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How Chicago police can rebuild trust

Finding a path forward

Responding to recent incidents of police violence, a Chicago task force has released a scathing report. Solutions will be difficult, all agree, but there are clear places to start.  

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    Mayor Rahm Emanuel (l.) announces that he is appointing Eddie Johnson (r.) as the interim superintendent of the Chicago Police Department at CPD Headquarters in Chicago on March 28. Mr. Johnson takes the job at a time of turmoil for the department.
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When activist Eric Russell took the microphone at a forum on police accountability in Chicago this February, his voice shook with anger.

“They are killing our women and children,” Mr. Russell said. “What we ask, Madam Chair, is that we want respectful engagement.”

It’s a refrain heard in protests and community meetings across Chicago. In the months since the city released a video of a white police officer shooting black teen Laquan McDonald 16 times, trust between police and the black community has vanished.

Relations are at such a low, activists and experts say, that they need to be built from the ground up. Simply being heard, they add, would be a powerful start.

Now, that cause has an ally.

The Police Accountability Task Force formed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in December released its final report Wednesday, and its message suggests that Russell and others in the black community have been heard.

The Chicago Police Department “cannot begin to build trust, repair what is broken and tattered unless – from the top leadership on down – it faces these hard truths, acknowledges what it has done at the individual and institutional levels and earnestly reaches out with respect,” the report says.

The document paints a portrait of a city past its “tipping point.” How can the police force now regain the trust of its most vulnerable citizens? The question is a poignant one nationwide as police confront not only allegations of needless violence against blacks but also the protest movement that has grown from those claims.

The CPD’s decades-long history of abuse gives the question added resonance. But steps forward are possible, and some have already begun, people on both sides say. Now, the task force report is a road map for what needs to happen next, many agree.

“This is probably the most important issue that our task force is facing: How to rebuild trust in some communities and in other communities how to create trust where there hasn’t been any trust for a long time,” says task force member Randolph Stone, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School.

The recommendations of the task force mirror those brought to the surface in Monitor interviews with experts and members of the black community. The department needs structural changes – specifically a new and truly independent authority to review police misconduct. And community policing needs to become a guiding principle for the entire department.

But the process of healing, both activists and regular citizens say, must begin with listening. And that is no small task.

•  •  • 

In February, the task force tried. It was the last of task force’s four community forums. And in many ways, it was a disaster.

Less than an hour into the public commenting session, about 40 protesters in yellow T-shirts approached the task force members sitting on a stage in the auditorium. They said the task force was “insufficient and undemocratic.” They demanded “a fully independent civilian police accountability council.”

Eventually, a few of the protesters got onto the stage, and a scuffle broke out. Police officers had to step in and shut down the forum.

Russell, who attended all four forums, says the source of protesters’ anger is no mystery. For example, he is acting as the spokesman for Bettie Jones, a black grandmother accidentally killed by police the day after Christmas. And beyond that, he ticks off a list of alleged police brutality that stretches back generations.

The police killing of Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in a raid on their apartment in 1969. The torture ring led by former Chicago police detective Jon Burge between 1972 and 1991 that has forced the city to pay out more than $100 million in legal fees and settlements. The 1972 report by the Chicago Law Enforcement Study Group that found that “the Chicago Police killed more civilians – both numerically and proportionally – than police in any other city covered in this study.”

And the story has not changed, activists say. Fewer than 2 percent of allegations of misconduct filed against CPD officers between March 2011 and September 2015 resulted in any disciplinary action, according to an analysis by the Invisible Institute.

The whole “listening tour” has even been tried before. Last summer, CPD Superintendent Garry McCarthy held community meetings throughout the city. But details were not shared with the press and the report Mr. McCarthy wrote about the tour was shelved after McCarthy was let go in December.  

“People are tired,” says Mark Payne, executive director of the community peace-building organization Ceasefire Illinois. “People … don’t want to hear what they heard before, and people don’t want … the same system set up that has for years shown them nothing.”

•  •  •

This week, with the task force report, they will be hearing something different.

The protesters who shut down the last community forum wanted to change the way the police are policed. The new report agrees: Chicago needs a “new and fully transparent and accountable Civilian Police Investigative Agency,” the summary states.

Some of the protesters wanted the new board to be elected. The task force sided with others, who lobbied for an independent auditor’s office like the ones in New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle, among other cities. Currently, the members of the Independent Police Review Authority are chosen by the mayor.

Now, it is crucial that the city build on the report’s momentum, community leaders say.

“The community has solutions and people have to think that,” says Mr. Payne of Ceasefire Illinois. “There are very intelligent and capable people who live in these neighborhoods, and they have solutions, and they want to be at the table to talk about what works.”

The task force showed its good-faith effort by videotaping its forums and putting them on YouTube for transparency and public engagement.

The city has also made small moves to address community concerns.  

In January, the police department announced that it would hold more outdoor roll calls in response to community suggestions. The outdoor roll calls are a venue for residents to talk to and form relationships with police officers in their neighborhoods.

Then, at the task force’s urging, Mayor Emanuel said in February that the city would release videos of police shootings within 60 days of incidents. In the Laquan McDonald case, the police waited more than 13 months.

•  •  •

Another place to start, some say, is the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS).

From its creation in 1993 well into the 2000s it was the “largest and most impressive community policing program in the world,” says Wesley Skogan, a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “There was a big improvement in police relations in the African American community.”

A mid-2000s shift in police tactics, however, left CAPS “significantly damaged after years of neglect,” the task force states.

The task force would like to see more than a renovation of the program but a dramatic expansion. “Ultimately, community policing cannot be relegated to a small, underfunded program; it must be treated as a core philosophy infused throughout CPD.”

To Vanessa Westley, one of the leaders of a recent attempt to revitalize CAPS, Chicago doesn’t have to start from scratch. Young people are more willing to talk to officers on the street that they’ve met at CAPS events, like peace circles and cooking contests, Ms. Westley says. And the officers are more likely to look at the youth positively when they see them on their rounds. 

It’s just a start, but it is a start, she adds. “Unlike other places, we actually have an infrastructure to coexist, cocreate, and to actually do this thing together, which is share power in community.”

The task force report will hopefully help civic leaders push onward, says Mr. Stone, the task force member.

“I think we’re at a place where we have an opportunity to make a difference, and you know any time when we have that opportunity we have to take advantage of it,” he says. “I’m cautiously optimistic, but it’s a big challenge and a big problem. The proof is in the pudding.”

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