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Glitter and Glue

A truth and reconciliation commission worked in South Africa. Could it in Chicago — or would it be purely performance?

Illustration by Daniel Fishel
Illustration: Daniel Fishel

A few years ago, Gary’s then mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson, who now runs the Chicago Urban League,  listened as her constituents described their fear and loathing of the Indiana city’s police force. During hearings between the mostly Black community and its top cops, residents complained of abusive behavior, including military-like sweeps of neighborhoods and predatory fines for minor traffic violations. “It was heart-wrenching to hear them talk about how they viewed the police,” says Freeman-Wilson. “As a kid, they always teach you that the police are your friends, and today that’s not a given.”

This dialogue surfaced as part of a Hoosier version of a truth and reconciliation commission, a dystopian-sounding name for a process designed to heal troubled communities. Typically, it works by documenting, discussing, and eventually correcting systemic wrongdoing by police and government. TRCs have been used in the United States and throughout the world, most notably in postapartheid South Africa. There, the commission encouraged truth telling by offering amnesty to some offenders who testified about their human right violations. Some activists believe Chicago, which is still reeling from the 2014 police shooting of Laquan McDonald and decades of police torture led by Detective Commander Jon Burge, could be ripe for a similar call — provided that Mayor Lori Lightfoot gets on board.

Signs indicate she is open to such a process. Before being elected, Lightfoot headed Chicago’s Police Accountability Task Force, which recommended a citywide reconciliation effort that would begin with the police superintendent “publicly acknowledging CPD’s history of racial disparity and discrimination.” From there, it would attempt to mend fractured relations between officers and Black and brown communities.

During her campaign, Lightfoot advocated establishing “a city-wide race and reconciliation process to bridge the divide” and suggested hiring the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, which led the effort in Gary, to facilitate. She’s been mum on the topic, however, since taking office, and a summer of social justice protests and extreme gun violence spawned by the pandemic hasn’t given the notion any more momentum. The mayor’s office, in a statement to Chicago, instead emphasizes the naming last summer of Candace Moore as the city’s first chief equity officer. Her office is “tasked with creating and advancing new policies and practices” and forging a “healing initiative that uplifts community efforts,” the statement says.

A TRC, on the other hand, would most likely lead to a series of discussions sanctioned by the city but run independently, according to experts who have participated in similar events in other places. There isn’t just one template for the process, but meetings usually occur right in neighborhoods with tense police-community relationships. They encourage residents and local leaders to speak frankly about their experiences with the police, without fear of reprisals. In best-case scenarios, residents hear a formal apology from police leaders. But more important, improved policies, programs, and procedures often emerge, says Rachel Teicher, a director for the National Network for Safe Communities at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which helps cities with reconciliation projects. “If [City Hall] wanted to discuss it, we would be thrilled,” Teicher says. “It’s worth the investment. It changes the fabric of the community.”

An effective TRC would be clearly defined, says Juliet Sorensen, a Northwestern University law professor and executive director of the nonprofit watchdog Injustice Watch: “What is the scope? What are the questions? Does it encompass only police abuse? Systemic racism? Are we going to involve housing or banking practices?”

Despite best intentions, the idea of a Chicago TRC attracts its fair share of detractors. One example: The Chicago Torture Justice Center, formed in 2015 by city ordinance in response to the racially motivated police torture led by Burge between 1972 and 1991, dismisses the idea as folly. “It is just window dressing and retraumatizing, especially for our survivors,” says Aislinn Pulley, coexecutive director of the center and a cofounder of Black Lives Matter Chicago. “The truth is out. People have told their stories, and to keep people retelling their stories is another form of real trauma.” Instead, Pulley believes the city should plow more resources into improving policy at the neighborhood level: health care, housing, education, and job creation.

Indeed, the track record for TRCs is spotty. In recent years, a handful of other cities have launched reconciliation programs akin to Gary’s four-year effort, which Freeman-Wilson says made progress in improving officer training and addressing bias but maybe didn’t accomplish “a full reconciliation.” Included in that group is Minneapolis, the site of George Floyd’s killing by police in May. Ironically, among the changes that were made there starting in 2016: amended use-of-force policies that prioritize sanctity of life and a requirement that officers intervene when they see other officers using excessive force, according to a report by the nonprofit research group Urban Institute.

There’s almost no chance the Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing the CPD’s rank and file, would support a TRC. “Obstructionist is a kind word,” says Pulley. The FOP already opposes a consent decree seeking reforms and would probably balk at any call to apologize for past misconduct. The union did not respond to emails asking for comment.

Still, the CPD is not giving reconciliation a hard no, saying in an email to Chicago that it favors “listening to our community members and having that be reflected in our reform efforts” — something it believes it’s already doing. Meanwhile, more cities are lining up to start TRCs, including Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, which have partnered for an effort based on the South African model.

As for Chicago, any successful push here must attract the participation of the people out there already doing social justice work, says Freeman-Wilson: activists, nonprofit and faith-based leaders, residents, and even skeptics like the Chicago Torture Justice Center. The Urban League would consider participating, she says, but the degree to which it would be involved would depend on the shape the talks take. Without a coalition, Chicago’s TRC would become just a bunch of well-intentioned gatherings full of sound and fury.

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