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New weapons policy for Chicago police emphasizes ‘sanctity of life’

The new policies come ahead of the release of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) report following an investigation into accusations of systemic racism within the Chicago Police Department.

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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. Emanuel will deliver his public safety plan for the nation's third-largest city on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, a spotlight on his leadership that comes amid a troubling spike in street violence. In recent days, Emanuel's administration has announced the hiring of nearly 1,000 new police officers.

M. Spencer Green/AP

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On Friday, the Chicago Police Department announced a new set of proposed policies that will update how it trains police officers to use force. The stated goals are to better protect the “sanctity of life” and establish trust through transparency.

The draft policies would require police officers to actively attempt to de-escalate dangerous situations and provide specific justification for each time physical force, or any weapon, including a taser or pepper spray, is used. Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson says he hopes to see the policies fully in place by 2017, although some are questioning how effective they will be.

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"Today as we speak, in-service officers and recruits are receiving live scenario-based de-escalating training, where they're learning to introduce the concept of time in high tension situations and identify individuals who may suffer from mental health issues with the use of deadly force being the last and final option," Mr. Johnson told CNN.

The new policy proposals come ahead of the release of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) report following an investigation into accusations of systemic racism and civil rights abuses within the Chicago Police Department. Several incidents led to the investigation, including the October 2014 fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old black man, who was shot 16 times in the back while walking away from police.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushed for the changes in police policy so as to get ahead of reforms that the DOJ may require of the department once its report comes out. However, other cities around the country have already implemented  similar policy changes causing some to question if Chicago’s reforms are just too little, too late.

"Welcome to the 21st century," Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminal justice at the University of South Carolina, told the Los Angeles Times. "This is a step in the right direction. Good for them. It's just a day late and millions of dollars short."

The proposed changes would attempt to mitigate race as a factor in police actions after a mayoral task force found that the Chicago Police Department's own data showed a lack of respect for black lives, particularly when choosing whether or not to use force. 

"We will also have in our policy that the least amount of force that is reasonably necessary will be approved," Anne Kirkpatrick, chief of the Bureau of Organizational Development, a new city department, that will review the draft policies, told CNN.

The policy changes also aim to end a code of silence within the police force that has encouraged officers to cover for each other rather than holding fellow officers accountable and allowed abuses to go unreported.

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At a time when excessive use of force by law enforcement officers is at the forefront of  public thought and a major issue in the upcoming presidential election, many cities have taken steps to adopt new policing standards, including New York, which rewrote the rules for when to use - and how to document - physical force, and Cleveland, which has proposed its own de-escalation practices.

“Chicago is putting forward, I think, some of the most progressive policies in the country,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told the New York Times.

As part of an effort to rebuild community relations, Chicago plans a 45-day window in which members of the public can offer feedback on the proposed policing policies, a tool that has frequently been used by the City of Chicago when reviewing new policies, but never before by its Police Department. Comments will be reviewed by the Bureau of Organizational Development, and taken into account before the official policies are put into place, ideally by 2017 when all officers will be retrained.

“Any fair-minded person acknowledges that police have a very difficult and dangerous job, and this sounds like a very unfortunate situation,” Jon Loevy, a civil rights lawyer, told the Chicago Tribune. “The hope is that the department and the community can work to repair some of the lost trust so that officers won't always feel so second-guessed.”