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The latest protests against the Chicago police are about more than one shooting

The Chicago Police Department has a long history of civil rights abuses and racial discrimination.

A Chicago police officer at the scene of a shooting. Scott Olson/Getty Images

The latest round of protests in Chicago over the police is, at face value, about the police shooting of 37-year-old Harith “Snoop” Augustus, a black barber working in the city’s South Shore neighborhood. But the demonstrations — and the anger that led to them — are really rooted in generations of criticisms against a police department that has been repeatedly found to be abusive of residents and racially discriminatory.

It’s not, then, just about this police shooting. It’s also a reaction to the 2014 police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. It’s about the US Department of Justice investigation, released in 2017, which found that the Chicago Police Department repeatedly used excessive force and often treated people, particularly minorities, “as animals or subhuman.” And it’s the decades of incidents before that, including a scheme under which a police detective tortured hundreds of people to force confessions out of them.

This history helps explain why the department’s insistence that the shooting was justified and the video footage showing that Augustus was armed have done little to quell community skepticism and criticism.

This is reflective of the broader national story with Black Lives Matter since 2014: While one incident may trigger protests — like the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, or Freddie Gray in Baltimore, or Tamir Rice in Cleveland — the fallout speaks to a much longer history. And that history involves not just police killings of black people but also other abuses, from petty traffic stops to downright torture, hand in hand with a lack of police attention to black communities when they actually need the help of law enforcement.

Chicago, however, offers a unique story in that its police department has demonstrated these kinds of problems time and time again. And despite this deep history, these issues have been met with only mild police reforms — causing every successive police shooting that draws public attention to fuel even more outrage toward law enforcement.

To understand that, though, it’s important to first understand the events in Chicago over the past week.

The police shooting of Harith Augustus

Augustus was stopped by a police officer on July 14 for “exhibiting characteristics of an armed person,” according to Chicago police spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi. Video shows that as Augustus spoke with the officer, additional officers arrived. When one officer grabbed for Augustus’s wrist, he pulled away and his shirt flew up, showing a holstered weapon on his hip. As Augustus moved around the front of a police vehicle, stumbling into the street, his hand moved toward his waist. He then fell as an officer opened fire.

In the days since the shooting, the police department has defended its officers, noting in a July 15 press conference that Augustus was armed and that he did not have a concealed carry permit for his weapon. Community members and activists meanwhile, have countered that the mere presence of a gun does not justify the shooting. They noted that Augustus was licensed to own a firearm and that it would be impossible for officers to know about Augustus’s lack of a permit when the initial stop occurred.

The department has also faced fierce criticism for its reaction to a protest in the hours after the shooting. As community members gathered near where the shooting occurred, chanting, “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?” at officers, things quickly became chaotic, with officers using batons in response to some protesters throwing bottles and rocks. Videos of the events show officers striking protesters, and pulling some to the ground.

It was that Saturday protest that prompted the Chicago Police Department, which has frequently hesitated to release video of police shootings, to release edited footage of the shooting less than 24 hours after the incident. The video shows a brief 40-second clip of the shooting from an officer’s body camera, but offers little information about what happened in the moments before or after the officer opened fire.

It also does not contain audio because, as Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson told reporters on Tuesday, the officer had not yet activated the device’s “event mode,” a setting that records both video and audio.

Still, the department argues that the footage offers a clear depiction of what happened. “We’re not trying to hide anything. We’re not trying to fluff anything,” Johnson said Sunday. “This video speaks for itself.”

Community advocates disagree with that notion, saying that the footage leaves far more questions than it answers. “He was having a civil conversation with the black cop at first so we need to know what he and that officer were saying,” local activist William Calloway told the Associated Press. “There needs to be (footage) from four police officers with audio.” On Wednesday, Calloway filed a lawsuit against the police department, demanding the release of all footage related to the shooting.

Few other details have been released in the days since the shooting. The investigation of the shooting will be led by Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability, a relatively new body created to review police shootings independently from the department. The police department and COPA have both stated that they will not release additional footage at this time.

The shooting comes at a volatile time for the Chicago Police Department, which has been under years of intense scrutiny for its strained relationship with black and Latinx neighborhoods, fueled by repeated incidents of both lethal and nonlethal police violence including several high-profile police shootings of black men and women.

The Chicago Police Department “has relied on a two-tiered and unequal policing structure that has perpetuated systemic racial abuse and civil rights violations that remain ongoing today,” said Craig Futterman, a policing expert and professor at the University of Chicago School of Law. “That’s the context in which this shooting occurred.”

There are a lot of unanswered questions about the Augustus shooting

Local activists and policing experts alike have noted that there are a lot of things still unanswered when it comes to the Augustus shooting. One of the first is exactly why Augustus was stopped for appearing to be armed, given that the state allows for concealed carry. Activists have also noted that video of the shooting shows Augustus attempting to pull what looks like an Illinois Firearm Owners’ Identification card from his wallet shortly before being grabbed by an officer, leading them to question why the interaction escalated so quickly.

There are also questions about the additional footage of the shooting. The video released did not include audio, leaving questions about what happened before and after the officer opened fire. While the department has confirmed that at least one other officer did record video of the incident, it is unclear if there is footage that would answer these questions.

