A call to arms to end Chicago’s shame

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In this Dec. 24, 2015 photo, protesters yell at Chicago Police officers at a bicycle barricade in Chicago. A day after a task force blasted the Chicago Police Department for decades of discrimination Wednesday, April 13, 2016, city and law enforcement officials weighed which of the panel’s recommendations could be adopted and how much they might cost. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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“The community’s lack of trust in C.P.D. (Chicago Police Department) is justified,” so concluded the blistering, in-depth report of the Police Accountability Task Force, set up by Mayor Rahm Emanual after the uproar surrounding the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

After a four-month investigation, the task force pulled no punches. “CPD’s own data,” it concluded, “gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.” It detailed a long pattern of institutionalized racial abuse: unjustified stops, physical abuse, torture, detention without counsel, shootings, and more.

The task force backed its conclusions with data drawn from the CPD’s own files. Blacks, whites and Hispanics each make up about one-third of the population of Chicago. Yet African Americans constituted three out of every four people that CPD tried to Taser. In addition, 74 percent of the 404 people shot by the Chicago police between 2008 and 2015 were black.


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The Task Force also noted that the system itself was designed to be unaccountable. It singled out police union contracts, urging changes in clauses that “make it easy for officers to lie in official reports,” give officers 24 hours to get their stories right, ban anonymous citizen complaints, and more. The contracts “have essentially turned the code of silence into official policy.”

The task force chair, former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, called the report a “call to arms.” It made more than 100 recommendations for change, including creating a new independent civilian oversight panel and a dedicated, independent police inspector general. Two Chicago aldermen have already introduced draft ordinances to move on these recommendations. The task force recommendations included everything from diversifying the police force, to adding body cams, to changing police patrols and more.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel met with the task force to review the report. His curt public response was disappointing: “I don’t really think you need a task force to know that we have racism in America, we have racism in Illinois, or that there’s racism that exists in the city of Chicago and obviously could be in our department … The question is, what are we going to do to confront it and make the changes in not only personnel but in policies to reflect, I think, the values that make up the diversity of our city?”

Emanuel said his “general attitude” was to “look at everything they say,” but then went silent, saying he wanted to review the recommendations before commenting.

Chicago, with the number of shootings rising in recent months, needs an effective police force that has the community’s trust. According to a recent Chicago Tribune editorial, this is the seventh such report, each generally issued after another corruption-related scandal. Real reform can no longer be put off. We need serious steps to diversify the police force, to train police, to stop racial profiling, to restructure police-community relations, to enforce accountability and the law.

If Mayor Emanuel won’t lead, the City Council need not wait to take action. And the city’s powerful business community also must demand accountability. As The New York Times wrote in a powerful editorial on “Chicago’s shame,” “Chicago’s business leaders should be sickened that it took the execution of a teenager for the city’s elected leaders to begin to face up to the truth about the Police Department — a truth that the black community has been saying for decades.”

Yet, even if the task force’s recommendations are adopted, that is only a first step. The CPD is guilty of a long, racially biased institutionalized pattern of abuse. But they are also tasked with enforcing order over communities in despair, plagued by poverty, unemployment, drugs, guns and a lack of hope. We must reform the police. But we also need a program for urban development, jobs, schools and hope. Without that, the streets will remain hard and ugly, and the people will continue to suffer.

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