Mayor Emanuel’s police balancing act

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In this April 13, 2016 photo, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson speaks with Mayor Rahm Emanuel at Johnson’s swearing-in ceremony in Chicago. Emanuel and Johnson said in a press release Thursday the city will immediately implement about a third of the recommendations made last week by a police accountability task force. Emanuel’s office says Chicago also is developing an action plan to address the remaining recommendations of the Task Force on Police Accountability. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel made big news on Friday, sort of, when he announced three basic reforms to crack down on police misconduct and restore trust in the Chicago Police Department.

The mayor will make bigger news in late June when he reveals exactly how serious and bullet-proof those reforms really are. And he could make bigger news still, and do this city a real favor, by then tackling head-on one of the most difficult remaining obstacles to true reform — a bold rewrite of the police union’s contract to eliminate unnecessary rules that protect bad cops.


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The mayor is in a tough spot. He’s feeling the pressure — and says he has accepted the challenge — to overhaul a process of police accountability that has lost tremendous credibility, especially among African Americans, in the aftermath of the 2014 fatal shooting Laquan McDonald. Or, to be more accurate, perhaps that credibility had been lost years ago or never existed, and the outpouring of rage after the McDonald shooting made that clear to all.

At the same time, in a difficult balancing act, Emanuel is trying to reassure police officers that he has their back as the city struggles with a rising homicide rate. While there are any number of explanations for a 56 percent jump in homicides over last year, the mayor believes one factor may be low morale among officers, who don’t believe they are getting a fair shake from the public or the media.

“It’s not the factor, but you’d be turning a blind eye if you didn’t think the Police Department or our officers need to know that if they’re going to take risks that are split-second risks, they’re not going to be second-guessed every time on everything,” Emanuel said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “On the other hand, they need to know we’re going to hold them to standards of professionalism.”

On Friday, Emanuel announced his support for three reforms recommended by a citizens’ police accountability task force he appointed last December. He said he would replace Chicago’s do-nothing Independent Police Review Authority with a more independent civilian agency, called for the appointment of a public safety inspector general to monitor the Police Department, and called for a Community Safety Oversight Board to monitor all police-related operations.

Anything should be an improvement over IPRA, which since 2007 has virtually never found fault with cops involved in shootings. But IPRA itself was a replacement for an earlier do-nothing board. Beware of parking on the left becoming parking on the right. We look forward to hearing how the new board will be formed and appointed.

So it goes, too, with the mayor’s embrace of an inspector general to watch the cops — the devil is in the details. Inspectors general can be tremendously effective in uncovering bad practices and corruption, but only when they are properly empowered, funded and staffed.

Revising the police contract, however, may be Emanuel’s toughest challenge, assuming he’s gung ho to go there. Collective bargaining agreements are almost impossible to modify before their expiration date — June 2017, in this case — and the Fraternal Order of Police has made it clear it will accept no changes without getting something substantial in return.

For the sake of all good police officers, whose reputations are being trashed by a relatively few bad cops, something must done. It is wrong that, under the FOP contract, investigators are not allowed to follow up on anonymous complaints against an officer. It is wrong that an officer can wait 24 hours before providing a statement after a shooting — and can amend that statement after viewing video or audio evidence. It is wrong that evidence of misconduct can be destroyed after a certain number of years.

“The collective bargaining agreements between the police unions and the City have essentially turned the code of silence into official policy,” the police accountability task force concludes in its final report. The pacts “make it easy for officers to lie if they are so inclined.”

More so than any three or four specific reforms, the Chicago Police Department is in sore need of an overall culture of reform.

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