Appellate court says lawsuit challenging Chicago unfair police deployment scheme can go forward

In an important victory for a West side community organization and all of Chicago’s minority neighborhoods, an appellate court in Chicago reinstated a lawsuit that challenges Chicago's historically racially inequitable scheme for deploying police across the City.  The lawsuit, brought by the Central Austin Neighborhood Association (CANA), asked a Cook County Circuit Court to order the City to deploy police officers more equitably across all communities in the City. In October 2012, the Circuit Court granted the City's motion to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that the issues involved are "political" questions that can only be addressed by the legislative and executive branches, not the courts.  The appellate court today rejected that position and returned the case to the Circuit Court.

In the lawsuit, CANA and the ACLU of Illinois charge that the unfair deployment scheme results in longer delays and even denials of responses to critical 911 calls in minority neighborhoods as compared to white neighborhoods.

The decision comes at a time when members of Chicago’s City Council are increasingly raising questions about Chicago’s policing strategy and police deployment.  A number of Alderman have questioned Mayor’s Rahm Emanuel’s policy of paying existing officers overtime to patrol high-crime areas, rather than hire new officers that might be permanently assigned to these neighborhoods.  Some members of the City Council have argued that the targeted deployment of overtime officers undermines the important practice of “community policing,” where officers get to know members of the community, building trust and communication.

Recent data which the ACLU obtained from the City through Freedom of Information Act requests shows a continued inequality in the number of officers regularly assigned to districts.  This data makes clear that despite claims to the contrary Mayor Emanuel has equalized services or moved sufficient numbers of police officers on permanent assignment into neighborhoods with high crime rates. For the period beginning October 2011 until September 2013, the number of permanently assigned police officers actually fell in Austin (by 33) and Englewood (by 36), while predominantly white districts saw smaller decreases or even increased the number of permanently assigned officers.   In short, according to the ACLU, police continue to be deployed across the City in a fashion that does not reflect the “work load” of each community.

The process of deploying police officers across the City has been a controversial issue for decades.  Two decades ago, reports surfaced making clear that African American communities did not have enough officers to respond adequately to emergency calls.   A 1992 study by the Booz, Allen, Hamilton consulting firm (paid for by the City) found that the deployment of CPD officers did not reflect the realities of higher crime rates and numerous emergency calls in certain districts.   In 2011, the Chicago Sun Times revealed that predominantly minority areas have  more situations where there are no officers to respond to emergency calls – a condition known as Radio Assignments Pending or RAP.   The newspaper reported in 2011 that Chicago Lawn was in a RAP situation 885 times during 2009 and 2010, while Town Hall was in Rap only 17 times.

For 2013, data shows that a wide variance remains in response to emergency calls, depending on the neighborhood where one lives.  While the City refuses to identify data by specific district, it reasonably appears that in the Grand Crossing and South Chicago districts, for example, it takes more than 6 minutes for an officer to be dispatched for a “priority one” emergency call; in the Town Hall or the Lincoln/Foster districts, the wait time to dispatch is considerably less at just over 2 minutes. 

Additionally, the average time for an officer to be dispatched to a “priority one” emergency call actually increased in a majority of the districts across the City of Chicago over the period from October 2011 to May 2013.  Calls are designated as “priority one” when there is a threat to a person’s life or property.

The leaders of CANA, Ron and Serethea Reid, have detailed countless instances in which they made emergency calls to the police to report criminal activity in their neighborhood only to have no officers respond.

Writing for a unanimous court, Justice P. Scott Neville noted that "the trial court observed that the City has primary responsibility for deciding how to deploy police officers in response to 911 calls.  But that allocation of primary responsibility does not immunize the City's decisions from judicial review."

The case brought on behalf of CANA by the ACLU of Illinois charges that the deployment scheme violates the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 2003, which bars local government practices that have an adverse racially disparate impact.   The ACLU asserts that the Chicago's police deployment practices are a classic example of such an inequity.

"We look forward to returning to the Circuit Court and having the City justify its method of police deployment," said Harvey Grossman, legal director for the ACLU of Illinois in response to the decision.  

"The residents of all neighborhoods deserve equal services and complete transparency in how officers are assigned."

"It is also time for City Alderman to be informed fully about deployment methods and the delays in dispatching officers on 911 calls," added Grossman.
The appellate court decision returns to the matter to the Circuit Court.