Chicago officer's beating highlights police anxieties over use of force

The female Chicago police officer was responding to a traffic accident when a man assaulted and severely injured her. The officer was unwilling to draw her gun in self-defense because of concerns about backlash, the city's police superintendent said Thursday.

M. Spencer Green/ AP/ File
In this April 13, 2016 file photo, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel shakes hands with Eddie Johnson after swearing him in as the new Chicago police superintendent in Chicago. A Chicago officer was severely beaten at the scene of an accident because she was hesitant to use her gun, Mr. Johnson said Thursday.

[Update: This story was updated at 5:41 p.m. Friday.]

A female Chicago police officer was hospitalized yesterday after she was assaulted during a traffic stop and declined to use her weapon, the city's police superintendent said Thursday, saying she had wanted to avoid possible "scrutiny" for using her gun. 

A man believed to be high on PCP assaulted the unnamed police officer after she stopped at a crash site on Wednesday morning. The assailant repeatedly slammed the officer's face into the pavement, leaving her unconscious.

"Because of the scrutiny going on nationwide, there (are) officers second-guessing themselves. That’s what we don’t want," Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson said, according to the Chicago Tribune. He noted that, without yet knowing the details of the case, he did not know if using a gun would have been justified.

"This officer could [have] lost her life last night," he said. "She’s hospitalized right now, but she still has the spirit and the bravery that these officers and firefighters display every day – every day. We have to change the narrative of the law enforcement across this country."

Police officer involved shootings have garnered significant media attention over the past several years, sparking protest as many say that police officers are too quick to use force on suspects, particularly young men of color. 

That backlash has grown so strong that in some cases, enraged civilians have targeted police officers. Police killings in both Baton Rouge, La., and Dallas this summer highlighted the fact that police are far from immune to the threat of violence. 

"People do understand that it [law enforcement] is a dangerous job, but for some, it is hard to look beyond bad feelings for police," says Darrel Stephens, the executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs of Police Association, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

Several officers stopped at Wednesday morning's crash scene to render aid, Dean Angelo, president of the Fraternal Order of the Police's Chicago Lodge 7, tells the Monitor by phone. 

Chicago police officials say that the officer actively chose to not draw her weapon when attacked, despite the imminent threat to her life, because she was concerned about the criticism that she would be subjected to if she shot the man in self-defense. Two other officers, one of whom used a Taser and pepper spray on the man, were also hospitalized. 

"She knew that she should shoot this guy," Johnson told the Chicago Tribune after visiting the officer in the hospital. "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."

Law enforcement agencies are exploring a number of options to increase both officer and community safety. In Chicago, Mr. Angelo tells the Monitor, community forums on police use of force policy have garnered a lot of attention from community members.

Body cameras and de-escalation policies are both popular among critics of police use of force policies. Several cities have recently made the decision to implement body camera policies, after studies showed that wearing body cameras can decrease violence on both sides of the law enforcement equation – among both civilians and officers.

Boston chose to implement a mandatory body camera policy after police officers pushed back against the idea this year. Some law enforcement officials say that in cases like the one in Chicago, body camera footage can help communities understand the dark side of policing and the tough choices that officers must make each day.  

"What we want to see is that the instances that officers confront on the street are shared, so that people have a chance to get a sense of what we deal with on a regular basis," Angelo says of body cameras.

Some states, including Louisiana, where three police officers were killed earlier this year after being ambushed, have drafted and passed controversial "Blue Lives Matter" bills, which include police officers under a protected class under hate crime laws. 

Reform is needed in the way police deploy force, many officers agree. At the same time, however, police advocates say that increased suspicion of police officers can restrict their ability to protect communities. 

Wednesday morning's beating illustrates a larger problem, Angelo tells the Monitor.

"This shows that it is getting ridiculous," says Angelo. "Nobody deserves to be subjected to this. Nobody."

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