Seeking Justice: Law Professor Aims to Ignite Change within Chicago’s Police Department
Craig Futterman admittedly is sleep deprived these days.
The clinical professor of law and director of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago has been a recurring voice in the news regarding Chicago’s police department and its handling of several high profile cases, including that of Laquan McDonald, the 17-year-old shot 16 times by a police officer.
“Part of the reason I’m not getting sleep is that I have never experienced a moment like this in my lifetime,” says Futterman. He is hopeful that soon the city—and the country—can address the issues underlying why, as he says, “large segments of the black community are so alienated from the police, and why the minority of police officers have been allowed to abuse the most vulnerable among us without fear of consequences.”
A recent commentator on CNN, and expert quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times and the New Yorker, Futterman was also contacted by the White House in December for his thoughts on Chicago’s police misconduct issues. While responding to those requests, he remains accountable to his students in the Police Accountability Project. His students have garnered attention in their own right for their efforts to promote police transparency regarding records of misconduct, including the McDonald dash-cam video and other files connected to citizens’ claims of police abuse.
Founded by Futterman almost immediately after his arrival to the University of Chicago in 2000, the Police Accountability Project was the first law school clinic of its kind, and has since become one of the nation’s leading law civil rights clinics.
“One of the fundamental ideas of the clinic and of all the work we do is teaching, and teaching through practice and service,” he says. “Every aspect of this project is led by students.”
The clinic lets students examine how and where litigation fits into broader efforts to improve police accountability and ultimately the criminal justice system. Students are involved in real-life cases and focus on everything from litigation, policy work, and community education under Futterman’s supervision.
Futterman's work reflects his formal education in sociology, as well as law. After graduating Northwestern University with a B.A. in Sociology with highest distinction, Futterman attended Stanford Law School. He then became a trial attorney in the Juvenile Division of the Cook County Public Defender’s Office. Prior to his arrival to UChicago, Futterman was the director of Public Interest Programs and Lecturer in Law at Stanford Law School.
Now, at what he describes as his dream job, Futterman says his role combines all of his talents, especially teaching and mentoring students. While immensely proud of his students, he also recognizes that Chicago’s issues are deeply rooted and require substantial analysis for real change.
“The underlying problems aren’t new and have persisted,” Futterman says. “It feels like we are stuck and having the same old conversations among each other with not a lot of listening or minds being changed.” However, he is optimistic about the possibility for “something more than just token reform.”
That possibility, he says, involves the sustained engagement of both people in the communities affected by abuse, the many hard-working police officers, and those involved in leadership.
Step one, Futterman notes, is honesty. “It starts with truth—acknowledging the reality of experience of people who have suffered abuse at the hands of the police. Up until this point in Chicago, our political leaders and police department have refused to acknowledge the police code of silence surrounding the abuse of black folks. We have deep and systemic problems that need to be addressed.”
“And it has to end with accountability—our children need to see that officers are held accountable when they abuse their power to hurt people,” he continues. To that end, he highlights his students’ work with the Invisible Institute creating the Citizens Police Data Project, a public database his department introduced to promote transparency in the police department. “This resource doesn’t exist anywhere else in the nation and is a model for honesty and reform that is open to everybody from researchers to journalists to lawyers to people in prison,” he says.
Despite issues of injustice, Futterman points out that the vast majority of Chicago police officers receive few if any complaints in their entire careers, and eighty percent get fewer than four complaints. “My students have seen small groups of officers engage in horrific and often sadistic abuse,” he says. “They also have seen the majority of officers doing the right thing.”
The reality, he adds, is that he has two teenage girls, one who is the exact same age as Laquan MacDonald was. “Part of their reality growing up is that my wife and I have had to have difficult conversations, as many parents of black children do, about police and their safety.” And he recognizes this issue goes beyond just his family. “It’s not just about my children. It’s about all of our children and the stain that racism puts on all of us,” he says.
- Tanya R. Cochran