CPD Exploiting White Supremacist Violence to Incarcerate Black Chicagoans

Last month, the Chicago Police Department launched a disinformation campaign regarding the impact of bond reform in Cook County. The lies and distortions of fact that have been put forward are irresponsible and could have devastating consequences for Chicago’s most marginalized communities. Yesterday, the Chicago Police Department sunk even lower by exploiting the tragic events in El Paso and Dayton to call for the pretrial incarceration of Black and Brown Chicagoans accused of mere possession of a gun.

At its press conference, CPD shared no new information and sought instead to exploit the tragedies that occurred over the weekend. The “Gun Offender Dashboard” unveiled by CPD names everyone arrested on certain select charges in the last two months, their charge, whether or not they posted bond or were otherwise released on bond, if they have past felony weapons arrests, and if they have been rearrested. This unreasonably short snapshot of data duplicates in a much less reliable way the same information previously published by the Office of the Chief Judge and unnecessarily promotes fear around bond reform.

The presumption of innocence is supposed to be the foundation of our criminal legal system. Being arrested by the police does not mean a person is actually guilty. Being accused of a crime does not actually make a person a danger to their community. When making bond decisions, judges are directed to determine whether or not a person is a danger to someone or a flight risk, and the default must be pretrial release. The government is required to meet a very high standard before someone’s liberty can be taken away while they are presumed innocent. Superintendent Johnson’s call for high money bonds for people arrested and accused of possessing (but not using) a gun is both unconstitutional and amounts to a call for punishment before conviction.

Superintendent Johnson’s narrative ignores the fact that since the implementation of bond reform, just slightly more than one half of one percent (0.6%) of everyone released pretrial on felony charges since bond reform went into effect was accused of a new offense considered “violent.” That means that of the more than 30,000 people who have been released pretrial over the last fifteen months, only 181 people have been rearrested for a violent crime. Johnson is quite literally arguing that the County should begin incarcerating thousands of people on the basis of a tiny portion of people’s actions—a call for racialized collective punishment. In addition to being a cowardly response and a grave injustice, it is also an ineffective one. Studies show that pretrial incarceration increases recidivism, and that people who are free pretrial and able to maintain positive community connections are less likely to be rearrested in the future than people who are jailed. This means Johnson’s policy proposals undermine our long-term community safety.

In recent weeks, the Chicago Police Department and Mayor Lightfoot have repeatedly tried to conflate violent crime with simple gun possession. By using overarching and imprecise terms like “gun offender” “gun crimes” and “gun offenses,” they lump in everyone accused of mere possession of a weapon with people accused of shooting someone or using a gun in a crime (which are actually much less common charges). By calling everyone arrested an “offender,” the police reinforce the idea that people are presumed guilty and undermine the presumption of innocence. By discussing money bonds as a form of “deterrence” or “accountability” for the allegations behind arrests, the police call for punishment before a conviction and pretend that cases end after the bond decision. In convicted, people arrested for the mere possession of a gun in Illinois face some of the harshest possible sentences around the country. And, of course, many people will not be convicted. Thus far in 2019, 23% of gun possession cases have ended in a non-conviction, the majority dismissed or found not guilty by a judge.

Incarcerating people who are carrying guns, whether pretrial or post-conviction, will not solve gun violence and it will not address the reasons people feel safer with guns than without guns. We are not going to punish and cage our way out of gun violence. If incarceration and policing prevented crime, our society would have little to no crime, given that we already incarcerate more people than any other country in the world and spend more on militarized policing than at any point in our history. Cook County residents deserve to be safe, and the racist, reactionary “law and order” approach has failed to accomplish that over the several decades it has directed policy.

If we really don’t want Chicagoans to carry weapons, we need to address the root causes of why people feel the need to arm themselves. That means addressing the economic violence our communities are subjected to, as well as the systemic disinvestment from resources in those communities. The economic inequity and community divestment at the root of Chicago’s gun violence is facilitated by the same racist ideology that motivated the El Paso shooter. Chicago Police Department’s desire to perpetually increase mass incarceration in the city only subjects residents to more violence and further destabilizes communities.

Johnson’s narrative about bond reform making communities unsafe also blatantly ignores the fact that crime in Chicago has been decreasing during the same time that bond reform has been most effective. The decade-long drop in crime and gun violence coincides with a significant reduction in the number of people incarcerated pretrial in Cook County Jail and a reduction in people sent to prison from Cook County.

For the last several years, Cook County has been leading the way in pretrial justice reforms. We have significantly reduced the number of people incarcerated pretrial without endangering public safety. We cannot allow ourselves to be exploited by racialized fear to roll back these achievements. When we make policies based on fear, CPD and the Fraternal Order of Police benefit, but our communities are subjected to more militarized violence. We must be brave and protect the progress Cook County has made while calling for greater action to stop punishing individuals most at risk of experiencing violence and start supporting them in building community safety through community.

We are disgusted by CPD’s attempt to exploit the white supremacist violence in El Paso to bolster the white supremacist institutions of policing and prisons. We hope that our local media is vigilant and fact-checks the arguments being put forward by our irresponsible police department.

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