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'Confusion' Hampered Chicago Police Response To Summer Protests, Watchdog Report Says

Chicago Police officers watch demonstrators on Lake Shore Drive during a protest in honor of George Floyd, in June, in  downtown Chicago. A new report says police were unprepared and ill-equipped to handle the summer's protests.
Chicago Police officers watch demonstrators on Lake Shore Drive during a protest in honor of George Floyd, in June, in downtown Chicago. A new report says police were unprepared and ill-equipped to handle the summer's protests.

Chicago police showed "confusion and lack of coordination" in their response to last summer's protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, according to a new watchdog report, which said officers frequently did not understand who was in charge or how to handle sometimes violent demonstrators.

The report released Thursday by the city's inspector general, Joseph Ferguson, amounts to a stinging critique of Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown, saying the direction the police were given led to "strategic and tactical incoherence."

Ferguson concluded that a "lack of preparedness at the outset" of the Black Lives Matter protests following the May 25 death of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died under the knee of a Minneapolis Police officer, "crippled the effective implementation of mass arrest procedures, the ability to properly control the use of force and proper use of force reporting, and several critical accountability measures."

The report said the police were inconsistent in their approach to looting, often leading to charges against perpetrators that were either too serious in some instances or too light in others.

"CPD was unprepared to deal with protests and unrest on a scale which required it to arrest 1,000 people in concentrated time periods over the course of two days," Ferguson said.

"As a result, arrestees were held without proper processing providing the substantiation for the reason for and duration of their detention, with some eventually released without being charged, and some being charged with either something either less or more serious than their actual conduct may have warranted," he added.

One police sergeant stated that officers simply stopped making looting arrests because vehicles to transport suspects were too slow to arrive on the scene. Command officers complained that their districts were in "complete chaos," and outnumbered by looters, according to the report.

Police were also responsible with "out-of-policy, dangerous and disrespectful actions by CPD members," Ferguson wrote, including beatings with batons. He said that because many officers either failed to wear body cameras or had switched them off, much of the evidence had been lost.

"Missing reports and videos may limit or preclude prosecution for some arrestees as well as accountability for individual officers," the report concluded, adding that only one in five arrest reports cited bodycam video and that fewer than half of uses of force were caught by police-worn cameras.

Ferguson said that despite protests in other cities that preceded those in Chicago, the CPD was "underprepared and ill-equipped" to meet the challenge unrest in the city presented.

The report said Brown — who had only taken over as the city's head of police a month before Floyd's death — had underestimated potential problems, telling the inspector general that although he and other senior officers knew of the impending protests, he "had not seen any reason for concern."

The Chicago Tribune quoted a rebuttal to the report from Brown, saying, "The men and women who proudly serve this city were burdened beyond anything they had previously experienced." Officers, Brown said, worked "long hours without days off due to staffing shortages and despite what was asked of them, many served without issue."

In the report, Lightfoot is quoted as urging emergency management officials to preserve video of the protests to "make sure that if there are any accusations of misconduct by the CPD, we have the video to disprove it ..."

In an interview with Ferguson, she also recalled police clearing the Wabash Avenue bridge. It took four hours, she said, while "people fought viciously against the police, hurling objects that were clearly intended to cause harm."

"[T]hat was literally like a battlefield," she said, adding, "that's not peaceful protest."

In a statement, Lightfoot's office said that the "massive civic uprising on a scale not seen in decades" had "challenged our resources." She also blamed "the persistent presence of agitators who came to our city armed for a fight with police and who hijacked otherwise peaceful protests."

"The fact that CPD under the leadership of Superintendent Brown has owned responsibility for its challenges and embraced the opportunity to do better is noteworthy," she said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.