Mayor Rahm Emanuel can’t win, no matter what he does when it comes to restoring public trust shattered by his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.
That became painfully obvious on Wednesday, as the City Council’s Budget and Public Safety Committees kicked off two days of public hearings to solicit input on Emanuel’s plan to abolish the Independent Police Review Authority and replace it with a new, multilayered system of police accountability.
Before Chairmen Carrie Austin (34th) and Ariel Reboyras (30th) even banged the gavel, civic and community leaders had already condemned the process as a “sham.”
Police Board President Lori Lightfoot co-chaired the mayor’s Task Force on Police Accountability that characterized IPRA as so “badly broken,” it needs to be disbanded. She also led a group of civic leaders demanding meaningful public input before a new system of police accountability is put in place to restore public trust.
On Wednesday, Lightfoot argued that two days of public hearings in the middle of the workday following a long holiday weekend do not qualify as “meaningful” public input. Not by a long shot.
“If they were serious about these hearings, they would have a very specific agenda of questions they were seeking to answer at each hearing. And they would call upon people from the community and subject-matter experts from Chicago and elsewhere to help them address the question and provide specific input on the content of any ordinance. None of that has been done,” Lightfoot said.
“A lot of people have said to me they believe it’s a sham. . . . People don’t believe there’s any real interest in having input from anybody outside City Hall. I hope that’s not true. But everything about this process suggests that it is. . . . If this is the only process and it’s not significantly changed, any product that comes out of it will have zero legitimacy.”
In remarks prepared for delivery at the hearing, Chicago Urban League President Shari Runner implored Emanuel to “heed the cries” from neighborhoods across the city “where the police are no longer trusted.”
That means holding community hearings, at least some of them during the evening, and going “back to the people” for their input once again after an ordinance is drafted, but before it’s passed, she said.
“These hearings — from the timing, the lack of care in arranging the logistics, and the absence of so many necessary voices — will not suffice for these cries and demands,” Runner said.
“Why have you not ensured that people who live in violence-plagued neighborhoods have a seat at this table to tell you their stories which absolutely must be respected? The product of closed-door, exclusionary tactics will rightly be rejected by the public.”
Lightfoot and Runner were not alone.
Two coalitions of community organizations also held back-to-back news conferences to condemn the hearings before they even started.
“At this moment, I have no confidence in these hearings, said Frank Chapman, field organizer for the Chicago Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression, which held the first news conference.
Chapman said the City Council has not done enough to prevent police misconduct since his group began advocating for police accountability reform in 2012.
He demanded that Emanuel give civilians control of Chicago police accountability by creating an elected Civilian Police Accountability Council to replace IPRA immediately.
“CPAC is people empowerment. It empowers us to do something,” he said. “The power of appointment, which is currently in the hands of the mayor, needs to be in the hands of the community.”
At the second news conference, Paul Strauss, of the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, said it was not proper for the city “to hold hearings with such short notice without giving time for people to prepare and without any systematic effort to advertise [their] existence.”
The Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights was one of 12 organizations spanning all 50 Chicago wards that were represented at the second press conference. Others included many of the organizations that supported vanquished mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. They include: Action Now; Communities United; the Community Renewal Society; Enlace Chicago; the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization; and the Workers Center for Racial Justice.
Strauss said the City Council needs to hold more hearings that are advertised well in advance, held during the day and during evening hours at locations across the city, and with an agenda that includes subject matter experts from around the country as well as the Chicago area.
Ald. David Moore (17th) promised more hearings to come.
“The main issue here is not putting out any ordinance before there’s full engagement with the public,” said Moore, who appeared at the second news conference. “You have to have community engagement, and . . . as aldermen, we will make sure that happens.”
Those concerns were not laid to rest when the hearings officially began.
“Everything they’re addressing has to deal with appointed people, bodies, committees and boards,” said Mike Elliot, a member of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression, after calling the hearings a farce.
