School Climate & Safety

Justice Dept. Investigation Flags Use of Force Against Students by Chicago Police

By Evie Blad — January 13, 2017 2 min read
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Chicago police officers have used inappropriate force against students and failed to set proper guidelines for using stun guns in schools, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found.

Those findings, released Friday, were part of a broad investigation of the Chicago Police Department. The investigation also flagged an example of the department inadequately investigating a complaint by an 8-year-old student who said a school-based officer “grabbed the girl by her hair, swung her around, and choked her while breaking up a fight in a school hallway.” Department investigators did not interview students involved and drew conclusions based only on the officer’s written statement, the report says.

The findings come months after the Obama administration set stricter requirements for recipients of federal grants used to hire school resource officers and in the wake of calls by civil rights groups for the complete removal of law enforcement from schools.

The department should set a clear policy that includes restrictions on stun gun use “to situations in which it is necessary and proportional to the threat or resistance of the subject,” the report says. That policy should discourage the use of stun guns in schools and on students, and require officers to consider “a child’s apparent age, size, and the threat presented,” before deciding to use a stun gun, the report says.

“CPD should emphasize in training that Tasers are weapons with inherent risks that inflict significant pain and should not be viewed as tools of convenience,” it says.

The report includes examples of stun gun use in schools, including the use of “drive stun” mode, which is used to force compliance by inflicting pain without incapacitating a subject :

CPD’s pattern or practice of excessive force also includes subjecting children to force for non-criminal conduct and minor violations. In one incident, officers hit a 16-year-old girl with a baton and then Tasered her after she was asked to leave the school for having a cell phone in violation of school rules. Officers were called in to arrest her for trespassing. Officers claimed the force was justified because she flailed her arms when they tried to arrest her, with no adequate explanation for how such flailing met the criteria for use of a Taser. This was not an isolated incident. We also reviewed incidents in which officers unnecessarily drive-stunned students to break up fights, including one use of a Taser in drive-stun mode against a 14-year-old girl. There was no indication in these files that these students’ conduct warranted use of the Taser instead of a less serious application of force. CPD’s Taser policy does not address the use of Tasers on children. It should.

Another incident described in the report also flags excessive force by an officer against a student:

For some files we reviewed, the injuries the victims suffered, rather than the explanations by CPD officers, reveal the level of force that CPD officers actually employed. For example, an officer pushed an 18-year-old female student onto his police car, chipping her tooth, because, as he was walking her to his squad car after breaking up a fight between her and another girl outside of their school, she screamed profanities and flailed her arms. The officer reported that the injury occurred when he performed “an emergency take-down maneuver to regain control.” The girl was 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 120 pounds, while the officer was 6-foot-1 and weighed 186 pounds. Without requesting any additional information, supervisors approved this use of force. In the girl’s complaint to [an internal review board], she alleged that when she informed the officer he had chipped her tooth, the officer responded that he did not “give a f***.” [The review board] exonerated the officer without interviewing him.

This is not the first Justice Department investigation to discuss the behavior of school-based officers. A 2015 investigation of the Ferguson, Mo., police department following the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, found that school resource officers there “treat routine discipline issues as criminal matters and to use force when communication and de-escalation techniques would likely resolve the conflict.”

And, a proposed agreement with the city of Baltimore released this week calls for better coordination between the city and school police departments when school-based officers are dealing with issues off of school grounds.

The Chicago justice department report also calls for a community policing approach to build trust between residents and officers. A list of examples of promising behavior by police includes one school example of a patrol officer who “paid for and installed a koi pond at the school where he works because he ‘wanted to do something for the kids here.’”

“This same officer volunteered to coach the girls’ cross-country team at a local school when no one else would take the role,” the report says.

Related reading on school police:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.