from coast to coast: 74 percent of those shot by Chicago police from 2008 through 2015 were black, although black people make up only a third of the city’s population.
It’s from the report by the Police Accountability Task Force, published last week. The statistic “gives validity to the widely held belief that the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color,” the report asserts.
The New York Times agreed with that assessment in an editorial the day after the report was published. “The sense of injustice and grievance that pervades the black community . . . is borne out by the police data,” the editorial said, citing the shooting statistic. The Associated Press News Service cited the stat in its story, which was headlined, “Report: Chicago police have ‘no regard’ for minority lives.” Atlantic Cities ran virtually the same headline over a story that cited the “devastating” shooting disparity.
The task force had to realize that its “no regard for the sanctity of life” assertion about Chicago police would dominate the initial media coverage and drown out most everything else that the 190-page report offers.
And it offers a lot. But the report doesn’t quite connect the dots on what else may be behind that shooting statistic.
Poor black neighborhoods in Chicago are “ravaged by violent crime,” the task force report acknowledges. In the west-side Austin neighborhood, there were 3,341 violent crimes in 2013 and 2014, including 67 homicides, 219 nonfatal shootings, and 725 armed robberies with guns. In such neighborhoods, there are bound to be far more stops, arrests, and confrontations with police than in more affluent neighborhoods where violent crime is much rarer.
Nirej Sekhon, a professor at Georgia State University law school, recently analyzed all shootings by police in Chicago between 2006 and 2014, and found “a more complex relationship between race, policing, and violence than one might expect from high-profile, officer-involved shootings.” One of the complexities: although 81 percent of those shot by police were minorities, many of the officers who shot them were minorities as well.
White officers, 53 percent of the force, committed 51 percent of the shootings; black officers, 25 percent of the force, committed 23 percent of the shootings; Hispanic officers, 19 percent of the force, committed 23 percent of the shootings. What they had in common was this: the vast majority of the shootings occurred in census tracts that were among the city’s poorest, that were at least 90 percent black, and that had the highest crime rates.
No doubt some police officers devalue the lives of minorities, or have biases, conscious and not, that lead them to believe that the young black males they chase have guns when they don’t, resulting in wrongful shootings. But it’s often hypersegregation and concentrated poverty that foster these biases.
The disproportionate shooting of minorities by police is not just a Chicago thing. Minorities are dramatically overrepresented as police shooting victims in cities across the nation, Sekhon noted. In New York in 2013, blacks were nearly 80 percent of the victims of police shootings, though they were only 26 percent of the city’s population.
The task force wisely urges much more training for officers—training designed to reduce bias in policing, and to help officers interact better with youth, the mentally ill, and those exposed to trauma. It adds its voice to those calling for the removal of provisions in the collective bargaining agreements that shield abusive officers from discipline. (Those agreements will be renegotiated in 2016 and 2017.) And it recommends that more experienced officers be assigned to high-crime districts. The current union rules allow veteran officers to opt for safer districts.
To its credit, the task force also recognizes that racial inequities in Chicago do not begin or end with the police department.
“CPD is not the cause of, nor the solution to, all of the significant problems facing many of Chicago’s minority communities,” the report says. Reforming CPD “will only accomplish so much unless we meaningfully address broader issues facing Chicago’s disadvantaged communities.”
Those broader issues include an “alarming lack of jobs” in certain neighborhoods, and the “dearth of basic community services and anchors like decent schools, day care, churches, community centers, parks or grocery stores.” Many blacks and Hispanics in Chicago “have been trapped for multiple generations in poor neighborhoods,” and “many of the city’s policing problems could be avoided altogether by ensuring that African-American and Hispanic teens and young adults have adequate opportunities through education and employment.”
Don’t expect a task force to take on poverty and segregation, however, although the city and county could use one. Yes, CPD and some of its officers have shown a lack of regard for minority lives. But the rest of us haven’t done much better.