Watchdog Warns of ‘Persistent Concerns’ About CPD’s Plan to Handle DNC Protests

Inspector General Deborah Witzburg told WTTW News on Tuesday that “persistent concerns” remain about whether Chicago police officers are prepared to lawfully police the massive protests expected to erupt around the Democratic National Convention.

After officers failed to protect the constitutional rights of thousands of Chicagoans during the protests and violence triggered by the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, Chicago Police Department leaders have made “real progress” by crafting well designed policies designed to prevent similar mistakes from happening again, Witzburg said.

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“I am heartened by the progress CPD has made,” Witzburg said. “I think Chicagoans should be heartened. I think there are persistent concerns. I think there is time to address them.”

Witzburg said she was particularly concerned CPD officials have already been training officers on those policies, even though they have not been finalized and are being challenged in court by a coalition of reform groups.

“That risks some confusion,” Witzburg said, adding that it also “undermines the sincerity” of the department’s required effort to solicit feedback from members of the public.

The problems with CPD’s plan risk “escalating tensions and violating constitutional rights of lawful demonstrators,” and makes it more likely that the department’s handling of the protests sure to swirl around the convention “will undercut the Department’s legitimacy and damage public trust in law enforcement,” according to the report from Witzburg’s office, which examined whether CPD has learned the right lessons after the unrest that followed Floyd’s death.

The report was particularly critical of the department’s policy that would allow officers to physically block people from leaving an area, which CPD calls “encirclement” and can be known as “kettling,” and to allow officers to use pepper spray. Those policies “are insufficient and may increase the risk of infringement of lawful demonstrators’ constitutional rights.”

In addition, CPD training materials “make no mention of the First Amendment right to peaceful assembly or the Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure,” according to the watchdog’s report.

“CPD’s failure to appropriately educate members on demonstrators’ rights may leave members ill-equipped to distinguish between lawful and unlawful demonstrators, potentially subjecting lawful demonstrators to unconstitutional policing tactics,” according to the report.

Witzburg said she was also concerned that CPD plans for policing protests contained outdated tactics and vague descriptions of the limits against using particularly escalatory tactics.

“By both generalizing mass event participants’ capacity for violence while also teaching tactics that may be used indiscriminately against demonstrators and those committing criminal acts alike, CPD’s guidance may contribute to risks of escalating tensions and violations of constitutional rights,” according to Witzburg’s report.

At a Tuesday morning news conference designed to tout the department’s readiness for the convention, Supt. Larry Snelling said he spoke with Witzburg after the publication of her report and was prepared to address her concerns.

“We had a very fruitful conversation about things, and we’re looking forward to working together to make sure that we address any issues that the [Inspector General’s] office have regarding our training,” Snelling said.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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

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