The message from the residents who spoke at the City of Chicago’s only official police accountability hearing held on the West Side was nearly unanimous.
Speaker after speaker said that they wanted more civilian control over whatever body handled police oversight. They wanted the police to treat all Chicagoans with respect and for the police department to confront racism within its ranks. And they warned the aldermen in attendance that if there is no progress on police reform they will look to vote other candidates into office.
The Aug. 16 meeting, held at Westinghouse College Prep, 3223 W Franklin Blvd, was one of the five neighborhood hearings held by the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Committee on Budget and Government Operations.
Originally, the joint committee only planned to hold two hearings in July, but that decision was criticized by activists and the Council’s Chicago Progressive Caucus. Those groups argued that most residents who worked wouldn’t be able to attend the meetings since they were scheduled during the day.
The West Side hearing was hosted by Aldermen Jason Erving (28th) and Emma Mitts (37th). Several other aldermen were in attendance, including Ald. Michael Scott (24th).
The City Council is currently working to create an ordinance that would abolish the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) and replace it with a new, unspecified investigative agency. The council is also looking to establish a new public safety inspector general to investigate police practices, review misconduct cases and audit patterns of police activity and complaints within the Chicago Police Department.
The aldermen said they’re looking to draft legislation by their September meeting so that it can be approved before Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduces his budget proposal in October.
The aldermen also noted that, further down the road, they would be looking to create a community oversight board. They didn’t give any details about this body, but said community meetings to discuss specifics would be held later this month.
The concern immediately on the minds of most residents and community activists in attendance at last Tuesday’s hearing was CPD’s lack of community oversight.
Renell Perry, a vice-president with the West Side Branch NAACP, said that IPRA was a failure as an independent body and lamented that, under the status quo, it doesn’t investigate most police complaints.
“Only 30 percent of (complaints), three in 10, end up with IPRA,” she said. “The other 70 percent go to Internal Affairs, which is police policing each other.”
Perry said that, as far as her organization is concerned, any police reform would have to fundamentally change the current status quo.
“We’re not trying to monitor the process, we’re not trying to audit the process; we’re trying to reform the process, and the definition of ‘reform’ is change,” she said.
Remel Terry, who is also a vice-president with the West Side Branch NAACP, argued that true reform of CPD would require changes to their employment contracts, particularly the stipulations that allows an officer the right to withhold testimony for 24 hours and to see all evidence against him or her before an officer has to testify. Both are rights, Terry noted, to which civilians aren’t privy.
“I think we need to understand this … contract is hindering any true progress,” Terry said. “It should not uphold any criminal behavior. If someone is lying about what occurred, they have to be held accountable.”
Rebecca Raines, the West Side NAACP Criminal Justice chair, said that the organization sent out a letter in June asking to be part of the police reform process only to be met with silence from the mayor’s office — even though U.S. Justice Department officials, IPRA members and some aldermen were willing to meet with them.
Beatrice Jackson, the vice president of Action Now, a Near West Side civic engagement group, described the status quo in stark terms before arguing for more community involvement among citizens when it comes to cases of police abuse.
“We’re here today because too many of our people were victims of violence at the hands of the police. It seems that every time a cop shoots a black person, it’s called justifiable homicide, no matter what the circumstances. That’s not right,” she said.
“There is going to have to be more than having these town hall meetings,” Jackson said. “We should be at the table in all instances to review actions of bad cops when they commit brutality against our neighbors.”
Eric Russell, the president of Tree of Life Justice League of Illinois, angrily recalled the shooting of West Garfield Park resident Bettie Jones, who was fatally shot by an officer after answering the door of her apartment building. Russell said he wanted officers, as well as Emanuel, to be held accountable for the shooting, which also took the life of 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier. Both were unarmed.
“Many of us our neighbors of Bettie Jones.” Russell cried out. “The reason why we’re outraged in the black community is the very realization that, but for the grace of God Bettie Jones could of been any of our mothers!”
Resident Pamela Hunt told the aldermen in attendance that any talk about giving police officers de-escalation training doesn’t address what she considers to be the real reason behind the police shootings — racism.
“De-escalation … I don’t see what it’s going to do when (the cause is) hatred of the community,” she said. “We need a system of hiring that deters racist officers from getting hired on the force.”
Hunt also blasted Emanuel’s handling of the Laquan McDonald police shooting tape release, arguing that it enabled recklessness among police officers.
“If the chief executive of a major city participated in the cover-up of the police crime, why wouldn’t [the cops] feel emboldened? Unless he addresses his own criminal behavior, he has no moral authority to lecture anyone about crime,” she said.
Jerry Parker said he lived in Pilsen before moving to East Garfield Park. While he originally didn’t believe what he heard about police behavior on the West Side, he was quickly convinced otherwise.
“I noticed some hard differences between how police act toward people in Pilsen and how they act toward people in the East Garfield Park,” Parker said. “They don’t care [about the people here].”
“There’s still a lot of upset community members and we need to make sure we’re hearing voices and implement suggestions they are making,” said Ald. Scott. “We need those voices to make sure we understand what the community wants and needs.”
“If we want to dismantle the systematic racism, we need to dismantle the system,” said Keith Kelley, the president of the Garfield Park Advisory Council. “Time will tell whether the (aldermen) are actually listening or just hearing.”