“We have a long history of appointed boards and people who are supposed to oversee police violence and accountability in the city who have failed miserably.”
The hearing lasted just over an hour and a half after starting at 1 p.m., with many of the same people who spoke at the morning’s press conferences testifying before the council. The City Council’s Budget and Public safety Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. Thursday for a second day of hearings.
Camesha Jones, who spoke in a press conference that morning, testified while representing the Bluest Lie Collaborative. The group opposes an ordinance proposed by Ald. Edward Burke (14th) that would expand the hate crimes ordinance to also protect police officers and other first responders. The City Council is set to vote on the ordinance at its July 20 meeting.
Jones echoed demands for an elected Civilian Police Accountability Council and called for Burke’s proposal to be rescinded.
“This ordinance is in response to movements across the country to hold police accountable,” she said. “The people who are actually marginalized — black folks, brown folks, immigrants, LGBTQ folks — should benefit from the hate crime legislation, not police officers, who have some of the highest protections of public service in this country.”
Sarah Johnson, a youth organizer at Communities United, called for “real” community engagement during her testimony.
She recalled a time when she said she was pushed to the ground by a McDonalds’ security guard when attempting to break up a confrontation between him and a homeless man for whom she offered to buy food.
Johnson said she was arrested and felt “under attack” when the police officers who responded to the incident were “rude and impatient” with her.
“The policeman told me I had to look him in his eyes if I wanted to talk to him,” she said. “If I spoke too fast, he would leave me and go talk to the security man.”
Johnson said immediate action should be taken to restore community members’ trust in the police.
“I am calling on all stakeholders — which include the mayor, aldermen, communities, organizations, and CPD — to work together for more meaningful community engagement,” she said.
Top mayoral aides were exasperated by the knee-jerk response to Emanuel’s efforts at public outreach. They viewed it as evidence that the mayor is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.
“We’ve been committed to a full public process on this important issue all along, and the mayor has worked to ensure that meaningful public engagement continues to be a priority in shaping the city’s police accountability system,” mayoral spokesman Stephen Spector wrote in an emailed statement.
“The Police Accountability Task Force themselves held a series of public hearings prior to releasing their report,” Spector wrote. “The City Council is holding public hearings today. And there will be additional opportunities for public engagement, reflecting the importance of public input throughout the process.”
Two months ago, Emanuel did an abrupt about-face in a desperate attempt to restore public confidence shaken by his decision to keep the Laquan McDonald shooting video under wraps for more than a year and released it only after a judge ordered him to do so.
After saying he wanted to wait for direction from the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights investigation of the Chicago Police Department, Emanuel forged ahead and embraced the most controversial and far-reaching changes proposed by his hand-picked Task Force on Police Accountability.
He said he would replace IPRA with a more independent civilian agency, appoint a public safety inspector general to monitor the police department, and create a Community Safety Oversight Board to monitor all police-related operations.
But the logistics of that broad-strokes plan were left blank. The mayor initially promised to introduce a more detailed proposal at the City Council meeting on June 22 even though Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) and Jason Ervin (28th) have their own pending proposals.
Last month, the mayor hit the brakes to solicit the public input that Lightfoot, the Urban League and the ACLU have demanded.
Closed-door briefings with Chicago aldermen also raised have more questions than they answered.
Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), a former Chicago police officer-turned-firefighter, has voiced concerns about people with no background in either law enforcement or policing exercising multiple layers of oversight over police officers already in a defensive crouch.
“When you bring an independent group of people in who . . . have no law or policing background, you’re pretty much sending ’em out there to go on kind of a witch hunt for police officers,” Napolitano said.
IPRA was created less than a decade ago by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley in the wake of scandals that included systemic torture of crime suspects by detectives working under Cmdr. Jon Burge and the videotaped drunken beating of a female bartender by Officer Anthony Abbate.
The agency had investigated more than 400 police shootings by late last year and ruled all but two of those shootings justified. In both cases, the shooters were off-duty police officers.