Craig B. Futterman
Craig B. Futterman

For a man who has made a career out of suing police, Craig B. Futterman’s views on law enforcement aren’t as straight forward as one might expect.

“The vast majority of us recognize that we need to give law enforcement ... extraordinary powers: the power to use force, the power to take our freedoms, the power to even shoot and kill,” the University of Chicago Law School professor said.

For 15 years, Futterman has led the school’s Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project, the nation’s first, as he described it, “civil rights clinic that was devoted to issues of police accountability, service and criminal justice reform.”

The clinic represents clients who allege abuse by the Chicago Police Department, engaging in litigation, policy-making and community service.

While the clinic has won big settlements for clients, it has also played a key role in Freedom of Information Act issues.

When Chicago police shot and killed Laquan McDonald in October, the department told reporters that officers shot the 17-year-old once in the chest out of self-defense, because he was holding a knife.

His autopsy revealed 16 gunshot wounds.

That document was made public last month through a successful FOIA request by Futterman and independent journalist Jamie Kalven.

The clinic also represented Kalven during his five-year pursuit to have police misconduct files made available to the public.

When CPD denied his FOIA request for those files, Kalven sued, and the case wound its way to the 1st District Appellate Court, where two third-year law students delivered oral arguments.

Last March, the panel ruled in Kalven’s favor — a victory for the clinic, though it is also appealing a subsequent circuit court action in the case.

For Futterman, his work is about ensuring appropriate use of police powers — including the power to “shoot and kill.”

“I think the power to use deadly force is (necessary),” he said. “Yes. I do.”

The problem with that power, he said, is twofold — deadly force is overused, and police are rarely honest about its use.

“In a world where an incident like (McDonald) happens and the public statements are ‘Deny, deny, deny,’ and then close off and circle the wagons, and then a code of silence and an exoneration at the end of the day — in that system, you cannot create public trust,” he said. “It’s just that simple.”

Trust can be built, however, through transparency and honesty, he said.

“It means (saying to) that mom, who lost a son: ‘We’re not going to hide from you the person who took your son’s life. We’re not going to hide from the public. Just like we wouldn’t hide from the public a person who has been charged with or accused of a crime,’” he said.

“That’s the only way. That’s how you get trust.”

In an interview with the Daily Law Bulletin condensed for space, Futterman discussed how the goals of the clinic and the goals of CPD are the same, the responsibility bestowed upon his students and their push for police to release a video of McDonald’s shooting.

Law Bulletin: Is the clinic doing any work on the McDonald case?

Futterman: We do not represent anyone in that case. … We were working with a classroom of (high school) students around youth-police relations, and in one of our conversations in response to a short article that appeared in the press, our law students and our high school students had a conversation about that case. … (Editor’s note: McDonald’s estate is represented by sole practitioners Jeffrey J. Neslund and Michael D. Robbins.)

Students were sharing all of their own experiences of people who had been shot by police and nothing ever happening. The same narratives always emerged — that it was a justified shooting, that someone had a knife, a weapon, came at the police officer and was shot in self-defense or in defense of the other.

Typically, this would go away. They’d say it was under investigation. “Nothing to be written, nothing to be seen.” There weren’t findings that resulted in any criminal prosecutions downstream.

So students asked those questions, and then I received a confidential tip from inside the department about that case. We thought this was worth looking into a lot further and investigating as a part of our community project and as a part of the work we do around transparency and around police accountability and the issues of race and the police.

LB: What was the nature of the tip?

Futterman: That this is really horrific. This looked to at least some people in the department that it may be an execution. That people hadn’t seen anything like this, and that there was a videotape of what occurred — that video of the shooting was caught on police in-car cameras.

And that those videos would show the truth … that there was a situation that appeared to be under control, and there wasn’t any immediate risk of human life, and that an officer then just got out of his car and shot Laquan when he was cornered between a construction fence in a pretty deserted area, and then after being on the ground the same officer unloaded his gun multiple times.

So we investigated … and then also uncovered another confidential witness, a civilian who was there and saw it and told us in his own words what happened that was consistent with our sources inside. ...

I’m not in a position to say how many of the nearly 50 (Chicago police) shootings a year ought to be founded and how many shouldn’t be founded. I don’t know. But what we’ve learned, not just through this investigation, is that there have been serious problems with the way that police misconduct and police use of force have been investigated in Chicago. And that’s something that needs to be addressed. …

Just even that conversation itself, hopefully, can lead to collaborative work to address what needs to be addressed. It can do wonders to improve public trust.

LB: You were surprised to hear that it sounded as if police had shot this boy 16 times. Were you also surprised to receive a tip like this at all? Are you receiving tips regularly?

Futterman: “Regularly” may be an overstatement, but yes, there are officers and even high-level folks — supervisors — who will provide confidential tips on a number of occasions. The goals of this clinic and this project are consistent with the very same goals of police departments around the nation. They are not competing or at odds. ...

There are plenty of police officers — it’s not just the few on the margins — who hate police abuse and the impunity with which some of the few have been allowed to get away with … because it makes their jobs a living hell. They get treated with hostility by community members as a result.

The code of silence — protecting officers, which is very real and has been found just a few years ago by a jury here in Chicago — does as much if not greater harm to the police department …  as it does to people who have been victimized by abuse.

So it’s not surprising to me that there are many officers — and so many who are officers for all the right reasons and who care about service — who want to end these practices and who don’t like seeing colleagues who are abusive abuse the badge and steal their honor. …

Whistleblowers need to be able to step forward. They need to be protected, and they actually need to be — just as we would reward with a medal of valor other great police work — when a police officer exposes corruption or abuse, that officer should be equally rewarded and held out as an example. Meaning, leadership standing behind those officers as opposed to standing behind a wall of silence or worse than a wall of silence.

Laquan McDonald is a great example. It’s not just silence. A code of silence in some ways might be a misnomer, because it’s not just about keeping silent in the face of misconduct. It’s about changing the narrative.

LB: You mean lying?

Futterman: Yeah, lying. It’s about fabrication. …

LB: You’ve been in the news a lot lately, but general audiences might not make the connection between your work and the clinic. What value can law students have in dealing with police accountability?

Futterman: Students don’t play the role of traditional law clerk in the clinic. It’s not students doing background research while me, a seasoned lawyer and professor, presents the arguments, writes all the briefs, etc.

Our law students … do everything from the guts to the glory. … In the Freedom of Information Act case that we talked about, it was two law students who presented oral arguments in front of the court of appeals. Not me.

We run an incredibly inefficient practice from a service perspective. My job is to teach those students and prepare them to be able to do this stuff. ...

I’m never going to put a law student in a situation that she cannot handle, for obvious and serious ethical reasons. … But I’ve learned through experience that law students … can excel and do not just a good and adequate and competent job but can do excellent work.