The release last Wednesday of a nearly 200-page report by the Police Accountability Task Force has put racism squarely in the center of the city’s ongoing struggle to repair the relationship between the police and residents in minority communities, particularly those on the West and South Sides. It also provides institutional heft to the decades-old complaints regarding police abuse lodged by people of color.
“The Task Force heard over and over again from a range of voices, particularly from African-Americans, that some [Chicago Police Department] officers are racist, have no respect for the lives and experiences of people of color and approach every encounter with people of color as if the person, regardless of age, gender or circumstance, is a criminal,” notes the report’s executive summary.
The task force — which was created last December by Mayor Rahm Emanuel following weeks of public unrest over the release of video footage showing the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald — concluded in its report, which is packed with infographics and statistics, that those voices are largely justified.
The report also included more than 100 recommendations for improving the Chicago Police Department’s relationship with minority communities. None of those recommendations, however, are enforceable by law.
Some of the most sweeping changes the task force recommended include replacing the Independent Police Review Authority with “a new and fully transparent and accountable Civilian Police Investigative Agency,” creating a Community Safety Oversight Board and replacing the department’s CAPS (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy) program with “localized Community Empowerment and Engagement Districts (CEED) for each of the 22 police districts.”
The report also encouraged top city officials to collaborate on creating programs that “address socioeconomic justice and equality, housing segregation, systemic racism, poverty, education, health and safety.”
The task force garnered praise from many elected officials, journalists and other expert observers for its direct tone and explicit admission of racism — which many people, even the mayor, have conceded is an easily observed reality.
“I don’t really think you need a task force to know we have racism in America, we have racism in Illinois or that there is racism that exists in the city of Chicago and obviously can be in our departments,” the mayor told reporters last week before he obtained a copy of the request. “The question isn’t, ‘Do we have racism?’ We do. The question is, ‘What are you going to do about it?'”
But critics have noted that the mayor hasn’t lived up to his own rhetoric, pointing to his marked silence on the report’s recommendations since its release last Wednesday and to his inaction in the face of complaints lodged against the police by African Americans in the past.
“We’ve been saying [what’s included in the task force report] all the time,” said Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) in a recent interview. “We live the story every day. The story I’ve been trying to tell the city and my colleagues has fallen on deaf ears and so they had to get a task force to hear. It’s not like we haven’t told the mayor this before. I talked to the city about this10 years ago, but nobody wanted to listen to the problems we were having about the [police] shootings.”
Mitts said she won’t be close to satisfied until the city acknowledges racism within its own ranks — not just within the police department. She agreed with a recommendation in the report to expose officers to more cultural sensitivity training.
“Some police officers come in the community think that African Americans act the same way as whites. They don’t,” she said. “You need to know the culture of people’s background and their ethnicity before you try going in and implementing something. They need training.”
David Schaper, a veteran NPR reporter, said during an interview on WBEZ 91.5 that he thinks the city will “hold off” on implementing any of the report’s recommendations and “not change much at all until they have to with a court order.”
The Department of Justice is conducting its own comprehensive investigation into CPD’s police practices. That federal investigation, which was launched last December following the McDonald video footage release, actually has teeth.
“The [DOJ] recommendations will be empowered in a consent decree,” Shaper said. “The department will have to live up to them.”
In a meeting with the Chicago Tribune Editorial board last week, however, task force members noted that the city would be wise to follow their recommendations before they’re forced by the federal government to make changes “that could be more onerous and expensive,” according to a Tribune report.
For his part, Emanuel pointed out his selection of new CPD Superintendent Eddie Johnson, a respected African American veteran of the department, and the department’s recent push to hire more minority officers as proof that he’s been proactively addressing the department’s problems.
Dean Angelo, Sr., president of the Fraternal Order of Police, pushed back against the report, calling some task force members biased and castigating some of the recommendations involving the police union contracts as “way off base.”
The task force recommends fundamentally changing certain provisions in the police union’s collective bargaining agreements “that are impediments to accountability, such as allowing for anonymous complaints, eliminating the ability to change statements after reviewing video and removing the requirement to destroy complain records.”
The seven-member task force included Lori E. Lightfoot, the head of the Chicago Police Board and Victor B. Dickson, president and CEO of the West Side-based Safer Foundation.
The task force noted that it consulted with working groups comprising 46 volunteers from across the city, interviewed more than 100 people, including a range of experts, and hosted four community forums throughout before presenting its recommendations.
One of those forums took place in February at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church on the West Side, where task force members heard from resident Pamela Hunt. A portion of Hunt’s comments during that forum was boldly italicized in a section of the report’s executive summary that was headlined with the question, “How did we get to this point?”
Hunt’s comment hovered just above the task force’s blunt, one-phrase answer, ‘We arrived at this point in part because of racism,” which was followed by three other partial explanations for how the task force arrived at its searing diagnosis of the CPD’s problems.
They included “significant underinvestment in human capital,” the CPD’s failure to “make accountability a core value and imperative,” and the CPD’s mentality that “ends justify the means.”
“If you are not severely and wholeheartedly dealing with racism,” Hunt noted, “you are not going to get to the bottom of this issue.”