West Side residents who wanted to attend a meeting with Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy weren’t able to get in – unless they were on the list of invited guests.
The meeting, which was the second-to-last part of McCarthy’s neighborhood listening tour, took place at Mars Hill Baptist Church, 5916 W. Lake Street, on Wed. July 15, at 6:00 p.m. When Austin Weekly News inquired about attending, this reporter was told that CPD recommended limiting attendance to “25-30 people.” A number of other people who tried to get in, including former 37th Ward aldermanic candidate Tara Stamps and members of the Westside Health Authority (WHA), a venerable community organization, were turned away as well.
The meeting wound up running for almost two hours. Although members of the WHA who stuck around got a chance to speak with senior police officers, McCarthy himself declined to answer their questions, insisting that he would rather meeting with them privately.
During the listening tour, McCarthy set out to visit all 22 Chicago police districts. It was described as a way to improve relations between Chicagoans and the police. In addition to McCarthy, deputy chiefs, district commanders and rank-and-file officers were scheduled to attend.
Chicago Police Department has a record of banning press from Listening Tour meetings. In May, a DNAInfo Chicago reporter wasn’t allowed to attend the meeting in Northwest Side’s Dunning neighborhood. On July 9, DNAinfo Chicago reporter Mina Bloom tweeted that she wasn’t allowed to enter the meeting at the 19th District.
During the June 11 episode of WBEZ’s Morning Shift radio show, Eric Washington, the CPD Deputy Chief of Community Policing, said that it was up to the host community organizations to determine who is allowed to attend. Having the media present, he said, would hinder the discussion.
In the run-up to the Austin meeting, Austin Weekly News was alerted that anyone who wanted to attend had to be on the list. An hour before the meeting, this reporter was informed that there wasn’t room, because the church couldn’t exceed “the recommended number of guests.” The limit, which was suggested by CPD, was set at “25-30 people.”
At the church, every person who tried to get in was checked against the list. All those who weren’t on it – including members of the media – were turned away.
Stamps, a Chicago Public Schools teacher who forced Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) into a run-off during the 2015 election, came to the meeting with some staffers. She told Austin Weekly News that she was under impression that the meeting would be open to everyone. When she was turned away, Stamps didn’t mince words.
“The real issue for the people in this community is that they want to be able to talk to the police [officers],” she said. “But we have to be invited to attend this meeting, even if we live in this community. I find it appalling.”
Later, Stamps used even harsher language, saying that this approach spat in the faces of Austin residents and that it amounted to little more than a “kangaroo court.”
Members of Westside Health Authority brought a group of teens that were enrolled in the organization’s youth development programs. Quiwana Bell, the organization’s COO, said that she was hoping that the meeting would give the youth an opportunity to share their concerns with McCarthy. She said that, while some of the young people she spoke to had positive experiences with police, most of their experiences were negative.
“The majority of them said – ‘I get harassed, I get disrespected, I’m assumed to be a gangbanger because of my dreadlocks,'” said Bell. “If the young people can’t trust the police in their community, it puts the whole community at risk.”
Marshawn Feltus, who serves as a mentor at WHA, said that he and the other members of the organization were upset at being turned away.
“We’re very, very offended by this,” he said. “We want working relationships with public officials. There are vital issues the youth are concerned about. We need ears in our community.”
Dwayne Betts, the 15th District Commander, came out to speak to the residents gathered outside the church. He said that he had no say over the format of the meetings, but promised that he would look into any concerns they may have. Betts insisted that he couldn’t invite WHA teens in, because he would then have to allow everyone in.
When McCarthy arrived, Bell and Feltus tried to ask him about the format of the meeting and raise their concerns. The superintendent said that he would speak to them after the meeting was over.
As the meeting wore on, the crowd in front of the church slowly but surely started to thin out. Stamps left at 6:25 p.m. Most of WHA staff and teens left by 7:00 p.m., with only Feltus and fellow WHA mentor Robert Simpson sticking around until the end. Filmmakers Jim Sorrels and Rick Majowski, who were working on a documentary dealing with John Burge torture case, decided to stay as well.
Feltus said that, as the evening wore on, he felt more and more concerned about what was happening at the meeting.
“I’m very curious – what are the things being discussed there?” he said. “What’s going on and why weren’t community members allowed to come in on the superintendent’s listening tour. I want to know why there’s secrecy.”
At around 7:45 PM, police officers started exiting the church. When McCarthy stepped out the door, Feltus asked him if he would be willing to talk.
“Let’s setup a meeting,” the superintendent replied.
Feltus asked why they couldn’t talk now, McCarthy said he” wanted a more private discussion.
“We can’t do it with a lot of people,” he said. “We can’t do it in front of a hundred people.”
Motioning at Sorrels and Majowski, McCarthy added, “You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to be on camera. I’m doing this for a reason.”
Before driving off, the superintendent said that Feltus could step inside the church and have his questions answered by one of the officers.
An officer met Feltus and Simpson in the church lobby, talking for nearly 15 minutes. Members of the media weren’t allowed to listen to the proceedings. But once the conversation concluded, Feltus said that, while he still hoped to speak to McCarthy, he was encouraged by the response he did get.
“They were very good about getting the information we wanted,” said Feltus.
He said that he hopes that there will be future meeting — something that he intends to work towards.
Austin Weekly News caught up with one of the people who were invited to the meeting. Larry Williams is a State Farm real estate agent whose office is located less than a block west of the church.
“I know the pastor quite well, and I know the district commander, so I was invited,” he said.
What happened during the meeting?
“It was a community meeting [involving] residents, the superintendent and commanders to make sure that the residents’ concerns were heard,” said Williams. “I think it was more of a candid conversation on how to make the community better.”
Did he have any idea why the meeting was invite-only?
“I guess, to be somewhat candid, they wanted more of a dialogue,” said Williams. “They didn’t want a shouting match.”
He said that, personally, he wasn’t sure it was necessarily the right approach.
“Maybe they were just overly cautious and I don’t think that was warranted,” said Williams. “The meeting turned out great. If there was a difference of opinion, it would be alright.”