Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson arrives at a news conference announcing the department’s plan to hire nearly 1,000 new police officers in Chicago on Sept. 21. (Jim Young/Reuters)
A Chicago police officer who was savagely beaten at a car accident scene this week did not draw her gun on her attacker — even though she feared for her life — because she was afraid of the media attention that would come if she shot him, the city’s police chief said Thursday.
Chicago Police Department Superintendent Eddie Johnson said the officer, a 17-year veteran of the force, knew she should shoot the attacker but hesitated because “she didn’t want her family or the department to go through the scrutiny the next day on the national news,” the Chicago Tribune reported.
Johnson’s remarks, which came at an awards ceremony for police and firefighters, underscore a point law enforcement officers and some political leaders have pressed repeatedly as crime has risen in Chicago and other major cities: that police are reluctant to use force or act aggressively because they worry about negative media attention that will follow.
The issue has become known as the Ferguson effect, named after the St. Louis suburb where a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in August 2014. The shooting set off protests and riots that summer and eventually gave way to a fevered national debate over race and policing. Many law enforcement officers have said that the intense focus on policing in the time since has put them on the defensive and hindered their work.
Criminologists are generally skeptical of the Ferguson effect, many arguing that there simply isn’t enough evidence to definitively link spikes in crime to police acting with increased restraint. President Obamaand Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch have also said not enough data exists to draw a clear connection.
In Chicago, which has experienced record numbers of homicides this year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has blamed the surge in violent crime on officers balking during confrontations, saying they have become “fetal” because they don’t want to be prosecuted or fired for their actions.
Chicago's gun violence is soaring amid a backdrop of poverty and an embattled police force, with homicides this year on track to hit their highest level since 1997. (Reuters)
Superintendent Johnson stopped short of saying the attack on the officer was an example of the Ferguson effect in action, but said being under a magnifying glass has caused his police to “second-guess” themselves.
According to Johnson, the 43-year-old officer, who has not been identified, was responding to a car crash Wednesday when a 28-year-old man who was involved in the accident struck her in the face, then repeatedly smashed her head against the pavement until she passed out. He said the attack went on for several minutes and that two others officers were injured as they tried to pull the suspect away, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. The suspect was on PCP, he said, and was finally subdued after officers Tasered and pepper sprayed him.
Johnson said he visited the officer in the hospital, where she told him why she did not draw her service weapon during the attack.
“She looked at me and said she thought she was going to die,” he told the audience at the awards ceremony. “And she knew that she should shoot this guy. But she chose not to because she didn’t want her family or the department to have to go through the scrutiny the next day on national news.”
“This officer could [have] lost her life last night,” Johnson continued. “We have to change the narrative of law enforcement across this country.”
The head of Chicago’s police union, the largest in the country, said the incident showed just how concerned officers are about becoming the center of a public spectacle if they use force. Police “don’t want to become the next YouTube video,” he told the Tribune.
But a Chicago civil rights lawyer said that police bore some responsibility for the tension between police and the communities they serve. Decades of abuse by the police department had eroded the public’s trust, attorney Jon Loevy told the Tribune.
“Any fair-minded person acknowledges that police have a very difficult and dangerous job, and this sounds like a very unfortunate situation,” he said. “The hope is that the department and the community can work to repair some of the lost trust so that officers won’t always feel so second-guessed.”