Exclusive: Inspector general investigating city’s pre-riot protest plans

THE-WIT-RIOT-DAMAGE-MAY-2020
Riot damage to theWit hotel at State & Lake Streets in the Loop. | Chicago Loop Alliance

Chicago’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has launched an investigation of the city’s preparations for protests that devolved into riots and looting on the weekend of May 30, according to documents provided to CWBChicago by a source.

The examination of the city’s planning and performance was set into motion on June 10 when Inspector General Joseph Ferguson ordered the Chicago Police Department to preserve a wide array of records from between May 25 and June 8.

A representative from the OIG’s office who met with the Fraternal Order of Police on Wednesday told the union the preservation request was designed to learn about the city’s protest planning, according to a summary of the meeting that was provided to CWBChicago.

The OIG did not respond to a request for comment.

According to the FOP meeting notes, 84 police officers who were accused of uniform infractions during the protests and riots will likely receive reprimands. Another 64 excessive force complaints were filed against officers during the uprising, the document says.

Coming up short

Exactly what Ferguson’s probe will uncover remains to be seen, but several shortcomings in the city’s preparation have already begun to surface. Officers have repeatedly pointed out that riots were already occurring in Minneapolis before the fateful weekend arrived, yet Chicago leaders apparently failed to believe that similar uprisings could happen here. 

In an email to CWBChicago, a police department spokesperson insisted, “CPD was fully prepared with ample resources to handle a peaceful protest downtown when officers were tasked with reacting to the uprisings.”

Among the most serious failures alleged by multiple officers:

  • The city’s most experienced manager of mass gatherings was not consulted until the day after riots broke out
  • City officials abandoned a proven and tested strategy that successfully contained tense protests related to the murder of Laquan McDonald and the 2012 NATO conference.
  • A lack of executive leadership as the protests eroded into widespread looting and riots
  • Bicycle teams, the cornerstone of CPD’s crowd management strategy, were scaled back

Expert excluded

The most egregious miscalculation leading into the protests may prove to be a decision to exclude Chicago Police Deputy Chief Steve Georgas from pre-event planning. Georgas is easily the city’s most experienced manager of mass gatherings. From the NATO protests to sports teams victory celebrations, Georgas oversaw the successful management of countless major events of all kinds.

But Georgas wasn’t brought into the mix until the day after the city went up for grabs on May 30, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the matter.

“As much as I personally dislike the man,” one officer said, “he is very competent when it comes to planning and preparing for situations like the riots.”

A police department spokesperson wouldn’t say when city leaders turned to Georgas for help last month. Instead, the CPD rep said only that Georgas “was an active member of CPD and served as the Incident Commander, leading the command post operations.”

When Georgas announced his retirement after the riots, ABC7 reported that he wasn’t brought into the command post until Sunday, the second day of the uprising.

Proven strategy abandoned

Leading up to the 2012 NATO convention in Chicago, an alphabet soup of federal agencies worked with the police department to develop a plan for handling protests that were expected to include anarchists and extremist groups.

It’s a plan that works so well, the city has pulled out the same playbook time after time to handle volatile protests downtown. Inexplicably, those proven plans were jettisoned by whoever is responsible for the city’s May 30 plan.

The genius of the NATO strategy lies in its simplicity: use the city’s geography to contain protesters and prevent outsiders from intervening. Under the long-established plan, protesters have been allowed to march and congregate in the Loop. But police, supported by CPD’s flexible bicycle teams, never allowed the crowds to cross any of the Chicago River bridges.

Protesters, contained by the river and the lake, marched in circles while flanked by police. When small groups broke away from the pack, CPD bicycle teams would out-flank them and move them back to the herd.

None of that happened on May 30 until it was too late.

The bridges were left unsecured as the riots broke out — until someone apparently decided it might be a good idea to raise them. But the horse was out of the barn by then. Violent crowds were already attacking police on both sides of the river. Rioters and looters marauded the treasured Magnificent Mile.

Physically raising the bridges, rather than protecting them with lines of officers, had an unintended consequence. Fire department and police resources were unable to easily cross the river to address problems on the other side. At one point on Saturday evening, the 1st Police District commander spent more than 15 minutes calling for SWAT “gas teams” to counter a violent mob along Wacker Drive. But the gas teams were all on the north side of the river and they had difficulty getting back across.

Whoever is responsible for the city’s May 30 plans also failed to have equipment in place to prevent vehicles from entering the downtown area. Open access gave looters and other troublemakers a chance to get in on the action, according to officers who spoke with CWBChicago.

Lack of leadership

The riots and looting of May 30 raged for nearly eight hours before Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot made any public statement about what was unfolding. She never even asked for calm on social media. Her first comment was at a press conference where she announced that a citywide curfew would go into effect 45 minutes later.

Chicago Police Supt. David Brown, who had been on the job for only a few weeks, wasn’t seen near the riot zone until after 6 p.m. Saturday — an appearance that was quickly paraded on the department’s social media accounts. But he made no statements and, according to officers who were in the area, he left just as quickly as he arrived.

Bikes sidelined

On Sunday, after the first full night of riots and looting, Lightfoot told reporters, “planning for [the previous night] started days before. We had canceled days off, used overtime…We’ve now also shifted to 12-hour days, three watches.”

Several officers who were scheduled to be off on Saturday told CWBChicago that they volunteered to work, but the department turned them down because the city did not want to pay a premium rate.

And, while CPD’s gang teams, tactical teams, and saturation teams were required to work on Saturday, most district bicycle teams — the very units that were the backbone of the city’s long-established protest strategy — were not, according to officers.

Bike teams are “a very, very viable, strategic, tactical unit that we can deploy quickly. And they’re very, very effective in crowd control, and they can cover an awful lot of ground,” then-CPD Supt. Garry McCarthy said of bike teams following the 2012 NATO conference.

“The officers could respond quickly, and when they do, they had a readymade barrier, just like any of those police barriers that we use at any event,” McCarthy said.

Chicago police leaders did not cancel days off for the second day of rioting until after 11 p.m. on the first day of the uprising. | Provided

The police department didn’t cancel days off for Sunday — which would become the second day of riots and looting — until 11:13 p.m. on Saturday, about three hours after Lightfoot’s press conference.

Multiple officers told CWBChicago that the police department ran out of pepper gas during the weekend of riots. Similar information was reported by WBEZ.

But Tom Ahern, CPD’s Deputy Director of News Affairs and Communications said that is not true.

“CPD never ran out of our inventory of [pepper] gas,” Ahern said. “The supply of [pepper] gas was replenished from our regular distributor in Missouri.”

Ahern did not respond directly to questions about when the city began planning for the weekend of May 30 or who was involved in the strategy sessions.

“The joint operations center was stood up and comprised of public safety departments and supported by other city agencies.”

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About CWBChicago 6882 Articles
CWBChicago was created in 2013 by five residents of Wrigleyville and Boystown who had grown disheartened with inaccurate information that was being provided at local Community Policing (CAPS) meetings. Our coverage area has expanded since then to cover Lincoln Park, River North, The Loop, Uptown, and other North Side Areas. But our mission remains unchanged: To provide original public safety reporting with better context and greater detail than mainstream media outlets. Our editorial email address is news@cwbchicago.com