After scathing Chicago police report, hope that 'this time is different'

Even skeptics of Chicago's efforts to reform its police department praise the task force for 'truth telling' about racism in the police's dealings with the black community.

Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/AP
Task Force on Police Accountability Chair Lori Lightfoot speaks during a news conference at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago on April 13 called to address the task force's recommendations for reform of the Chicago Police Department. The task force recommended replacing the 'badly broken' independent review authority that currently investigates misconduct with a 'new and fully transparent and accountable Civilian Police Investigative Agency.'

The head of the Police Accountability Task Force called it “a day of reckoning” in Chicago.

After four months of research and conversations with citizens, the task force appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the wake of the police shooting of Laquan McDonald released its final report Wednesday. The 190-page document outlines its recommendations for overhauling the police department and restoring trust between officers and the people they serve.

The report is being called bold in its suggestions and has been generally welcomed by a community that has often been skeptical of the city’s commitment to reform the police department.

One of these early skeptics was Rufus Williams, a former president of the Chicago Board of Education who now heads a social services organization in the North Lawndale neighborhood on the west side of Chicago. Mr. Williams says that police brutality has been going on for a long time in Chicago, particularly in North Lawndale and the neighborhoods he lived in as a child. So when Mayor Emanuel created the task force in response to large-scale protests in December, he expected little to change.

“With the forces that put this committee in place, there was no reason for us to believe that this committee would be any different than what we’ve always heard,” says Williams. “So to hear [the task force] be as clear and specific and as bold as they were is a refreshing change.”

Among other things, the task force recommended the creation of a Community Safety Oversight Board, the implementation of a citywide reconciliation process, and the replacement of the Independent Police Review Authority with a more transparent and accountable investigative agency. But beyond the particular recommendations the task force made, the report is being praised by experts for accurately depicting the challenges that black communities face with the police in Chicago.

The task force report is “powerful and different from other blue ribbon reports that have sat on the shelf in part because it begins with some honesty and truth telling,” says Craig Futterman, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School who was instrumental in getting the city to release the McDonald video.

“This is an official report that finally acknowledges the reality of racism in Chicago and the lack of police accountability, unchecked patterns of abuse and violence,” says Professor Futterman. “There has never been this widespread fundamental acknowledgement of what the issues are and what the problems are before.”

The need for such an acknowledgement became even more urgent this week after the city agreed on two settlements for police-related deaths and there was yet another police shooting.

  • On Monday, the city agreed to pay $4.95 million in compensation to the family of Phillip Coleman, a black man who died after being repeatedly shocked with a Taser by police officers and dragged from his jail cell in 2012. The police department had released a video of the incident in December last year, less than two weeks after the release of the McDonald video.
  • The city also approved a payment of $1.5 million to the estate of Justin Cook, who died of an asthma attack while handcuffed in police custody in 2014. A lawsuit against the city alleged that Mr. Cook had asked for his inhaler but was not given medical attention promptly.
  • Just hours after the city council approved the settlements, however, police shot a 16-year-old boy in North Lawndale. The police claimed that Pierre Loury had a gun and tried to shoot the officers, but relatives of Mr. Loury and community members, including Williams, dispute that story.

“What we know is that we’ve heard that so many times and that it has failed to be true,” says Williams. “It is to me unimaginable that somebody runs and stops and decides – knowing that the police have arms – that they’re going to have a shoot out. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Williams says that yesterday’s task force report gives him hope that change is finally on the horizon, however.

“To hear some truth about what is going on is encouraging and a good step forward,” says Williams.

The next step now will be implementing the changes proposed in the task force report. Much of that work will fall on Mayor Emanuel and Eddie Johnson, who was named as the city’s new top cop yesterday after being appointed interim superintendent late last month.

Futterman, who was interviewed by the task force for their report, says that he is hopeful that the city leadership will take the task force’s recommendations seriously because of the ongoing Department of Justice investigation into the police department.

“The mayor and other political officials have been clear that they want to get out in front of the Department of Justice, and if they don’t, the Department of Justice is going to force reform down our throats,” says Futterman. “So part of the political will comes from the desire to create locally drafted solutions that recognize the reality of our problems here in Chicago.”

Lori Lightfoot, the chair of the Police Accountability Task Force, agrees that the city should not wait until the Department of Justice concludes its investigation to start making changes to the police department. She has asked the city’s inspector general to make a report in the early fall on what progress has been made in police reform, and she is encouraging community members to read and act on the task force’s blueprint for change.

“We made it very hard for folks to ignore what we are saying. I don't think that’s going to happen,” says Ms. Lightfoot. “I think this time is different. And it will be different if we pick up the mantle and move forward in an uncompromising way and demand that the political stakeholders in this town, the civic stakeholders in this town understand that there has to be a new day. That’s why we spoke in such a bold voice.”

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