Hundreds of community members gathered at Malcolm X College on last Thursday for a hearing organized by the Chicago City Council’s Progressive Caucus, a group of 11 aldermen who have opposed Mayor Rahm Emanuel on numerous issues. At the July 21 hearing — the first of five that the Progressive Caucus plans to host — residents and community leaders provided their input on the city’s attempts to reform the Chicago Police Department.
For the most part, the public feedback was deeply skeptical of some of those attempts even as many residents pushed for reforms generated by ordinary citizens and activist groups, some of which have been introduced into the City Council already.
Even before the hearing began, members of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARP) protested outside of Malcolm X and urged attendees to fill out forms in support of an ordinance that would create a Civilian Police Accountability Council.
On July 20, Ald. Carlos Ramiraz-Rosa (35th), a Progressive Caucus member, introduced the ordinance to the City Council. Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), along with seven more aldermen, co-sponsored the legislation, which would create a civilian board with powers to regulate police conduct, investigate complaints and appoint the police superintendent. Many attendees at the hearing supported this proposal.
Other reforms, however, weren’t received as enthusiastically. Most of the public’s skepticism was focused on the over 120 recommendations made by Emanuel’s Police Accountability Task Force (PATF) and released to the public in April.
Along with acknowledged a pattern of systemic racism and a lack of accountability within CPD, the PATF also recommended numerous reforms, including the abolition of the Independent Police Review Authority, a body responsible for investigating complaints against police officers and whose members are appointed by the mayor.
Lori Lightfoot, who heads the PATF and is the president of the Chicago Police Board, presented a summary of the recommendations during the hearing and reiterated that an important component of police reform involves dealing with racism.
“My view is that you can’t talk about policing in large urban environments without dealing with race,” Lightfoot said. “It’s an important issue and if we don’t face it hands on, we will not be able to resolve other issues.”
Lightfoot also recommended that the Emanuel administration speed up its implementation of the PATF’s recommendations. The mayor’s office has noted that it will only implement about a third of the recommendations before the U.S. Justice Department finishes its civil pattern or practice investigation into CPD. The office launched the investigation last December after a police dashcam video showing the killing of Laquan McDonald was released to the public.
Among the most pressing recommendations, Lightfoot noted, is the implementation of cultural literacy training for all officers, which entails confronting the conscious and unconscious racial biases that police may have when encountering people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds.
“Even if you go into a high-crime neighborhood, don’t treat every person in the neighborhood as a criminal,” she said. “Support them, lift them up and make sure policing actually responds to people’s needs in these neighborhoods.”
Some residents, however, countered Lightfoot’s presentation by noting that it doesn’t go far enough at rooting out deeper issues in the department.
“You’re calling us here talking about police reform like none of that stuff happened,” said Frank Chapman, a CAARP field organizer, referencing the killing of McDonald and other African Americans shot by the police.
“You’re talking about police reform when we got serial killers on the force. IF we really want to do something about what’s going on in the city, the people have to do it. Not the politicians.”
Reve. Catherine Brown, who was beaten by Chicago police officers in 2013 while her two young daughters were in the car, said that officers lied under oath until the dashcam video prove their accounts wrong.
“So, Ms. Lightfoot and the rest of them want solutions? Here’s the solution,” she said. “Like Mr. Chapman said — lock (the abusive police officers) up.”
Milton Johnson, the assistant to the president/CEO for community relations at Bobby E. Wright Behavioral Health Center, said he supported hiring more black police officers, but only if it’s done the right way.
“The recruitment needs to take place in areas the African American community is comfortable with,” Johnson said. “When you talk about the police department to our community — they don’t like police officers. So you have to talk about the importance of our communities being policed by people of the same color.”
Johnson also noted that more police officers should be trained to deal with people who have mental health issues, which are particularly prevalent in African American communities, he said.
“When you talk about the African American community and mental health, you are talking about a community that doesn’t embrace mental health services like it should,” he said. “Our community is jam-packed with people who are undiagnosed and suffering from trauma.”
Lance Williams, a professor of urban studies at Northeastern Illinois University, said that his research suggested that police-involved shootings can usually be traced to one particular type of police officer.
“They tend to be younger (in their mid-20s and early 30s), white police officers who are no more than five to six years on the force and who get these assignments to come into the hood and police,” Williams said, adding that those officers tend to look at black youths as “wild animals to be hunted.”
“These particular types of officers shouldn’t be able to come early in their tenure to police (black neighborhoods),” he said.
As if to demonstrate Williams’s point, Alex Wolfe, who is white, shared an anecdote about playing Pokemon Go with her husband, who is also white, one night in the Uptown neighborhood when they were approached by a police patrolman. The incident, Wolfe said, ended peacefully, but it occurred to the couple that, if they were black, the situation could have ended tragically.
That belief, Wolfe said, is the motivating factor behind a group she and her husband started called “White People for Black Lives in Chicago,” as a way to raise awareness and let members of the Black Lives Matter movement know that there are white people who care about their issues.