The police have just pulled over a black Chevy Caprice.
As the officer approaches the car, the man in the back jumps out, grabs the woman in the passenger seat from the car and holds a gun to her head, yelling.
Another officer starts shooting.
At the same time, the driver gets out of the car, unarmed. A third officer rushes the driver and pins him to the vehicle.
“What are you doing?” the man yells, “I don’t have a gun!”
Business as usual from the Chicago Police Department? Not quite.
In this case, the officers were reporters and the perpetrators were police officers -part of a role-playing scenario at “Walk in the Shoes of a Chicago Police Officer,” a program designed by the department to give members of the media – and, by extension, the public – a glimpse into the work of a cop.
In about four hours last Thursday at the department’s West Side training facility, local news reporters were taken through a very abridged version of officer training. They were briefed in tactical communication and officer safety, learned ‘use of force’ guidelines, and participated in vehicle-stop scenarios.
Tactical communication, known among officers as verbal judo, is a method officers use to control verbal interactions. Sgt. Michael Ward compared the tactic of deflecting negative contact to Keanu Reeves dodging bullets in “The Matrix.”
Ward emphasized the importance of officer courtesy.
“Professional language at all times, with everyone you come in contact with,” he stressed. “This is the language our police officers are going to use on the streets.”
But, Deputy Supt. Matthew Tobias said, when words fail, it’s time to act.
The department uses a color-coded paradigm to tell officers which situations allow different levels of force.
Policies, however, are only guidelines.
If considered reasonable at the time, an officer may violate the guidelines to protect himself, his partner, or any other person.
Officer Patrick Brennan, a recent graduate of John Marshall Law School, said accountability is in accordance with the totality of circumstances – the notion that the officer acted according to the information he had at the time of the incident.
“Officers react to a subject’s actions,” said Tobias, adding that on a daily basis, officers use less force than they are allowed.
Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor, said this is true, but added, “There are officers – more a minority than a majority – who commit brutal acts and abuse [their] power.”
Futterman recently conducted a study which showed that a vast majority of abuse complaints come from about 5 percent of the department. Those officers amassed more than 11 complaints of abuse in the last five years. Some, he said, have more than 50 complaints and no disciplinary action taken against them.
“The Chicago system for disciplining and supervising these officers is utterly ineffective, and lacks any effective system to address patterns of police abuse,” Futterman said.
This, he added, undermines the bulk of the officers who do their best to protect and serve.
New recruits are given an eight-hour course in ethics.
A follow-up roundtable discussion takes place any time an officer uses deadly force.
This year, there have been 19 round tables thus far.
At the roundtables, witnesses and officers are questioned by detectives, by members of the Office of Professional Standards, and by the state’s attorney’s office. The purpose of the roundtable, said Deputy Chief Michael Chasen, is to get information and allow the superintendent to make an informed statement to the media.
“We try to make these incidents as transparent as possible for the media and for the public,” said Chasen, stressing that police don’t want to be seen as hiding anything. Chasen said the police want to cooperate fairly with news outlets.
But Patrick Camden, deputy director of news affairs, added: “Our first responsibility is solving crimes, not the media.”
This statement became apparent at moments throughout the program.
Officers deflected when one reporter, a former police officer herself, asked whether recruits are taught about what she called ‘the subculture of police.’
Chasen, who became a police officer at the age of 22, said, “We are a family and we are going to remain a family because oftentimes we’re maligned as a family.”
Another reporter tried to bring up the recent incidents of alleged police misconduct – one against a female bartender by an off-duty officer, and another against three businessmen in a bar.
Chasen, however, cut off the questioner, saying he wouldn’t talk about it and that he would instruct the other officers to not talk about it either.
Tobias said he was bothered by a recent news story that asked “why are the police shooting so many people?” The question, he said, should have been, “Why are so many people shooting at the police?”
Throughout the training, two points were emphasized repeatedly. The first was self-preservation.
“The reason I’m going to fight with [someone] is to protect myself,” said Officer Larry Snelling. “You have to have a reason to put your hands on someone.”
The second point boiled down to public relations.
“You have to police like everybody in the city is watching you,” said Ward. “It’s good for me, good for you, good for the department.”