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Editorial: Best police reform grows from the neighborhoods up

Mayor Rahm Emanuel at the Chicago City Council meeting June 22. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

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Rahm Emanuel is the latest in a long tradition of can-do Chicago mayors, the kind more interested in getting stuff done than in how it gets done.

There is something to be said for that. We’re thinking here of how Emanuel’s predecessor, Richard M. Daley, finally rid our city in 2003 of an inappropriate lakefront airport, Meigs Field, by calling in bulldozers to tear up the runways in the middle of the night. Not exactly democracy in action, but we can’t complain about the result.

But, as Emanuel constantly is being reminded, process — how stuff gets done — is every bit or even more important when the matter at hand deeply affects the great majority of Chicagoans in their daily lives. It is not enough, to be specific, to reform the city’s system of oversight over the Chicago Police Department; the people of Chicago must feel they own that reform — that they were consulted as true partners in shaping the solution — if it is to be accepted and effective.

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If that takes months instead of weeks, so be it. If that requires any number of contentious neighborhood public hearings, so be it.

Emanuel had hoped to introduce a package of proposals at the July 20 City Council meeting to replace the city’s current police oversight agency, the Independent Police Review Authority, with a new multilayered system of police accountability. But he backtracked Wednesday when critics slammed him for scheduling just two public hearings, both on workdays following the Fourth of July weekend. The mayor’s office now says four more neighborhood hearings will be scheduled, though that will push back action by the Council until the fall.

Emanuel is a man in a hurry. Always. It is his strength and his weakness. He keeps a mental checklist of jobs to get done and, in conversation, likes to check off accomplishments: One, two, three. And at the top of the mayor’s to-do list right now is restoring trust in the Chicago Police Department after a series of devastating scandals, most notably the 2014 police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

Chicago is not alone in this, of course, as we are reminded by horrific events elsewhere in just the last few days. Police shootings with possible racial overtones are a national scandal. Witness the shooting on Tuesday of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and the shooting on Wednesday of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn.

On Tuesday in Chicago, in response to criticism about the limited public hearings, the mayor’s press office sent out one of those familiar Emanuel lists of accomplishments, summarizing what the mayor has done so far to make the police more accountable. He has, according to the list, established a Bureau of Professional Standards within the department, drawn up new police protocols for dealing with people who are possibly mentally ill, and set new rules for the release of videos related to police shootings.

Those are real achievements. They undercut the accusation of critics who say Emanuel is not serious about police reform. But they also make it hard to understand how the mayor, having clearly immersed himself in this sensitive issue, failed to appreciate the enormous importance, at this time, of a fully grass-roots process.

Scheduling a couple of tightly controlled public hearings, inconveniently at City Hall, is just no way to win back public trust in the Police Department — or in the mayor.

As a general rule, we might add, Chicago public agencies have often done a miserable job of holding public hearings at a time and in a place that might actually allow members of the public to show up and speak their mind.

Most egregious has been the Chicago Board of Education’s long-criticized policy of holding meetings during banker’s hours — starting around 10:30 a.m. — at the board’s downtown headquarters. That means principals and teachers have to take a day off from school to attend. And if you’re a working parent, good luck with that. People who do show up to speak are limited to two minutes, timed by a stop clock attached to the speaker’s podium.

Mayor Emanuel is in a tough spot. We get that. When he moves quickly on police reform, critics say he’s not listening to the community. If he moves more deliberately, the same critics will ask what’s taking him so long — especially if there is another police-related shooting in the interim. On this road to reform, there is no agreed-upon speed limit.

But on a matter of such fundamental importance to our city — overhauling the entire system of police oversight — better to err on the side of listening to every voice and taking seriously every suggestion. There should be no rush.

At stake is the ability of Chicagoans to trust, support and work with the police. At stake, as well, is the ability of every police officer to be treated with respect and judged fairly.

There’s more on the line than whether to close a little lakefront airport.

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