Support Survivors by Defunding CPD

Rachel Cohen

New allegations of police rape and cover-up confirm that Chicago’s police will never play a positive role in supporting survivors, even among their own ranks.

Acting above the law and lying about it are standard operating procedure for police. Chicago cops have infamously gotten a pass in case after case of police-involved murder, brutality, sexual assault, harassment, extortion, and even torture from a criminal legal system that relies on police dirty work to identify who will and will not be criminalized. 

So it seemed odd in December 2019 when Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot fired police superintendent Eddie Johnson just weeks before he was expected to retire. She announced his termination “for cause” related to an evening in October when Johnson was found passed out drunk at the wheel of his still-running police vehicle. 

Lightfoot said Johnson had lied about the events that night, but she declined to share the full details of the inspector general’s report about Johnson’s conduct. She said revealing the full story would not be fair to Johnson’s wife and children. 

That night Johnson appeared on security footage at a downtown bar kissing fellow officer Cynthia Donald who worked at the time as part of his personal security detail, a coveted position but one that made Johnson her superior. Weeks after Johnson’s embarrassing heavy night, Donald got reassigned to a less advantageous position at police headquarters. 

Garry McCarthy, the previous police superintendent, who had been fired in disgrace over the cover-up of the police murder of seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald, offered the victim-blaming opinion that Donald’s demotion was probably for her own good. “She’s now got a little bit of a scarlet letter, if you will,” McCarthy told WBEZ

But Johnson’s relationship with Donald and his decision to punish her in the wake of his scandal in themselves implicate Johnson for abuse of power. These violations of city policy should never have been used to shame Donald. And predictably, they represent only the tip of the iceberg.  

Last week, Donald announced she is suing Johnson and the city of Chicago. She says Johnson repeatedly harassed, abused, and raped Donald while she worked directly for him, and he continued to stalk and harass her after her reassignment. Her lawsuit describes years of abuse, ranging from sexual harassment used to demean Donald publicly to “multiple instances in which Johnson locked Donald in his office and conditioned her release on performing sexual acts.”

Donald also alleges the mayor learned about the inappropriate relationship through the inspector general’s investigation, but has never reached out to Donald formally or informally to find out how bad the former top-cop’s misconduct was. 

The mayor has made plenty of time to speak out against the Copcorn debacle: police officers and supervisors making themselves comfortable in Representative Bobby Rush’s office during intense protests this summer. Lightfoot must feel strongly that no cops should have been spared in the city’s efforts to beat and detain opponents of racist injustice. But she’s made no time to pick up the phone and check on Donald.  

Chicago police have made no arrests in nearly 90 percent of reported sexual assault claims over the last decade.

Donald does not view her own horrifying experience as an isolated incident. “I am calling on Mayor [Lori] Lightfoot and Superintendent David Brown to address the long-standing problem of sexual misconduct within CPD, and the boys club culture that enables abusers and promotes a code of silence,” Donald announced at a press conference on Thursday.

Chicago police utterly fail rape survivors, even by their own standards. Earlier this year Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation reported that Chicago police have made no arrests in nearly 90 percent of reported sexual assault claims over the last decade. CAASE found police inaction stayed basically the same even as the volume of reports skyrocketed in recent years, likely inspired by the #MeToo movement. 

Crucially, the report situates its data in response to the cynical way survivors are often used by opponents of defunding police. “Questions like ‘What happens to rapists and abusers without police?’ and ‘Won’t sexual assault and domestic violence be more frequent if police aren’t there to investigate and arrest offenders?’ stem from a deep misunderstanding of how these crimes are being addressed,” the CAASE report points out. 

Actually, sexual assault and domestic violence would be less frequent if there were fewer heavily armed police marauding around, considering themselves to be above the law. We know this because survivors continue to come forward and speak out even when police themselves are the perpetrators of sexual assault. The Citizens Police Data Project collects dozens of officially filed reports of misconduct by Chicago police including sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. 

A recent FBI study found that roughly 40 percent of police self-reported inflicting domestic violence within the previous year. Police are also well known to harm other survivors when responding to domestic disturbances. Mariame Kaba’s anthology No Selves to Defend honors and reclaims the humanity of survivors of color who have been criminalized for defending themselves. 

Lightfoot agrees police should not be tasked with responding to domestic disturbances and that more effective and humane resources for survivors urgently need to be built and funded. But she insists that Chicago cops still need all the 1.78 billion dollars they get every year, even as the city faces a major shortfall in its cop-and-corporation-loving budget. She bizarrely blames the public for forcing police to fulfil social work functions in which more force is an utterly inappropriate response.   

But Lightfoot’s emphasis on reforming instead of defunding police rings especially hollow right now. In June, in the midst of citywide and nationwide rebellion against police violence and systemic racism, a community working group convened as part of the city’s consent decree with the Department of Justice. The DOJ documented how CPD routinely violates the civil rights of Chicago’s Black and brown communities. The working group pulled together members of Black Lives Matter, investigative journalists, and other participants in the decades-long struggle to reign in police who delivered 155 recommended changes to CPD’s use of force protocols. CPD just announced it is rejecting 150 of those suggestions.  

If Lightfoot wants to answer Donald’s call to hold police accountable for the CPD’s sexual misconduct, boy’s club culture, and code of silence, she needs to slash their outrageous, undeserved, social service-depleting funding. The Black Abolitionist Network demands a 75 percent reduction immediately. Join them Wednesday to Take Back the Budget!

Rachel Cohen is a member of the Rampant editorial collective.