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A Chicago Cop’s Facebook Posts and a City’s Struggle With Racism

In 50 years, only one officer has been fired for abuse involving racial or ethnically biased language.

This story was first published in ProPublica Illinois’ weekly newsletter. Sign up for that here.

The Chicago Police Department says complaints against officers for making racial and ethnic slurs and other discriminatory comments have declined in recent years.

But as a story we published this week shows, it's a stubborn problem in a city that has long struggled with racism.

We wrote about Officer John Catanzara, a 23-year veteran who, over the years, two superintendents have tried to fire. In September, he was reprimanded for a controversial Facebook post. Now, he is under investigation for two other complaints about his social media conduct.

One of the complaints, lodged by his district commander, alleges that the officer displayed "bigoted views" and "hostile remarks" on Facebook, including against Muslims, women, liberals, Michelle Obama and those who are economically disadvantaged.

This is not the first time I've written about an officer accused of similar conduct, which in the sterile language of digital complaint data is coded as "Verbal Abuse: Racial/Ethnic."

In one case I wrote about, a sergeant was found to have referred to President Barack Obama with a racial slur in 2015 while he and other officers were deciding who would work on the president's security detail while he visited Chicago.

The city's police oversight agency recommended Sgt. Jack Axium be fired. Supt. Eddie Johnson argued for a suspension instead, and the agency and department agreed on a 270-day suspension: nine months without pay.

The case is now on appeal to the Chicago Police Board, which has the authority to make the ultimate decision.

After Axium was investigated, Sharon Fairley, the former head of the oversight agency, recommended in 2016 that the police department add a policy that makes clear that members are prohibited from engaging in racial or other discrimination. While the department's human resources policy explicitly forbids officers from exhibiting racial bias, no such language is included in the separate Standards of Conduct for department members, she wrote in her recommendation.

The police department never responded to that recommendation, a spokesman for the oversight agency, now called the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, said Thursday.

In another ProPublica Illinois story, we told how an officer, during a traffic stop, made "racial comments" to the men in the car. Records show he told them: "Johnnie Cochran is dead and Barack Obama can't save you."

The officer, Matthew O'Brien, was initially ordered to be suspended for 10 days, but won an appeal and received no discipline. The men in the car had no idea of the case's outcome until I called them.

That's not uncommon. Officers often get little or no punishment — and complainants never find out.

In writing this week's story, we analyzed 50 years of police complaint data. A look at about 2,700 complaints coded as verbal abuse based on race or ethnicity showed that about 3 percent — 81 complaints in all — were upheld.

One officer — in 50 years — has been fired from the department for this behavior. Most of the officers found to have committed this type of verbal abuse received either a reprimand or a one-day suspension.

Citizens and observers of the department say bias is a persistent problem.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel's police accountability task force concluded in 2016 that "CPD is not doing enough to combat racial bias," and encouraged more training and adopting a "policing philosophy grounded in core values such as respect, protecting the sanctity of all life and protecting civil and human rights."

The U.S. Department of Justice, in a report last year, also identified racial discrimination as an issue in the department.

Police officials say they have taken steps to fix the problem. All recruits are required to participate in cultural awareness training that includes visits to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and the DuSable Museum of African American history. Veteran officers also can elect to participate in the training as part of their continuing education program.

We'll be monitoring this entrenched problem and to do so, we'd like your help.

We want to hear from people who have filed complaints against Chicago police officers. By hearing and learning about your experience, you can help us keep track of the officer complaint process and the outcomes. Plus, there may be information about your case you're unaware of — and we can help you find it. Submit here.

But we're not only interested in hearing about police complaints from Chicago. If you live here in Illinois, and have filed a complaint against an officer, we want to know about that, too. That could include officers for your local police department, college or university, or sheriff's office.

A question for you that can help shape our reporting: Have you been the target of verbal abuse? Tell us. Plus, we always welcome tips and input on what else you think we should be covering when it comes to policing. Email me anytime at [email protected].

And thanks for reading!


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