Four hundred days. That is too long for the cause of justice for Laquan McDonald and his family.
It was too long to bring to light the dashcam video of Laquan’s final moments. And it was too long to wait before we heard directly and fully from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy.
Only on Tuesday did we finally hear answers to questions Chicagoans have been asking for a long time. This painstaking delay is especially poignant for communities of color and areas of concentrated poverty that do not feel that they are being well served by Chicago’s police department.
Four hundreds days of silence by those who have primary responsibility for the safety of Chicagoans reinforces distrust in the very institutions they oversee. Significant reforms must be undertaken now or that distrust will be irreversible.
The motto of the Chicago police department is “We Serve and Protect.” The inaction of the last 400 days begs the question of what is being served and protected. We need to change a culture that protects the bad apples who act without regard to life and bring dishonor to law enforcement. My experience in Little Village, where we have worked hard to bring the community and police together, shows that local solutions can work and that public service — not rogue terror — will bring about constructive change.
But solutions won’t be found at the community level alone. We need to reform, as well, a criminal justice system that allows this type of slow-walked justice. It is true that the City Council quickly reached a financial settlement with the family of Laquan McDonald, but Officer Jason Van Dyck’s actions on South Pulaski Road last year were not a private matter between the shooter and the victim. It was a Chicago matter that reflects on all of criminal justice. Reforms must be systemic.
It begins with listening and acting on the demands of Chicagoans. Young African-American and Latino men and boys are most likely to suffer violent deaths or be incarcerated. Yet we hear a lot of lip service when protesters take to the streets. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is not a statement that other lives do not matter. It tells us that black lives have not mattered — and continue to not matter — but must matter if we are to have a justice system that serves all. It is a matter of human dignity, respect and recognition of true American values.
What our police do and act must also be reformed. It starts with training that is reinforced at every level of the department. There is no tougher job than being a police officer. They need the best training, the best equipment and the best management. They need to be given every chance to succeed. They must know that the public will have their backs when they stay within the rules.
But, they also must know that individuals — and the system as a whole — will be held accountable when the rules are not followed. Body cameras with audio should be adopted universally. Dashcams offer a necessary view of police actions on the street. These are important teaching tools. They help provide answers to questions such as “what happened?” and “how did it happen?”
We need a civilian oversight board that is representative of all communities in Chicago, and the board must have the teeth and independence to take action against the few rogue police officers who act dishonorably and illegally.
Finally, we need a set of criminal justice system reforms that puts the police, courts, jail, prosecutors and public defenders on the same page. Cook County’s justice system is divided into separate silos. Clearly, the mayor and the Chicago Police Department, the state’s attorney, the Cook County sheriff, the public defender and the courts have distinct roles, and sometimes those roles are adversarial. But they can and must proceed with a common vision of service and public safety.
Right now, that leadership looks to be about 400 days behind. The problems we face in Chicago will not be solved by ignoring or putting a blanket over what is happening on our streets and in our neighborhoods. As we struggle to find constructive ways to release our anger, let us not forget that our communities grow only from within and finding solutions should be our greatest priority.
Jesus “Chuy” Garcia is a Cook County commissioner and a former candidate for mayor of Chicago.
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