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Post-George Floyd police reforms in Chicago ‘disappointing,’ community leaders say

They continue to push for civilian oversight of the police department and non-police alternatives to respond to mental health crises and provide public safety in schools.

Roxanne Smith a leader with Communities United.
Roxanne Smith a leader with Communities United.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Roxanne Smith has been waiting for change.

Even before the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis led to a summer of protests and a racial reckoning, Smith, a longtime leader of the group Communities United, was pushing for change.

She had urged the Chicago Police Department to abide by the consent decree that followed the police shooting of Laquan McDonald, requiring changes in many police policies.

For her, police reform is personal. Her son Seneca Smith has been in prison for years after being shot by the Chicago police and convicted of attempted murder. She doesn’t believe what the police said about how the shooting unfolded.

Then, a few years ago, when her other son, Roget Smith, was having an anxiety attack, she called 911 to get paramedics to help get him to a hospital. But officers also showed up, and she didn’t think they helped things with her son, who has a condition called Fragile X syndrome.

“Why would you come in acting like he’s a criminal, ready to handcuff him and throw him on the floor?” Smith said. “He didn’t do anything wrong. He’s just having an anxiety attack.”

Smith is among community leaders in Chicago who have long been calling for police reform. Now, a year after massive protests broke out after Floyd’s death, she and other activists in Chicago say they’re frustrated by what they see as slow progress by City Hall on reform.

Roxanne Smith a longtime leader with Communities United, sits inside her home, holding up photos of her two sons Roget Smith, left, and Seneca Smith, both of whom were victims of police brutality, Friday, May 21, 2021.
Roxanne Smith a longtime leader with Communities United, sits inside her home, holding up photos of her two sons Roget Smith, left, and Seneca Smith, both of whom were victims of police brutality, Friday, May 21, 2021.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Among their priorities, they continue to push for civilian oversight of the police department and non-police alternatives to respond to mental health crises and provide public safety inside schools.

Since Floyd’s death in May 2020, 21 people have been shot, seven of them fatally, by Chicago cops, according to the city’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability. Among those killed was a 13-year-old, Adam Toledo.

Nusrat Choudhury, legal director of the ACLU of Illinois: “I think that the city has made statements about wanting to do more to reform policing than what the consent decree requires, but their actions speak louder than words.”
Nusrat Choudhury, legal director of the ACLU of Illinois: “I think that the city has made statements about wanting to do more to reform policing than what the consent decree requires, but their actions speak louder than words.”
ACLU of Illinois

Nusrat Choudhury, legal director of the ACLU of Illinois, said City Hall has resisted change and points to police department failures to meet deadlines set out in the consent decree, which calls for changes in how officers are disciplined, supervised, trained and recruited.

“I think that the city has made statements about wanting to do more to reform policing than what the consent decree requires, but their actions speak louder than words,” Choudhury said.

City officials seem to view the consent decree as “a ceiling,” Choudhury said, but they should really be looking at it as a floor.”

City officials have acknowledged they haven’t met all of the deadlines but point to having improved compliance requirements for police training, community policing and officer wellness.

Andrea Ortíz, an organizer with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, said that, if the city had made reforms earlier, such as instituting a foot-pursuit policy, the fatal police shootings of Adam Toledo and Anthony Alvarez might have been avoided. The 13-year-old and Alvarez, 22, were fatally shot by officers in separate incidents earlier this year.

The council has pushed for a greater emphasis on “treatment, not trauma,” sending out counselors and therapists rather than the police in response to emergency calls that involve a mental health crisis, Ortíz said.

“There’s something about trauma-informed personnel — a counselor or social worker who understands what folks are going through and have years of experience of handling mental health crises and how to de-escalate and calm a person,” Ortíz said. “How to see them as a person and not a potential threat.”

Laqueanda Reneau, an organizer with Communities United, said Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration needs to invest more in communities across the city.

Lightfoot has pointed to changes in policies for handling search warrants and car pursuits as proof of progress on police reform.

“Do we need to do more?” Lightfoot said at a recent news conference. “Of course, we do. And that journey is going to continue for years to come because there has to be continual training and work.”

On a recent weekday in Austin, two people held up a sign on busy North Avenue that urged, “Honk For Police Accountability.” They were part of a group of community organizations protesting outside Ald. Chris Taliaferro’s 29th Ward office, pushing for the Chicago City Council to consider the proposed Empowering Communities for Public Safety Ordinance. Taliaferro chairs the council’s Committee on Public Safety, and activists were critical of his delays in having the ordinance considered.

“For years, for decades, since before I was even organizing, we’ve seen what the harsh policing has done to our communities,” said Carlil Pittman, co-founder of the community group GoodKids MadCity. “We’ve seen our people suffer. We’ve seen our people be beaten, brutalized, murdered by police officers. And now we have an opportunity to bring real change into our city and be a model for other cities, to be a model for the country and what policing should look like.”

The proposal merges ideas from community groups that have called for civilian oversight of the police, said Kobi Guillory, co-chair of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. It calls for a binding voter referendum to create a civilian oversight commission with authority to hire and fire the police superintendent, negotiate police contracts and set the department’s budget.

It has gotten support from the council’s Black, Hispanic and progressive caucuses and is expected to get a committee vote next month.

Lightfoot recently said she supports civilian oversight and is expected to introduce her own ordinance.

Guillory said, even after a summer of protests, the city hasn’t made real changes in policing.

“It was not really surprising but disappointing Chicago was the only city that hadn’t made any promises after the uprisings,” Guillory said.

Joel Rodriguez, a community organizer for the Southwest Organizing Project, said the empowering communities ordinance is the way to bring about transformative change.

“We need to have police accountability,” Rodriguez said.

Community groups protest outside Ald. Chris Taliaferro’s Austin office, pushing for a vote on the proposed Empowering Communities for Public Safety Ordinance.
Community groups protest outside Ald. Chris Taliaferro’s Austin office, pushing for a vote on the proposed Empowering Communities for Public Safety Ordinance.
Elvia Malagón / Sun-Times

For Marques Watts, the fatal shooting of his friend Caleb Reed last summer was a reality check. He had watched how his friend was turning into a man, speaking out publicly about the need to work toward peace.

“My community is not safe no more,” said Watts, 18, a junior at Mather High School.

Reed, an outspoken activist, was killed weeks after Watts’ 16-year-old brother Derrion “Umba” Ortiz was fatally shot last July in Burnside.

Watts joined Communities United and Voices of Youth in Chicago Education to continue his friend’s work. Mather’s Local School Council was among those that voted to remove police officers from the school.

VOYCE is still pushing for officers to be permanently removed from other schools and urging schools to try alternatives to the police to keep incidents from escalating, said Maria Paula Degillo, the program’s coordinator.

Watts wants more social workers in schools.

The family of Caleb Reed, an activist who was fatally shot in West Rogers Park last July, holds balloons and an illustration of Reed outside Mather High School on Aug. 4, 2020. The 17-year-old activist was an advocate for the removal of police in the Chicago Public Schools.
The family of Caleb Reed, an activist who was fatally shot in West Rogers Park last July, holds balloons and an illustration of Reed outside Mather High School on Aug. 4, 2020. The 17-year-old activist was an advocate for the removal of police in the Chicago Public Schools.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times file

When remote schooling began last year, he said he initially struggled because he couldn’t stop thinking about his brother and Reed. One of his teachers helped him push past his grief.

“We already go through traumatic things outside of schools,” Watts said. “It should be a different way to approach us.”

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.