ACLU lawsuit claims CPD’s excessive force is worse for those with disabilities

The ACLU of Illinois filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Chicago Police Department, alleging the city has failed to properly train officers to interact with people who have mental illnesses or disabilities.

In a 53-page complaint, the ACLU, and a handful of other organizations named as plaintiffs, cited a damning Justice Department report released earlier this year in the waning days of the Obama administration as evidence for their claim.

“The DOJ’s 2017 report found that the CPD does not have the training or vision to ensure safe encounters with people with disabilities,” said Karen Sheley, director of police practices at the ACLU of Illinois.

The DOJ’s 13 month investigation found that CPD engages in a “pattern or practice of using excessive force, including deadly force.” In its suit, the ACLU says the “brutality is…magnified for people with disabilities, who disproportionately interact with and are more likely to experience violence by the CPD.”

An estimated one-third to one-half of people killed by police in America have a disability, according to the suit, and approximately a quarter of people killed have a mental illness.

“The City of Chicago deploys CPD 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 says. “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 department has implemented de-escalation and crisis intervention training in the last year, skills that would help address the allegations in the ACLU’s suit. Still, Sheley said reform efforts need wider input from those directly affected.

“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, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The city doesn’t track data on use of force incidents against people with disabilities, according to the lawsuit. But some governments do track that information.

“In 2012, the Albuquerque, New Mexico Public Defender Department reported that approximately 75% of recent police-involved shootings had a ‘mental health context.’ In Portland, Oregon, 75% of the people shot and killed by police over a three-year period were affected by mental illness,” the complaint says.

In Chicago, officials signed on to an agreement in January that outlined how the department would enter into a consent decree that would guide police department reforms. But a week after officials signed that document, President Trump was sworn in and he appointed Jeff Sessions to be the next attorney general. By March, Sessions announced he’d be pulling back on the consent decree process, a strategy often deployed by the previous administration to address Constitutional abuses on the part of police.

In the months since, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel shifted his approach and started working on an out-of-court agreement for police reforms. Then in August, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit to force Emanuel’s hand on a consent decree. The plaintiffs in the ACLU suit have watched these political theatrics, and they’re concerned.

“Almost nine months after the DOJ issued its findings, neither an independent monitor nor a plan for reform has been ordered or agreed upon, and disability is not even acknowledged in the lawsuit the City has publicly promised to settle,” ACLU lawyers wrote in the complaint.

“The City cannot continue to evade judicial review of its unconstitutional policies and practices by spending tens of millions of dollars annually to privately settle victims’ claims,” the suit says. “The DOJ found that the necessary policing reforms ‘will likely not happen or be sustained without the reform tools of an independent monitoring team and a court order.’ Officials across the political spectrum agree.”