The Chicago Police Department did not respond to Vox’s request for comment but has referred other outlets’ questions about the footage and investigation to the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, the independent body tasked with investigating the shooting. That group has since said that it will release footage “at the earliest point,” adding that any additional releases now “may jeopardize the integrity of our investigation.” Under a policy passed in 2016, video of police shootings is required to be released within 60 days of an incident, although that period can be extended by courts.

The delay has left community members frustrated, especially since the Chicago Police Department has long been criticized for its lack of transparency.

The department continues to be haunted by its actions following the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager shot 16 times by Jason Van Dyke, a white police officer. In that case, Van Dyke argued that he fired at McDonald because the teen had a weapon, but video footage of the shooting, released after the city fought for a year to keep the footage under wraps, showed that the boy had actually been moving away from police, and was shot several times after falling to the ground. Van Dyke has been charged with first-degree murder and aggravated battery with a firearm. His trial is expected to begin in September.

Local politics are also playing a role in the latest protests. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has faced heavy criticism for his handling of the McDonald shooting and other incidents of police violence, is beginning a third mayoral bid. Emanuel has faced criticism from groups who argue that his administration’s actions, like proposing the construction of a $95 million police and fire academy, closing half of the city’s mental health clinics, and the ongoing school closure and funding crisis in Chicago’s public schools, indicate that politicians are neglecting the city’s black and brown residents.

These tensions are then magnified by police shootings and violence, issues that have plagued Chicago for decades. “Without the oversight to ensure that things actually get implemented and work, we’re having the same conversation every couple of years or so,” Futterman said. “The underlying conditions haven’t changed.”

The Justice Department already criticized Chicago police in a damning report

Beyond the McDonald and Augustus shootings, the Chicago Police Department has a long history of civil rights abuses and racial discrimination.

In 2017, the Department of Justice, then under President Barack Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch, released a report blasting the Chicago Police Department for using excessive force and treating people, particularly minorities, “as animals or subhuman.”

The Justice Department investigation found that the Chicago Police Department “has tolerated racially discriminatory conduct that not only undermines police legitimacy, but also contributes to the pattern of unreasonable force.”

For example, raw statistics show that Chicago police officers use force almost 10 times more often against black residents than against their white counterparts. The Justice Department described this as an example of how “residents in black neighborhoods suffer more of the harms caused by breakdowns in uses of force, training, supervision, accountability, and community policing” routinely seen across the police department.

Perhaps the clearest example of this, beyond the raw numbers, is how officers — even supervisors — were allowed to make outright bigoted comments in public and on social media with few if any consequences.

Here are examples of how officers treated black residents:

Black youth told us that they are routinely called “nigger,” “animal,” or “pieces of shit” by CPD officers. A 19-year-old black male reported that CPD officers called him a “monkey.” Such statements were confirmed by CPD officers. One officer we interviewed told us that he personally has heard coworkers and supervisors refer to black individuals as monkeys, animals, savages, and “pieces of shit.”

And here are a few examples of what officers got away with on social media:

For example, one officer posted a status stating, “Hopefully one of these pictures will make the black lives matter activist organization feel a whole lot better!” with two photos attached, including one of two slain black men, in the front seats of a car, bloodied, covered in glass. Several CPD officers posted social media posts contain disparaging remarks about Arabs and Muslims, with posts referring to them as “7th century Islamic goat humpers,” “Ragtop,” and making other anti-Islamic statements. One CPD officer posted a photo of a dead Muslim soldier laying in a pool of his own blood with the caption: “The only good Muslim is a fucking dead one.” Supervisors posted many of the discriminatory posts we found, including one sergeant who posted at least 25 anti-Muslim statements and at least 43 other discriminatory posts, and a lieutenant who posted at least five anti-immigrant and anti-Latino statements.

Unsurprisingly, these types of comments have left a mark on the community. One black resident told the Justice Department that when it comes to Chicago police, there’s “no treating you as a human being.”

The Justice Department went on:

Consistent with these reports, our investigation found that there was a recurring portrayal by some CPD officers of the residents of challenged neighborhoods — who are mostly black — as animals or subhuman. One CPD member told us that the officers in his district come to work every day “like it’s a safari.” This theme has a long history in Chicago. A photo from the early 2000s that surfaced years later shows white CPD officers Jerome Finnegan and Timothy McDermott squatting over a black man posed as a dead deer with antlers as the officers hold their rifles.

Yet just 1.3 percent of complaints about racist language between 2011 and March 2016 were sustained by internal investigators, the Justice Department found.

This was emblematic of a bigger problem: The police department regularly fails to hold its officers accountable for misconduct.

When police did pursue investigations into community members’ complaints of any kind, they favored white residents: “[F]or each allegation contained in a complaint, a white complainant is three-and-a-half-times more likely to have the allegation sustained — and the officer held accountable for his or her misconduct — than a black complainant, and twice as likely to have the allegation sustained than a Latino complainant.”

