Attorney General Eric Holder urged Americans to ask “ourselves fundamental questions about the lack of trust between some communities and the police officers who serve those communities” during a visit to Chicago Friday.
Holder — the nation’s first black attorney general — acknowledged a “gap” exists in that trust between some black communities and the police as he met with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, U.S. Attorney Zach Fardon, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and a hand-picked group of around 20 students, teachers and church leaders at the downtown Dirksen Federal Court building as part of a series of talks about policing he has been holding across the U.S.
The “roundtable discussions” were prompted by nationwide protests against the decisions not to charge Ferguson cop Darren Wilson and New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo with the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner.
Holder said his brother was a retired cop and that he understood the concerns of police who fear that a “split-second decision” they make in the heat of the moment will be “dissected for a long time” after the fact.
But he urged those at the meeting, including several young black men from Fenger High School and community groups, Fenger principal Liz Dozier and Fr. Michael Pfleger, to “be candid” with him about their experience with the police, telling them, “If people want to criticize the federal government they should feel free to do that.”
After Holder, Fardon and Emanuel shared a few platitudes at the start of the meeting, reporters were ushered from the room, so that the meeting could continue in private. Officials said they wanted everyone at the meeting to feel free to express themselves away from the glare of cameras.
A representative from the Independent Police Review Authority — which routinely finds shootings by Chicago Police officers justified — was present but did not address the meeting before the doors were shut.
After the meeting, most attendees said they believed officials were paying them more than lip service.
Tevin Wilson, 20, of the KLEO community center in Washington Park, said he felt some fear dealing with the police but that after the meeting, he “felt that I’m important — that we’re the future, so we should be heard.”
Pat Vance, a 24-year-old youth leader at St. Sabina Church on the South Side, said he’d also experienced being stereotyped by police as a “dreadlocked black male” but added that Holder seemed genuinely interested in how his group had built trust by playing basketball with Gresham district police.
Picking each other off the ground after they’d fallen and chatting after a game humanized both sides, he said — and the cops could play ball.
“They won,” he said with a laugh.
Izrah Hurd, 16, of the South Chicago YMCA, agreed that “building relationships is a good thing” but said he still does not trust that police who abuse their authority will be held to account.
“I personally don’t trust the justice system,” he said. “I don’t trust that if something was to happen to me today [at the hands of police], that justice would be done and that law enforcement would be held accountable.”
Earlier Friday, Holder accepted an award from the Illinois Judges Association, repeating in large part a speech he has previously made on his national tour.
He told judges at the Sheraton Hotel that the tragic deaths of Brown and Garner presented “a singular opportunity for our great country to confront difficult issues that have been too often ignored – and too easily swept under the rug.
“We must not squander this moment – or neglect our responsibility to ensure that this needed conversation results in concrete action, he said.
“And we must not presuppose that the events we’ve seen are so isolated, or the concerns they expose so parochial, that they don’t need to be actively confronted – in a constructive and inclusive manner – by citizens and criminal justice leaders, working together, throughout the country.”
He touted a task force President Barack Obama has set up to examine policing, a federal review on the use of military-style equipment for local law enforcement, and federal funding for up to 50,000 body cameras for police.
Outside, a small group of protesters chanted “I can’t breathe.”
But at the courthouse event, Fardon and Emanuel praised protesters, saying the protests had overwhelmingly been a peaceful expression of First Amendment rights and citizenship.
“That, from where I stand, is called democracy, and I think we’re pretty good at it here in Chicago,” Fardon said.
Holder has held similar meetings in Cleveland and Memphis, and plans to hold two more, in Oakland and Philadelphia, officials say.