December 17, 2015; New York Times

If you were mayor of a large American city and you had an extra $500 million in your budget, would it be better to spend it on keeping 400,000 children in school or settling scores of cases involving claims of inappropriate behavior by your police force?

It appears that in Chicago, the choice has been to pay the tab that has resulted from the actions of a troubled police force. According to the New York Times, “…the city, which is in the middle of a fiscal crisis, has spent more than $500 million settling police cases since 2004.” What has made it necessary to spend this enormous sum?

Looking at departmental records, the Times found that “In Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city, officers shot and killed 70 people, most of them black, in a five-year span ending in 2014. That was the most among the nation’s 10 largest cities during the same period, according to the Better Government Association, a nonprofit watchdog organization.”  There have been more than 400 police shootings since 2007.

These numbers are disturbing, but do they indicate problems in Chicago’s police department? In a city with daily reports of shootings, perhaps these incidents were just good police work. But $500 million in settlements would seem to indicate that there is something wrong, yet recently released data tells us the city and its police department believes there is little wrong.

Reviewing this new data, we now know “…the vast majority of complaints against the police still do not result in discipline…claims of wrongdoing against officers [were found] valid in only two cases.” On a broader level, we now know that “from 2011 to 2015, 97 percent of more than 28,500 citizen complaints resulted in no officer being punished, according to data recently released by the Invisible Institute, a nonprofit journalism organization, and the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic of the University of Chicago Law School. The police department and the review authority have questioned the data, though Mayor Rahm Emanuel said last week that the low rates of disciplinary action “defy credibility.”

Looking at how one fatal shooting incident was handled puts these numbers in even starker perspective:

“Cedrick Chatman was behind the wheel of [a] Dodge Charger that had been reported carjacked when two plainclothes officers pulled up beside him…They ordered him out at gunpoint. Mr. Chatman, 17, ran. He was carrying an iPhone box, and the officer who shot and killed him said he thought the box was a gun.

Lorenzo Davis, a retired 23-year veteran of the Chicago police, supervised an investigation into that January 2013 shooting as part of his second career—scrutinizing excessive force complaints for the Independent Police Review Authority. The shooting, Mr. Davis concluded, was unnecessary. “He was running away, so why kill him?” Mr. Davis said in an interview.

Mr. Davis, a former police commander, told his supervisors as much in a 2014 report recommending that the officer, Kevin Fry, be fired. But Mr. Davis said the top echelon of the authority disagreed, ordered him to change his finding and—not long after he refused—fired him. A new report, written by another investigator, came out this year: The authority said that the officer followed departmental guidelines when he shot Mr. Chatman.”

The city describes the settlements as simple prudence. “The Department of Law has a responsibility to taxpayers to weigh many factors when proposing to settle any case,” said Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the city’s law department. “While this may include the determination of the Independent Police Review Authority, it will also include how a jury is likely to react to the evidence, the probability a jury may find against the city and the financial exposure to taxpayers.”

Prudence or cover up? A very difficult problem that needs fixing or just bad PR? These are the questions that need to be answered while a very concerned population waits to be convinced that all is well in Chicago. — Martin Levine