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Can Chicago police reform? It's up to Mayor Emanuel now. (+video)

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired his police chief and announced a task force Tuesday. Those moves could have a powerful effect – or be window dressing.

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    Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy (l.) stands with mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel (c.) during a recruitment graduation ceremony in Chicago in this 2014 file photo. Mr. McCarthy was fired Tuesday after it took 13 months to charge a white police officer with the shooting death of a black teenager, according to media reports.
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The mounting fallout from the police killing of a black teenager a year ago rocked the Chicago Police Department to its core Tuesday.

Now, the promise of reforming the CPD to rebuild community trust could largely depend on whether the political will exists to do it.

On Tuesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired Police Supt. Garry McCarthy and announced the creation of an accountability task force to probe whether the department protects rogue cops at all costs.

The moves came amid a growing furor over how the city and the department have handled the case of Laquan McDonald, the teenager who last year was fatally shot by a police officer 16 times – with many shots fired after he had already fallen. On Tuesday, Mr. Emanuel spoke of “systematic challenges that will require sustained reforms.”

The steps he announced Tuesday could have a profound effect on Chicago police culture and behavior, experts say, but only if Emanuel himself demands it. Task forces from Maryland to Washington State have led to significant reform, for example. But they can also easily become empty vessels that do little.

The difference is one of desire, says Charles Katz, a criminologist at Arizona State University in Tempe and co-author of “The Police in America: An Introduction.”

“The question isn’t so much that there are problems in the police force, but the lack of willingness to address those issues in a transparent manner, which allows the public to maintain faith that the police and the city are doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” he says.

How task forces can work

That willingness has made task forces successful in the past. A community police commission in Seattle recently became the first citizen task force ever to help formally write a police department use-of-force policy, which included a strong de-escalation component, writes Samuel Walker, an emeritus criminologist at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, in Criminal Justice Policy Review.

Task forces can also force police leaders to acknowledge an outside view of a culture that can be difficult for civilians to understand. Last year, 10 years after a task force in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, the state’s attorney there, Angela Alsobrooks, said: “When you have the authority to take life and to take a person’s liberty, that relationship and the trust between our community and public safety is an absolutely sacred relationship.”

A 10-year-old police accountability project in Albany, N.Y., mainly improved trustworthiness, because it forced the city to respond to allegations of police misconduct, even if unsubstantiated, according to a 2010 report by the John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety.

“People feel that procedures are fairer when they trust the motives [of police]. Authorities can encourage people to view them as trustworthy by explaining their decisions and accounting for their conduct in ways that make clear their concern about giving attention to people’s needs. These expectations have powerful effects on clients,” the report states.

Chicago has often fought efforts to shine light on the police department. Only after winning a federal court case against the city in 2014 did the Citizens' Police Data Project, in part sponsored by the University of Chicago Law School, begin publishing more than 56,000 complaints lodged against some 8,500 CPD officers. Data published by the project this year show that no discipline was given to officers in 99 percent of complaint cases, compared with a national average of 90 percent.

Now, Chicago is at a moment that “requires more than just words” to restore trust, Emanuel said Tuesday.

Laquan case fits 'all-too-familiar' pattern

The shooting of Laquan took place only months after the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City, which led to nationwide protests against police use of force. But instead of releasing a video of the incident, as other departments had done with similar footage, Emanuel – who was facing reelection just a few months later – said it was part of an ongoing investigation.

The video was released last week, but only because of a judge’s order after a freelance journalist filed a lawsuit. On the same day the video was released, Officer Jason Van Dyke, who fired the shots, became the first Chicago officer to be arrested on murder charges related to on-duty activity.

The video not only contradicted the City Hall version of events – including that Laquan had “lunged” at officers – but also destroyed City Hall’s “one-bad-apple” narrative, write Bill Ruthhart and Hal Dardick in The Chicago Tribune. Instead, it fits “an all-too-familiar set of circumstances: City Hall initially casts the incident as an act of police self-defense only for the facts to bear out a different story later.”

Chicago’s past includes some of the worst cases of police abuse in United States history. The city and Cook County has had to pay out nearly $100 million legal fees and settlements for the actions of Det. Jon Burge, who tortured mostly black suspects with cattle prods, flashlight beatings, mock Russian roulette, and near-suffocation using plastic bags in the 1970s and ’80s.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation said Tuesday it has an “active" investigation into the shooting of Laquan.

“Chicago is at a tough impasse,” adds Professor Katz. “There has been over the past few decades repeated violations of individuals’ civil rights in the worst ways. The CPD has not been transparent in addressing those issues, even when they know they’ve occurred.” 

The five-member task force is expected to offer a report by March.

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