Meanwhile, the Justice Department found that Chicago police officers use excessive force — and are rarely held accountable for it, sometimes to deadly consequences. In one case, an off-duty police officer wasn’t disciplined after shooting someone he wrongly believed was carrying a weapon — only to later go on and kill another person whom he wrongly believed had a weapon:

[A]n off-duty CPD officer spotted the silhouette of a man in a vacant building and suspected the man was burglarizing it. The officer called 911, but did not wait for other officers to arrive. Instead, the off-duty officer summoned the man out of the building. According to a civilian witness, the burglary suspect angrily exited the building, yelling, “You’re not a fucking cop.” The suspect then advanced on the officer, who struck and kicked the suspect. According to the officer, the suspect then reached into his waistband and withdrew a shiny object, prompting the officer to fire twice, killing the man. No weapon was recovered. Instead, officers reported finding a silver watch near the man’s body. IPRA found the shooting justified without addressing the officer’s failure to await backup. According to press reports, in November 2016, this same officer shot a man in the back and killed him, claiming the man had pointed a gun at him during a foot pursuit. No gun was recovered.

This is just one of many examples in the report, which also found cases of Chicago police escalating foot pursuits into violent encounters with little cause, an officer aiming his gun at teens playing basketball on his property, cops hitting a 16-year-old girl with a baton and stun gun “after she was asked to leave the school for having a cell phone in violation of school rules,” and officers simply shoving underage teens for no good reason.

Taken together, the report suggested that the Chicago Police Department not only uses excessive force but regularly discriminates against people based on race — and city and police leaders have done little about it.

Chicago’s policing problems go even further back

The Justice Department report, however, was only the most recent chapter for a police department that has for decades been mired by accusations of abuse and racism with no sign of accountability.

Consider the story of Jon Burge: He was a Chicago police detective who, from 1972 to 1991, tortured hundreds of criminal suspects to get confessions out of them — and it took until 2015 for the city to establish a fund for the victims.

Or consider the many stories that black and brown residents, including cops, have shared for decades of police coming into their neighborhoods and roughing up people with little to no justification.

It’s also not just that the police department mistreats black communities, but that the police department neglects black communities when they actually need law enforcement. This is part of a national problem: As the Washington Post documented, police are simply much more likely to solve murders when the victim is white than when the victim is black. But it’s especially felt in Chicago, where police, according to the Post, “solve so few homicides that vast areas stretching for miles experience hundreds of homicides with virtually no arrests.”

Think about what this means for Chicago’s black residents: When police come in, it’s often in an abusive, abrasive manner that can lead to outright discrimination and excessive use of force. Meanwhile, police don’t appear to come in when they’re actually needed to solve the worst crimes. Chicago’s minority communities are both overpoliced and underpoliced.

“This is what folks who rail against the focus on police violence — and pull up against that, community violence — get wrong,” David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College, previously said. “What those folks simply don’t understand is that when communities don’t trust the police and are afraid of the police, then they will not and cannot work with police and within the law around issues in their own community. And then those issues within the community become issues the community needs to deal with on their own — and that leads to violence.”

That violence, in turn, leads to more distrust as more murders go unsolved — perpetuating a vicious spiral of distrust and crime.

There are also problems that go beyond police. For one, Chicago is extremely segregated. During the Great Migration, as many black Americans abandoned the Jim Crow South for the North, Chicago became a major destination. But the predominantly white power base wasn’t receptive to the sudden change. They instituted all sorts of barriers — such as restrictive covenants, redlining, blockbusting, and steering — that, along with public housing policies, pushed mostly black residents into impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods. (For a deeper dive into Chicago’s segregation, read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations.”)

This created a situation in which black Chicagoans have been left to struggle in places where they have little chance of establishing a safe, prosperous life. The result is Chicago has a few predominantly black neighborhoods with high levels of crime and few resources and little government attention to combat that crime.

Consider the finding of a New York Times analysis comparing segregation in New York City and Chicago: Less than 1 percent of New York City’s population lives in an area where everyone is of the same race, and most of these segregated places are white. Meanwhile, 12 percent of the black population in Chicago lives in a census block group that is entirely black.

That level of segregation — and the many problems it leads to — fosters distrust toward the government and its agents, including the police. So when another police shooting happens, minority residents are simply much less likely to trust the police side of the story, leading to protests.

To fix Chicago law enforcement, police have to own up to their troubled past

Kennedy, who has worked with police departments, said it’s imperative for police to own up to their mistakes if they want to fix community relations. Mimicking what he would say as a police chief, he previously said: “We recognize these facts — whether we were there or not, whether we were around during slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, attacks on the civil rights movement, or whether it’s more recent things that we have done that you have found disrespectful and untoward, like zero-tolerance policing and high levels of stop and frisk.”

Chicago and its police department have taken some steps in this direction, embracing body cameras and promising reforms in other areas.

But there’s a lot more work to be done. As Osita Nwanevu noted at Slate, the city has fully implemented only 20 of 99 total recommendations made by the Justice Department in its 2017 report.

We see that in the protests of the past week. Even as Chicago releases body camera video of the shooting and tries to be more transparent about its process going forward, many of its residents aren’t buying what the police are selling after decades of neglect and abuse — and little to address the core problems.