Chicago police must fix ‘positive interactions’ program to build community trust

A Sun-Times analysis and a scathing memo from the state attorney general’s office make clear that the program, as it now stands, is failing miserably.

SHARE Chicago police must fix ‘positive interactions’ program to build community trust
Chicago resident Lee Maglaya meets with police officers Librada Godinez and David Hallock, at a McDonald’s restaurant during a nationwide “Coffee with a Cop” day, on October 4, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. In a diverse Chicago neighborhood where dozens of languages are spoken, two police officers are visiting a McDonald’s restaurant. Welcome to “Coffee with a Cop” day, is an initiative held Wednesday in Chicago and across the United States for police to bond with the public.

Chicago resident Lee Maglaya meets with CPD Officers Librada Godinez and David Hallock, at a McDonald’s restaurant during a nationwide “Coffee with a Cop” day, on October 4, 2017 in Chicago. “Coffee with a Cop” is an initiative designed for police to bond with the public.

AFP/Getty

Building and strengthening a positive relationship between Chicago police and community residents is a Herculean task, in a city where the “no-snitch” code is widespread.

Many Black and Brown residents simply don’t trust police, whom they have seen mistreat friends and neighbors. Among those living in the city’s low-income neighborhoods, 59% say they know “some” or “a lot” of people who have been treated unfairly by cops and 60% percent said most people in their area view local police “negatively” or “very negatively,” according to a 2019 report by Gallup and the Center for Advancing Opportunity.

Editorials bug

Editorials

It’s doubtful that much has changed for the better in the turbulent years since then. A threadbare connection to residents is a big reason why the Chicago Police Department’s crime-fighting efforts continue to be seriously hampered

As Chicago Police Supt. David Brown once put it, “Policing is best done with the community involved. Policing is a people business.”

That’s why it’s alarming that a major effort to close this chasm by fostering more “positive community interactions” by officers has apparently failed miserably.

Under CPD’s “positive community interactions” program, officers were to amass 1.5 million “positive, informative, helpful or constructive” encounters with the public by the end of the year. Officers were given quotas for documenting those positive interactions.

Yet a Chicago Sun-Times analysis, and a harshly critical memo from the state attorney general’s office obtained by the Sun-Times, make the failures clear.

The use of quotas in law enforcement “is deeply problematic” and “risks exacerbating known disparities in trust levels between certain communities and CPD,” the attorney general’s office warned in its memo. The office asked that CPD “suspend or at least pause” its attempt to reach that 1.5 million PCI goal.

It’s beyond worrisome if the state attorney general’s office doesn’t have confidence in a key program meant to tackle a cornerstone of policing reform. The state attorney general and an independent monitor are responsible for overseeing implementation of CPD’s 2019 federal policing reform consent decree.

Opinion Newsletter

What’s gone wrong

Having an officer record the details every time he or she helps a senior citizen walk across the street or carry a bag of groceries is a worthwhile goal. Yes, it’s a small action in the grand scheme of things. Sure, some officers will carp about doing the paperwork.

But pushing cops to engage more often with residents, day in and day out, is essential. Encouragement from top brass helps. But if it takes documenting those small interactions — which can also help CPD figure out how to further improve community relations — to get the job done, then go for it.

It literally hasn’t worked on paper.

Who was the person on the receiving end of the officers’ supposed good deeds? No one knows, as the Sun-Times’ Tom Schuba and Andy Boyle found. Essential details such as name, race, gender and, most important, an explanation of the encounter that makes clear why it was positive, have never been listed in any PCI report filed within the last two years,

Many of the reports don’t list the officer’s name, star number, police district or specific location where the “positive interaction” took place. Subpar record-keeping makes “it impossible to assess and learn how these departments can continue to improve,” according to the memo from the state attorney general’s office.

And as critics have pointed out, officers determine if these interactions are beneficial, not residents. If PCIs are used as a guise to stop and search people without cause, that further erodes community trust.

In early January, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Brown held a news conference discussing the 1.5 million PCI goal.

Around the same time, they also privately threatened to demote supervisors who couldn’t deliver more PCIs and arrests, sources told the Sun-Times

Naturally, PCIs then mushroomed.

Just 20 days into the year, police logged 78,560 PCIs, up from 3,341 during that same period in 2021. Officer Sergio Pacheco from the Odgen district recorded an improbable 1,565 by Jan. 20. “That is a joke,” as Ed Yohnka of the ACLU of Illinois said.

If police really want residents to trust them, they just need to do one thing: listen, Yohnka said.

They should also take the time to address the problems with the PCI program and improve it. Officials need good data to gauge if the program really is beneficial to both officers and the public — most of whom want police in their neighborhoods.

The Gallup/CAO report found that nearly 70% of those living in low-income areas wanted police to spend more time there. It is what police do with their time that is crucial.

PCIs are one way to monitor that, but the program must be done right. Details are necessary, to show that officers are actually engaging, not just self-reporting that they’re “Officer Friendly” on steroids. Strict quotas should be scrapped.

CPD can, and should, fix these problems. Building community trust is that important.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

The Latest
Cubs assistant general manager Jared Banner also expressed his sympathies for Brennen Davis, who was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his back.
The tension around taking on debt and the pension payment was the crux of a month-long delay of the school system’s budget proposal, which came out Wednesday.
Jakyla Hester, 21, of Chicago, is also charged with reckless homicide, Illinois state police said.
Starting this weekend, the elaborate speaker trellis at the Pritzker Pavilion will pipe an inventive sound installation created by artists from around the world.