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Steinberg: Tasers won't help. What will?

What should it do? Installing cameras and demanding they be turned on is a step. Holding officers responsible if they are caught lying is another. | Getty Images

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The paper allots only 750 words for this column, so an occasional elephant in the room gets deliberately ignored. Wednesday’s observation that Rahm Emanuel’s tasers-and-training Band-Aid won’t solve the problem of police shootings left one pachyderm hiding behind the curtains. Readers were quick to point him out:

“It is easy to show how everything he is doing or proposing is wrong,” wrote Roger Hirsch. “But I didn’t see anything in the column that suggests what you think he should do to get Chicago back on track. Not even one single idea.”

Fair enough. Though tight space is only one factor, just as important is this: I try to never be the Advocate for the Impossible, and putting chips on police culture changing is a sucker’s bet. They are machines designed to resist change.

Still, the CPD is always toward the top of the list nationwide when it comes to shooting civilians. What should it do?


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Here’s a crazy idea. If cops better knew the communities they served, they might be less inclined to view every black person there as a threat. In an ideal world, police officers would spend half a shift a week doing public service in communities they theoretically protect, coaching basketball teams and working in Boys Clubs and such. Then the common CPD “they’re all animals” sneer might shift a little toward seeing a humanity as well as menace.

That would never happen because a) it would be hugely expensive and b) the cops would find a way to thwart it. As long as the mayor needs those 11,000 police votes, don’t expect dramatic change.

That said, a black mayor would help. There had never been an African-American police superintendent until Harold Washington was elected in 1983. After Richard Brzeczek quit rather than serve under a black man, Washington appointed Fred Rice as superintendent, who indeed made improvements, for instance, integrating police teams. The cops cried foul and slowed down writing tickets, but it did some good. (Though remember; Jon Burge’s worst excesses happened under Washington. Nothing is a panacea).

Police need to know their actions have consequences. Jason Van Dyke was the first officer charged with murder in the line of duty in 35 years. If the only thing police officers think about in every situation is their own safety, it makes sense to fire away. Better to be judged by 12, as the old hands tell rookies, than carried by six. Ditto if they are certain their colleagues will back them up 100 percent no matter what they do — the situation now.

Installing cameras and demanding they be turned on is a step. Holding officers responsible if they are caught lying is another. That most officers are not bad apples, but decent, rule-abiding public servants gets mentioned all the time, but it’s deceptive. That good majority still reflexively covers the sins of the minority who do wrong, and that could be discouraged by holding cops accountable for each other.

How? That brings us to the bottom line: we don’t need to beat ourselves up figuring out what to do about the cops, because the Justice Department is investigating them now. They’ll come up with a laundry list of jaw-dropping abuses, then force the city to make expensive changes to comply. That will be the come-to-Jesus moment when Chicago decides just how much black lives matter.

Though the Justice Department is no magic wand either. When the costly smoke of federal investigation clears, cities often find their police departments largely unfazed. The Civil Rights Division investigated Cleveland a decade ago, and a cop still shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice one second after he arrived on the scene. The courts order more training, more cameras and expensive outside oversight which, if history is any indication, is either toothless or ignored.

Let’s not hold our breath. When the Justice Department investigated the Los Angeles Police Department in the mid-1990s, the probe took almost five years. Cleveland’s took four years. So set your watch to 2020.

In the meantime? Luck would help. Restraint on the part of the police. And one other thing, and I’ll whisper it, since it too won’t work. But one reason police are always pulling out their guns is because they’re working in shattered communities of relentless violence, broken families, drugs and pervasive criminality. If the police are being wrung out for a dozen killings a year, the communities they work in shouldn’t be allowed to skate past hundreds slain in free-fire zones. Everyone needs to try harder.

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