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Beyond Hammers and Nails: A Cross-Examination of Zach Fardon’s Policy Vision

By Ryan Lugalia-Hollon

Chicago police carWielding only hammers, law enforcement executives often treat the world as if it were made of nails. Within the Chicago Police Department, this limited worldview has led to fatal flaws in departmental strategy and culture.

Some of these flaws were documented in a 164-page report by the United States Department of Justice, which drew on meetings with “over 340 Chicago Police Department members and 23 members of the Independent Police Review Authority.” The report covers a litany of civil rights violations by the Chicago Police Department, with a primary focus on its “pattern or practice of unconstitutional use of force.” It calls for deep reforms to support everything from officer wellness to community-focused policing which, not incidentally, are deeply linked. The report also calls on those who govern the department to “[e]nsure that officers police fairly and compassionately in all neighborhoods, including in those with high rates of violent crime and in minority communities."

Not everyone involved in the report stood by the full extent of this conclusion. In his outgoing letter as the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, Zach Fardon demonstrated a unique version of a hammer chasing nails.

His letter called for five basic policy changes. First, he called for a consent decree to ensure that an independent federal monitor oversees reforms at the Chicago Police Department, a move that very much reinforces the DOJ report. Accompanying this call, Fardon also argued for substantial increases in the policing budget. Next, Fardon called for expanded federal law enforcement, with a special consolidated taskforce focused on violence through traditional aggressive strategies. Then Fardon went on to argue that the disease of violence is now spread through social media. Shortly after his appeal for more federal officers, he wrote, “Don’t send in the National Guard, send in the tech geeks. If a gang member makes CPD’s Strategic Subject List, find a way to curb or realtime monitor that gang member’s social media accounts.” Fardon recognizes that his proposal would worry some defenders of the first amendment, but wrote “let's test those limits. Lives are at stake." His final two appeals were to create a permanent funding stream for youth centers in neighborhoods with high levels of violence, and to end a bail bond system that allows accused gang members and repeat gun offenders to leave confinement before their trails.

Fardon’s policy vision covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time, but is primarily based upon the idea that more resources towards a punishment agenda will create peace and, somehow, help to restore the law’s legitimacy in South and West Side areas like Austin. For example, he writes, “you can’t have a top-flight police department on the cheap. For decades, CPD has been run on the cheap. Officers don’t have the training, the supervision, the equipment, or culture they need and deserve.” He leaves this point especially open-ended, so that some readers can see at is a call for officers to have access to higher grade assault weapons, while others can see it as a plea for officers to have better counseling and wellness resources to process the intensity of their jobs.

Throughout the letter, Fardon references the Laquan McDonald case multiple times. It is a rare through-line for his arguments. Although Fardon himself was an instrumental part in the DOJ study of abuses of power within the Chicago Police Department, he blames the non-governmental police accountability efforts that followed Laquan’s murder for many of the ills Chicago faces. Spikes in street violence, distrust in law enforcement, and cultural changes in gang’s online behavior are all traced back to coverage and consequences that followed the cover-up of the murder.

Fardon’s is an unorthodox argument. It is also a very dangerous one. It reads like a twisted version of the self-protective instinct, where accountability for harm, rather than the harm itself, is blamed for the fallout. On their own, many of Fardon’s basic observations are insightful. Street violence has been on the rise. Trust in the rule of law has continued to plummet. Social media does perpetuate cycles of violence in ways that are historically unprecedented. But all of these trends were unfolding well before Chicago police officers agreed to maintain the constitution through an agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The conclusions that Fardon draws from these observations miss the mark, revealing a mix of limited logic and historical amnesia.

In particular, his claim that police accountability is responsible for increases in violence must be unpacked. By his reasoning, the video of Jason Van Dyke killing Laquan forced a contract between the Chicago Police Department and the ACLU, which had previously sued the department over stop-and-frisk practices. He views that contract as the precipitating force for declines in police officer performance, under the assumption that it tells officers that before talking with “kids on the corner” they must now “take 40 minutes to fill out a form” and then give them a receipt with their badge number on it.

Fardon writes, “[B]y January 2016, the city was on fire. We had no police superintendent. Cops were under scrutiny. Cops had to worry about the ACLU deal. And many of them just no longer wanted to wear the risk of stopping suspects…So cops stopped making stops. And kids started shooting more—because they could, and because the rule of law, law enforcement, had been delegitimized. And that created an atmosphere of chaos.” There are several deep flaws with this argument. First, the paperwork he describes actually doesn’t take that long and doesn’t prevent officers from searching anyone; it is just meant to ensure that their searches are based on probable cause. Second, street violence was already on the rise in Chicago in 2015, well before the ACLU agreement. Third, Chicago’s spikes in violence are part of a broader national trend, impacting cities from Dallas to Louisville.

But even if Fardon was right, even if declines in police morale led to declines in suppression and, in turn, less aggressive policing allowed for more violence, then another problem would have to be addressed. Why is Chicago still so dependent on strategies that threaten first amendment rights and lead to massive spending on punishment? More than thirty years into the city, county, and state’s broad investments in mass incarceration, why has there not been a turn to a much wider peacemaking portfolio? If peace and justice are really the objective, those are questions that must be answered.


About the Author 

Ryan Lugalia-Hollon is co-author, with Dan Cooper, of a forthcoming book from Beacon Press on policing and punishment in Chicago neighborhoods.