For the second time in little over a year, Chicago residents have received a blistering report detailing widespread instances of police abuse, aimed particularly at African-American and Hispanic communities.
City officials reacted to the latest report from the U.S. Department of Justice by promising to change policies and procedures, expand training and mentoring and equip all officers with body cameras by the end of this year. But many community activists are asking a central question: How do you change hearts and minds?
“You can change the training at the academy and retrain all of the current officers, but the biggest issue is changing the culture,” said Rev. Michael Pfleger, a longtime activist whose parish, St. Sabina, is in an economically struggling neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. “You can change all the rules and still have prejudice and hate.”
The Justice Department report was initiated after several high profile police shootings of citizens, including the death of Laquan McDonald, an African-American teenager shot 16 times by a white officer. The officer subsequently was charged with murder, and the incident sparked widespread protests after it was revealed law enforcement had tried to conceal an official police video of the shooting.
The Justice Department cited numerous cases of “tactically unsound and unnecessary actions” among officers, including shooting unarmed suspects; shooting at vehicles without justification; using a taser on an unarmed, naked 65-year-old mentally ill woman; and purposely depositing gang members in rival territory.
Federal investigators said some Chicago department practices also put officers at unnecessary risk. “We found that officers exhibit poor discipline when discharging their weapons and engage in tactics that endanger themselves and public safety, including failing to await back-up when they safely could and should; using unsound tactics in approaching vehicles; and using their own vehicles in a manner that is dangerous.”
City officials repeated many of the same promises that followed the release of a similar report last year, ordered by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The mayor said all officers will be equipped with body cameras by the end of 2017. Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson has called for revising use of force procedures and expanding training and mentoring of officers. But many community activists say something deeper is necessary—the repair of trust.
“The first thing I thought of when I read the report was the victims. Behind the statistics of the report are all the lives that have been impacted,” said Jedidiah Brown, a leader of the local Black Lives Matter movement.
Mr. Brown said officers need to be seen more “among the people,” outside of crime calls. “You have to be honest and acknowledge the frustration and hurt,” he said.
That is likely to be a difficult and lengthy process. In a statement, the Chicago police union complained that the Justice report had been “rushed.” Comments on a blog popular with the rank and file police suggested that the new administration of President Donald J. Trump might be more sympathetic to the police point of view. These types of investigations usually result in local law enforcement entering into consent decrees that lay out widespread changes. The new administration in Washington could slow or even ignore that process.
For many in the city, change cannot come too quickly. In 2016, Chicago experienced its most violent year in two decades, with 762 homicides—more than in the larger cities of New York and Los Angeles combined. The violence is largely confined to a few economically disadvantaged neighborhoods on the city’s South and West Sides. Officials attribute the surge in shootings in part to the splintering of the city’s powerful street gangs, at least partly driven by the teardown of Chicago’s infamous public housing projects in recent years. Large, centrally directed groups have broken down into less-disciplined factions that might operate within a few blocks of each other or on a single corner.
Many activists say the increased scrutiny of law enforcement has caused officers to back off on policing in the most volatile neighborhoods, adding to the crisis.
Mr. Brown and others also acknowledge the role residents must play in making their neighborhoods safer. “Public safety rests on the shoulders of the residents. The problem is, they have been so disempowered,” Mr. Brown said. He called for the police to cooperate with residents in “organizing channels of information-sharing and building community.”
Father Pfleger said Chicago may need to invite outside experts to oversee a dialogue between police and minority residents aimed at restoring trust. “The question we need to ask isn’t how do we tolerate each other, but how do we respect each other,” Father Pfleger said.
He called on Catholic priests in the city to address race relations more explicitly from the pulpit and to initiate conversations on race and violence at the parish level. “This issue by and large has not been addressed in the Catholic parishes, the Protestant churches, the synagogues and mosques. Why do we continue to run from this issue? Why aren’t we breaking down walls and holding these conversations? We can’t expect government to do it,” Father Pfleger said.
Dr. Jerry Hiller, a psychologist who leads a popular series of lunchtime talks on faith in daily life called “Repair My House” at St. Peter’s in the Loop parish, says the city also needs to address the emotional and psychological factors underlying Chicago’s social problems.
Across the United States, “what is breaking down is a sense of commonality,” Dr. Hiller said. “There is uncontrollable anger, a feeling of powerlessness, self-contempt, of not belonging and isolation,” he added.
Still, Dr. Hiller says he has seen firsthand concrete change come to troubled neighborhoods. Several years ago, he said residents in his former far North Side neighborhood of Rogers Park banded together to rid the area of increasing gang activity. They formed crime watches and agreed to call police and cooperate when they had information on a crime. They went to court to drive out slum landlords and demanded the city do something about junk cars left on the street and trash in public parks.
“When people feel they belong and have a place in the community, they cooperate,” Dr. Hiller said.
Outgoing Attorney General Loretta Lynch traveled to Chicago earlier in January to personally present the Justice Department findings. She also sounded a note of hope. Speaking recently of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she said in words that could easily apply to Chicago: “If it does come to pass that we do enter a period of darkness, let us remember—that is when dreams are best made.”
Chicago has witnessed its period of darkness. It is now time for the city’s many factions to work on realizing the dream of a safer, more caring city.