On June 15, Mayor Lori Lightfoot stood at a podium in City Hall to announce a new community working group to review the Chicago Police Department’s use-of-force policies. The announcement came after a difficult stretch for the department, with activists, lawyers, and others criticizing the use of force against protesters and Congressman Bobby Rush calling out officers for napping in his office while nearby businesses were looted.
Lightfoot framed the new group as part of the ongoing overhaul of the CPD, which is operating under a court-overseen reform process known as a consent decree, declaring, “I truly believe that the consent decree gives us a unique opportunity—maybe a once in a generation opportunity—to transform everything about policing in Chicago.”
A new investigation by the Invisible Institute published in partnership with the Reader raises questions about the ongoing implementation of police reforms. The Invisible Institute asked the public to submit accounts of police violence at recent protests, focusing on the period between May 30 and June 1, and combined more than 60 submissions with other incidents captured through prior reporting or on social media.
Barely three months after the CPD instituted new rules around the use of batons, our reporting documented 83 baton strikes on at least 32 different people by officers, most captured on video. Nearly all appear to violate the new policy, with more than half of the strikes on video involving police beating people who were already on the ground. Multiple videos also show officers hitting protesters in the head with batons despite rules limiting these strikes to situations requiring deadly force. The incidents took place in full view of CPD supervisors, including sergeants and other higher-ranking officials, who rarely intervened as their officers struck protesters. It’s also unclear if officers reported their actions: the CPD’s new Use of Force Dashboard reports just 12 baton incidents across the entire month of May, most in neighborhoods far from the protests.
One protester, Copeland Marie Smith, said she saw a line of officers advance on hundreds of peaceful protesters at the intersection of Division and Larrabee on June 1, with several cops repeatedly swinging their batons into the crowd. According to Smith the officers swung “hard and fast and they didn’t care what they were hitting.”
Tanya Watkins, acting director and lead organizer at Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL) said, “It’s not fair the way that CPD has handled protesters but not surprising. This is how they show up in communities. This happens outside of policy. So is the problem with the policy or is the problem with policing?”
Our reporting concentrated on baton strikes, in part because they are one of the most serious types of force available to officers and because, in late February, the Chicago Police Department unveiled a new baton policy as part of the consent decree. The new rules outlined limits on when officers could use batons and emphasized de-escalation and providing warning to civilians before resorting to baton strikes. The new rules also mandated that each separate strike had to be justified as a distinct use of force and banned strikes to the head or neck “except when deadly force is justified.”
Though our review of video footage cannot conclusively assess the officers’ use of force, in most cases we were able to assess the circumstances that preceded officers using force.
Our analysis of 51 baton strikes captured on video shows that at least 47 of these appear to be in violation of department policy, which limit baton strikes to people who are “using or threatening the use of force against another person or himself/herself which is likely to cause physical injury.” Twenty-six of the strikes captured on video show officers beating people who are already on the ground.
The scene at the intersection of Clark and Hubbard in River North on the evening of Sunday, May 31, provides a vivid example. A witness, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the police moved aggressively toward a peaceful protest, possibly in response to insults from the crowd. “It wasn’t like what I’ve seen at other protests where police say to get back and then they push. There wasn’t very much talking, they just lifted up their batons and started swinging.”
The Invisible Institute received a video of the incident that shows officers striking four people a total of 18 times. None of the protesters appear to be attacking officers. One person is struck multiple times after they fall to the ground. One officer strikes another fallen protester in the head—a level of force that CPD rules reserve for situations requiring deadly force. Despite the dozens of officers on the scene, including supervisors, no police attempt to rein in their fellow officers.
The police response to protests in Hyde Park on the same day showed similar patterns. Multiple videos show officers chasing down activist Malcolm London and hitting him with their batons roughly a dozen times, including strikes as he lays on the ground. Other protesters attempting to intervene were also struck. Ariel Atkins, a lead organizer for Black Lives Matter Chicago, says that some people have been calling the day “the Battle of Hyde Park” because of the multiple organizers who suffered injuries from police actions. Police board president Ghian Foreman, who was at a march a few blocks away, also reported that police struck him multiple times with batons.
The Invisible Institute’s analysis of videos of the massive protests in downtown Chicago on May 30 found a dozen instances of officers striking people with batons, including a man biking away from officers and a man held on the ground by multiple other officers. In three cases, protesters took actions against police, but two—splashing water and throwing dirt—appear to fall short of the standard needed for serious force. In a third case, a man attempted to punch an officer, who responded with a baton strike to his head.
The videos document only some of the CPD’s use of force. Six individuals also provided written accounts of police hitting them or their friends with batons while protesting on May 30. One protester, who asked to be identified by their initials, V.G., said that officers struck them more than 15 times during the protest on the Wabash Bridge. “This was actually the first protest that has gotten really violent for me . . . it was really surreal,” V.G. said.
There may never be an official review of these baton strikes. According to the CPD’s Use of Force Dashboard, which Lightfoot touted as a key part of reform efforts, officers reported just three baton uses in the month of May in the neighborhoods where we reviewed video or written accounts of baton strikes.
While it is possible that some officers may not have filed reports before the end of the month, especially for uses of force late on May 31, University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman, who runs the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project, pointed out that CPD directives call for use-of-force reports to be filed before the end of an officer’s shift. He also raised concerns about the lack of action from CPD supervisors who witnessed the baton strikes. “The machine of denial still exists . . . not just by rank-and-file officers covering for one another, but something that goes all the way up the chain of command,” he said.
Excessive force at protests was also not limited to batons. Videos showed instances of officers punching protesters, driving their cars through crowds of protesters, and in one case, reaching into a crowd to grab a woman by the hair and pull her toward officers. Several videos also show arrests where officers tackled protesters who were not resisting or fleeing, another violation of department rules.
Futterman also expressed concern about the implications of police violence at protests for policing in Chicago’s neighborhoods. “If the kind of police violence that we saw during the protests occurs so brazenly out in the open,” he asked, “what’s happening in Black and Brown neighborhoods outside of the cameras?”
After publication, the Chicago Police Department e-mailed a statement: “Sanctity of life and de-escalation serve as the cornerstones of the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) use of force policy. Any incidents of excessive force from CPD members are not tolerated, and if any wrongdoing is discovered, officers will be held accountable. Anyone who feels they have been mistreated by a CPD officer is encouraged to call 311 and file a complaint with COPA, who will investigate allegations of misconduct.”
The Mayor’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.
Tanya Watkins of SOUL said the police violence toward protesters exposes flaws in the consent decree’s approach to reform, arguing that “the policy can be as beautiful as your imagination can create, but enforcing it within a department that has been historically racist and anti-Black has thus far seemed impossible. So, isn’t it time for Chicago to abandon that idea that we can transform a racist police department by written policy?”
Futterman said that “the policy in Chicago has proven all too regularly not worth the paper it’s printed on because no one is holding officers accountable.” Even so, he hopes that the combination of legal oversight and community pressure can push the department to make major changes. Futterman and Watkins are both part of the mayor’s new committee to review use-of-force rules, though Futterman noted that the working group was only formed after the consent decree monitor criticized the CPD for not seeking community involvement on new use-of-force policies as required.
Atkins of BLM Chicago has less patience for the reform process, pushing instead for defunding the police. “You can’t reform violence. When I hear reform, I hear I just want a little less violence,” said Atkins. “If the foundation of policing is violence, white supremacy, you can’t change that foundation. You get rid of the foundation, the whole building falls apart. You know, we need to move forward. We need something totally different.” v
Emma Perez and Ellen Glover contributed reporting.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comment from the Chicago Police Department.