University of Chicago professor says accountability is key to restoring trust in police

Nora Shelly, Reporter

Police misconduct, the “code of silence,” and a lack of honesty and accountability are destroying the community’s trust in police, said University of Chicago clinical law Prof. Craig Futterman at an event in Evanston on Friday.

Futterman (Weinberg ‘88), who pushed Cook County for the release of the dashcam video that shows the shooting of Laquan McDonald, spoke to the Jewish Reconstruction Congregation on Friday night about police accountability and the cover-up in the shooting of Laquan McDonald. He said abusive actions by a few police officers that primarily target people of color in poorer neighborhoods overshadow the good work of many on the force.

“When kids see officers abuse their friends, neighbors, without fear of punishment, that says a lot more to them about their department than their neighborhood officer who smiles,” Futterman said.

Futterman said that police departments aren’t required to make data on misconduct public and often destroy it after a certain amount of time. Equally damaging is the “code of silence,” an unspoken rule in which officers don’t report their colleagues’ misconduct or cover it up in investigations, is perhaps the most damaging of a police department’s actions, he said.

“What we teach our kids is that all trusting relationships are built on honesty,” Futterman said. “Is there any wonder why our kids aren’t trusting the police?”

The shooting of Laquan McDonald, Futterman said, is a prime example of the “code of silence” in action. He said that up until the arrival of Officer Jason Van Dyke, who has been charged with murdering the 17-year-old McDonald, other officers on the scene had been trying to diffuse the situation. However, he said after Van Dyke shot McDonald, all other officers lied about what they saw or pretended to not have seen anything.

“This was an extraordinary situation,” Futterman said. “But the police department’s attempts … to cover up what happened, was anything but extraordinary.”

Futterman said it was this culture of silence that was most hurtful for both civilians and other officers who may not have ever been the subject of complaints. He said most officers he spoke with told him that they were tired of unnecessary brutality but few felt like they could report misconduct for fear of losing their jobs.

Skokie resident Roger Williams, who attended the event, told the Daily that he was surprised about how deep this “code of silence” went.

“There is this small group that the system actually protects,” he said. “How this ‘code of silence’ works, it keeps on protecting these corrupt police officers.”

The Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago, which Futterman runs, interviewed black high school students in Chicago, and Futterman said the project found those students to be so mistrustful of police that they would hesitate to call them in emergencies. He also said that people who lived in areas targeted by police would be less likely cooperate in investigations.

“Police were least successful solving crimes in places where they had the least trust,” he said.

Futterman talked at the Jewish Reconstruction Congregation as part of their ongoing “Tikkun Olam” initiative. Melissa Mizel, who helps run the program, said “Tikkun Olam” translates roughly to mean “repairing the world.”

“Despite the fact that he is a professor and very experienced and practiced at addressing audiences throughout his career, this was very personal for him,” she told the Daily. “He spoke with a lot of compassion and emotions.”

Futterman said that limiting unnecessary police-civilian interactions, treating everybody with respect and engaging with the community were three simple ways officers could begin to restore their relationship with minority youth.

Despite studying police misconduct his entire career, Futterman said this was the first time he had felt hopeful that change was possible, thanks to renewed outrage against police misconduct. But he said that the community needed to support change in order to see results.

“Youth-led movements have led us to this moment,” he said. “It is up to us to act on it.”

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