By Becky Beaupre Gillespie
Photo by Lloyd DeGrane

I think my biggest fear was that people wouldn’t care.”
—Craig Futterman
Clinical professor at the Law School

Editor's note: This is adapted from a story that first appeared on the Law School website. Read it in its entirety here.

It was about a year ago, as Chicago was erupting in outrage over dash cam footage of a white police officer fatally shooting a black teenager, that Clinical Professor Craig Futterman felt the first rumbles of a shift he’d been imagining most of his career. It was the beginning of what would become one of the busiest and most extraordinary periods of his professional life—and one that marked significant progress in Chicago’s struggle to address issues of race, justice, and policing.

It would also become a lesson in how change gets made, and how the work of the University of Chicago Law School’s clinics can reach far beyond the lives of their clients.

Futterman and his students had spent nearly a year engaged in litigation before convincing a judge in November 2015 to make the video public. The footage showed Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke repeatedly shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, even as he lay on the ground—a striking contradiction of the official police account that had depicted the case as self-defense.

But this wasn’t Futterman’s first go-round exposing injustice—he had racked up an impressive list of courtroom victories in his 16 years as director of the Law School’s Civil Rights and Police Accountability Clinic—and he knew that public indignation could be fleeting, that broad-scale change often requires a bucketful of wins before it reaches a tipping point. On some level, he had braced himself for the inevitable fading of public concern.

“I had several fears right before the video was released,” Futterman said, sitting in his office surrounded by evidence of the whirlwind he had helped create: newspapers, research, proposed legislation, and drafts of a paper he was writing about law enforcement policy reform. “I think my biggest fear,” he said of those days right before the Nov. 24, 2015 video release, “was that people wouldn’t care.”

The video sparked protests, a wide-ranging federal civil rights investigation, and a pledge by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to reform the Chicago Police Department. The police chief lost his job, Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder, and in the March 2016 primaries, the county’s top prosecutor was voted out of office. Emanuel created a police accountability task force, chaired by former prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, JD’89, and including Clinical Professor Randolph Stone. Suddenly, Futterman and his partners at the Invisible Institute, who had already drawn media attention when they jointly released a first-of-its-kind, searchable database of Chicago police misconduct complaints, were flooded with media requests from all over the world. Lawmakers called, and even the White House sought Futterman’s insights on criminal justice policy.

The developments would continue all year: The task force released reform recommendations, an Illinois appellate court ordered the release of additional misconduct records, and the city created a new agency to investigate police shootings and misconduct. All the while, Futterman has continued to call for reforms, including greater independence and more resources for the new agency.

‘As if a curtain were lifted’

In November 2015 Futterman didn’t yet know he would help trigger an awakening—an awakening notable not just for its scope and intensity, but for its focus. For the first time, everyone was talking about the underlying realities that had been the core of Futterman’s message for years: the “code of silence” among police officers that had protected Van Dyke, the need for transparency and accountability to stem a pattern of abuse, and the fraught day-to-day interactions between minority youth and law enforcement.

“It was as if a curtain were lifted, and suddenly, there was this simple truth that we all knew: Yes, the code of silence exists in Chicago. Yes, there are real and systemic problems of police abuse here in Chicago,” Futterman said. “It wasn’t just that folks had to come to grips with this horrific shooting. While Officer Van Dyke’s callous acts were truly extraordinary, I think what really struck people was seeing how normal it was for every single officer on the scene to circle the wagons and cover up what Van Dyke did. That the life of a 17-year-old kid mattered less than covering for a fellow officer.”

But it hadn’t happened in isolation. Futterman and others around the country had been chipping away at these issues for years. When the Laquan McDonald video was released, the country was already engaged in conversations about race and policing following the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray—all black men who had been killed during encounters with white officers.

The previous spring, Futterman and his partner at the Invisible Institute, independent journalist Jamie Kalven, had drawn more than 300 people to an emotional two-day conference at the Law School that brought together urban youth, law enforcement officials, prominent advocates, and top scholars to address the relationship between police and their communities. And in November 2015—just as Futterman and Kalven were releasing their database of police misconduct complaints and shortly after FBI Director James B. Comey, JD’85, visited the Law School to talk about race and police—the University of Chicago Legal Forum had advanced the conversation further with an academic conference on police accountability.

In many ways, the shift looked much as Futterman had always envisioned: an awakening that advanced a much larger and evolving movement.

“I imagined it beginning with the truth,” he said. “One of things that had been standing in the way of change had been lack of knowledge. The vast majority of us didn’t know about the conditions of impunity in our own backyards, the reality of police abuse and unequal justice. Now we know, now we’re aware, and more people are becoming aware.

“I don’t want to think about this as just one moment; it is a part of the larger process of change. We are all being forced to reckon with the realities. And now it’s up to all of us what we do with that knowledge.”

Originally published on December 6, 2016.