Chicago Police Show Signs of ‘Significant’ Improvements in Mass Gathering Response Plans, but Concerns Around ‘Outdated’ Draft Policies Persist Ahead of DNC: Watchdog Report

Protesters and police officers wearing riot gear have a standoff near Daley Plaza on Saturday, May 30, 2020. (Evan Garcia / WTTW News)Protesters and police officers wearing riot gear have a standoff near Daley Plaza on Saturday, May 30, 2020. (Evan Garcia / WTTW News)

Chicago police are better prepared to handle the large protests and crowds expected during the upcoming Democratic National Convention, but concerns still exist around the police department’s ability to put those preparations into action, a new watchdog report found.

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Chicago’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) on Thursday released a new report on the CPD’s mass gathering preparedness, three years after the office determined police were “outflanked, under-equipped, and unprepared to respond” to the George Floyd protests in 2020.

Taxpayers spent at least $5.6 million to settle or defend lawsuits against officers accused of misconduct during those 2020 protests, according to a WTTW News analysis. Nearly $2 million of the total went to pay private lawyers hired by the city and another $3.6 million was used to settle 32 lawsuits.

In a follow-up to the 2021 report, the OIG found hope for “some significant improvements” in the CPD’s quality of response to large-scale events — but still the inspector general’s findings suggest those improvements “may not be realized in practice.”

“As Chicago prepares to host the DNC — and reckons with the prospect of large-scale demonstrations to accompany it — we must be confident that the mistakes of 2020 will not be repeated,” Chicago Inspector General Deborah Witzburg said in a statement.

According to Witzburg, although the police department has revised relevant policies and improved its overall planning, it’s not clear if the CPD is properly prepared to disseminate consistent information and comprehensive training.

“Even at this late date, its relevant new policies have not been finalized,” Witzburg said. “In fact, CPD began training its members on draft policies while they were still posted for — and therefore had not yet integrated — community feedback.”

The OIG found that since 2021, the police department has improved its protocols for a citywide approach for large-scale event management. The CPD has also tested its emergency response plans and its operational capacity to enact those plans, and has developed policies to clarify responsibilities for mass arrest and use of force reporting.

But according to the report, the CPD’s draft multiple arrest policy and crowd control policies are outdated and fail to “sufficiently address the constitutional rights of lawful demonstrations.” For instance, according to the report, the police department’s draft crowd control policy states officers should refrain from “kettling” — a police tactic wherein officers surround and contain protesters in a small area — but it doesn’t outline the conditions during which such strategies might be permissible.

“This leaves the City vulnerable and risks undercutting CPD’s legitimacy, damaging public trust in law enforcement,” the OIG wrote in a statement.

As pro-Palestinian demonstrations escalate on college campuses around the country, critics of President Joe Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war suggest the DNC could be hit by protests and scenes of chaos that undermine his reelection campaign.

Already, dozens of organizations in Chicago and elsewhere have formed a coalition to “March on the DNC” when it opens this summer. Activists have sued in federal court, alleging First Amendment violations because the city has only offered permits for demonstrations miles from the United Center, where Biden is scheduled to accept the Democratic presidential nomination.

Protesters preparing for the convention have vowed to march on it anyway, raising the specter of clashes with police that could undercut Biden and further divide the Democratic base. They think the campus demonstrations — and broad Democratic disapproval of the war — will fuel their efforts.

The report from Witzburg’s office did not contain specific recommendations or remedies for the CPD.

Police Superintendent Larry Snelling responded to the report, noting that the OIG did not conduct any interviews with CPD officials and based its findings solely on documents provided by the CPD.

Snelling “strongly” encouraged that the OIG conduct a “more fulsome review” of the CPD’s efforts.

“As the draft report acknowledges, the Department has made considerable progress with respect to its response to Mass Gatherings since the events of 2020,” Snelling wrote in the CPD’s response, which was included in the report. “The Department has prioritized comprehensive policy revision in partnership with the Independent Monitoring Team, the Office of Attorney General, and community partners.”

Mayor Brandon Johnson said he had not yet seen the report when asked about it during an unrelated press conference Thursday morning, but he said training around crowd control and mass arrests is ongoing.

“The hope is that it doesn’t get out of control like that,” he said. “You can prepare (but) there are things that could still happen. … I’m confident that the work we are doing to secure a peaceful, safe, energetic convention — that work is ongoing —  I’m confident that we’ll be prepared and ready when the day comes.”

The DNC will be held Aug 19-22.

Read the full report below. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

A Safer City is supported, in part, by the Sue Ling Gin Foundation Initiative for Reducing Violence in Chicago. 

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