ACLU: Police Brutality ‘Magnified For People With Disabilities’
CHICAGO — The ACLU of Illinois filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday alleging the city’s police reform efforts have neglected deep-seated issues on how officers are trained to handle people with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities.
Sounding a familiar tone already alleged in other pending litigation, the 53-page suit filed in U.S. District Court alleged the Chicago Police Department has a decades-long record of mistreating minority citizens, with blacks and Hispanics disproportionately affected by shootings and other police violence.
The suit alleged the brutality was “magnified for people with disabilities.” Nationally, an estimated 33 percent to 50 percent of those killed by police have a disability, with approximately 25 percent of people killed having a mental illness, the suit alleged. The problem also extends to police use of non-lethal force, including with Tasers, the ACLU contended.
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“The City of Chicago deploys officers armed with guns and Tasers but not deployed with critical de-escalation skills, and in doing so subjects residents, police officers and bystanders to harm,” the suit alleged. “When people with disabilities are subjected to CPD’s use of force, the role that their disability played is often either ignored or cited to blame the victim.”
The suit seeks a permanent injunction to block the city from continuing what it calls its current policies and practices “of using unlawful force against black and Latino people and individuals with disabilities.” It also seeks to have all court costs covered by taxpayers.
The ACLU’s litigation comes after two other lawsuits were filed against the city in recent months urging Mayor Rahm Emanuel to allow a federal judge to oversee reforms within the Police Department following heavy criticism from a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Chicago’s police practices.
The Justice Department report, made public earlier this year, blasted the Police Department for its poor training of officers, lack of officer supervision and failures in adequately disciplining officers for misconduct.
Flanked by about a dozen leaders of community groups around Chicago, ACLU attorney Karen Sheley told reporters at a Wednesday news conference that two other lawsuits filed against the city in recent months over the Police Department’s reform efforts do not address officers’ interactions with people with mental and physical disabilities.
Since last year, the department has been requiring officers to undergo mandatory training for de-escalation and crisis intervention, skills that would be useful for dealing with people with disabilities.
But Sheley said the Justice Department probe made clear that reform efforts need wider input than just the Police Department and the city or are doomed to failure as past decades have shown.
“Our goal is to have community members who are most impacted by these issues at the table ensuring that the reforms are meaningful and real, and that they are taking hold over time,” Sheley said at the ACLU’s downtown headquarters.
A statement released by the Law Department Wednesday did not directly address the ACLU suit but said the city has already committed to fashioning a consent decree — including an independent monitor overseen by a federal judge — on police reforms, a process that will include the “input of local community groups, police officers and other stakeholders.”
A spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
The Justice Department investigation was prompted by the court-ordered release in 2015 of video showing Officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting black teen Laquan McDonald 16 times a year earlier. The video sparked widespread protests, the firing of Chicago’s police superintendent and calls for widespread reforms. Van Dyke is awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges.
After the Justice Department released its findings in January, Emanuel signed an agreement with then-President Barack Obama’s attorney general to enter a consent decree in which a federal judge would enforce reforms. By May, however, Emanuel was trying to reach an out-of-court agreement with President Donald Trump’s administration, which has signaled its opposition to court oversight of police departments. Emanuel argued that an out-of-court deal would get the same results as a consent decree.
In June, a group of civil rights lawyers filed a federal lawsuit against the city on behalf of six African-American plaintiffs who allege they were victims of excessive force and other abuses at the hands of Chicago police officers. The suit, which seeks an order forcing judicial oversight of police reform, was filed days after Emanuel had backed away from his pledge to sign a consent decree.
City attorneys have asked a judge to dismiss the case, arguing the plaintiffs’ claims were moot because the Emanuel administration already had instituted police reforms that were recommended by the Justice Department and the mayoral-appointed Police Accountability Task Force a year earlier.
Then, shortly after the city’s lawyers sought that dismissal, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit in late August seeking to force judicial oversight. With Emanuel appearing with Madigan at a news conference announcing the litigation, the two described the effort as a “partnership.”
Among the plaintiffs represented at Wednesday’s announcement was Equip for Equality, a community group that has worked with people with disabilities who over the years have complained about poor treatment by Chicago police officers, said Barry Taylor, the group’s vice president for civil rights.
Taylor said those with hearing impairment, for example, often talk about how police have accused them of being combative when they’re really trying to use sign language. Others with mental illnesses complain about how officers used force against them when it wasn’t necessary, he said.
“I think it’s important that the Chicago Police Department is taking steps to address the issues that have been pointed out,” Taylor said. “But they do have a history of making promises and not fulfilling them; and so with a lawsuit, that gives you the judicial enforcement that you wouldn’t have otherwise.”
The wide-ranging revamp of training on mental health issues was announced by Emanuel in early 2016 after the fatal shootings of 19-year-old college student Quintonio LeGrier and neighbor Bettie Jones outside a West Side home on the day after Christmas 2015. Officer Robert Rialmo said he opened fire after LeGrier — whose father has said he was mentally disturbed — swung a baseball bat at him. Jones, 55, was fatally wounded by mistake as she stood behind the teen in the breezeway.
Two 911 dispatchers were suspended without pay after the incident for failing to send police to the residence when an obviously distraught LeGrier called for help, saying someone was threatening his life.
A wrongful death lawsuit filed by both LeGrier’s father and relatives of Jones is pending in Cook County Circuit Court. In an unusual countersuit, Rialmo has also alleged he was not adequately trained by the Police Department to handle people suffering a mental health disturbance.
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