How bloated pensions contribute to police brutality

We last checked in with Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) last July, when the board that reviews police shootings and other misconduct in the city fired Lorenzo Davis, an investigator who until recently had received only positive performance reviews. It wasn’t until Davis ruled against police in a couple of recent cases that he was called “clearly not a team player,” and accused by supervisors of a “lack of objectivity” when it comes to officer-involved shootings.

In a city besieged by police brutality scandals in recent years, the IPRA has ruled against a police officer just once out of 400 cases since 2007. Now we learn that earlier this month, IPRA investigators received a week of trainingfrom police “force science expert” Bill Lewinski. You might remember Lewinski from this profile in the New York Times:

When police officers shoot people under questionable circumstances, Dr. Lewinski is often there to defend their actions. Among the most influential voices on the subject, he has testified in or consulted in nearly 200 cases over the last decade or so and has helped justify countless shootings around the country.

His conclusions are consistent: The officer acted appropriately, even when shooting an unarmed person. Even when shooting someone in the back. Even when witness testimony, forensic evidence or video footage contradicts the officer’s story.

He has appeared as an expert witness in criminal trials, civil cases and disciplinary hearings, and before grand juries, where such testimony is given in secret and goes unchallenged. In addition, his company, the Force Science Institute, has trained tens of thousands of police officers on how to think differently about police shootings that might appear excessive.

Lewinski’s “science” basically boils down to this: Cops are always right when they shoot someone, and more cops need to be shooting people more often. No, that isn’t an exaggeration.

Dr. Lewinski says his research clearly shows that officers often cannot wait to act.

“We’re telling officers, ‘Look for cover and then read the threat,’ ” he told a class of Los Angeles County deputy sheriffs recently. “Sorry, too damn late.” . . .

In the protests that have followed police shootings, demonstrators have often asked why officers are so rarely punished for shootings that seem unwarranted. Dr. Lewinski is part of the answer.

That profile ran in August. So Chicago officials knew exactly what they were getting when they hired Lewinski. In fact, they had already hired him for a shorter seminar last year. And it seems to be working out just as intended.From WBEZ, which has been doing some stellar investigative reporting on this:

Apart from the sessions led by Lewinski, the agency has held no other training about police shootings since 2012, according to the statement from Ando, who did not grant a WBEZ request to interview him about the Lewinski training.

After IPRA’s first session with Lewinski, held in August 2014 at the FBI’s Chicago office, a few of the city investigators told WBEZ they found him too pro-cop.

Others were apparently satisfied. Through an open-records request, WBEZ obtained 11 IPRA staff evaluations of the training. Most of those reviews were glowing.

IPRA Supervising Investigator Alexis Serio called Lewinski’s training “extremely beneficial.” He showed that “body movements and time lapsed between shots is a mere fraction of a second,” she wrote. “The officers have fractions of a second to make the decision to shoot or not.”

The course material, Serio added, “gave me a better way to articulate why the shootings are almost always justified.”

Remember how the IPRA fired Lorenzo Davis for his “lack of objectivity?” Objectivity apparently only runs one way.

They paid Lewinski $50,000 for the session. A spokesperson for the IPRA, which reports to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, called the training “highly specialized and very difficult to find.” Funny. The Justice Department calls it “pseudoscience.”

The Chicago Sun-Times reported last year that between 2004 and 2014, the city payed out more than $500 million in police brutality settlements. The IPRA is supposed to be the agency that holds bad cops accountable, imposing sanctions that should deter future bad behavior. So why would the city hire a guy whose shtick is to defend all police shootings, and encourage more cops to shoot people more often?

My guess is public pensions. That $50 million per year in police brutality settlements seems like a lot of money, but it’s dwarfed by the $7.3 billion the city neglected to pay into the police pension fund over about the same period. Next year alone, the city is supposed to pay an additional $549 million into the police and firefighter pension above what it already pays, in order to comply with the law. Emanuel is pushing a bill that would cut that figure to $330 million. (The plan was shot down by a judge last summer, but Emanuel still has to figure out how to make the numbers work.)

What does this have to do with police shootings? There are a few chits at a city’s disposal when negotiating with a police union. One tool is more money — higher salaries, better benefits, more favorable overtime, and so on. Another tool is job protection. You make it more difficult for cops to be discipline, sanctioned, or fired. According to Crain’s Chicago Business, the Chicago police pension “is only 27 percent funded, and beneficiaries outnumber active officers 13,320 to 12,020.” The Chicago Tribune reported last July that Standard & Poors downgraded the city’s credit rating, “citing its huge debt and pension liabilities.” The city not only can’t offer its cops more money, it can’t pay them what has already been promised.

When you have no money to offer, job security is your only bargaining chip. This is how we get those “Police Officer Bills of Rights,” and other added protections for cops. (Bloated pensions themselves are often the product of politicians asking for short-term concessions on pay and benefits in exchange for long-term promises that come due long after that administration is gone.)

And so as the country is in the midst of a heated discussion about police brutality and police shootings, as the city of Chicago is still sorting out the torture scandal from the 1980s and new allegations about “black sites” and secret interrogations, it brought in a guy who was j

ust profiled in the New York Times as an apologist for police shootings . . . to train the body in charge of investigating police shootings. I’d argue that the fact that this comes just as the mayor was pushing a plan that would let the city underpay its obligation to the police pension fund is no coincidence. The Emanuel administration is sending a clear signal to the police union and its supporters about where it stands in the police brutality debate. And they’re hoping to buy themselves some goodwill.

It would also explain why Emanuel recently blamed the city’s increase in homicides on anti-police brutality protest groups like Black Lives Matter, whyhe defended the promotion of a cop under investigation for helping cover up a murder investigation, why he replaced a police chief who held bad cops accountable with one who promised that he would “[get] cops’ backs,” and the various other decisions he’s made that have left the city’s police department less accountable and less transparent. Of course, no union would support a drastic cut in pension benefits, but it’s certainly feasible that such goodwill could, say, buy less vocal opposition to deferred or temporarily reduced payments.

If all of this results in  half dozen or so more police shootings, several dozen more brutality incidents, and $10 million or so more per year in settlement money, so be it. (Of course, an IPRA that can be counted upon to clear cops could also help with those lawsuits.) Compared to the $20 billion debt the city owes to public employee pensions alone, an extra $10 million —and a few more dead bodies — is a drop in the bucket.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.”
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