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What Rahm Emanuel Left Out of His Speech on Chicago Police Reform

Other cities that have been through DOJ-led police reforms, and that are going through them right now, have brought activists and the police union to the negotiating table. Is Chicago ready for that much reform?

Photo: Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune

This morning the mayor spoke for 45 minutes on how the city will reform the practices of the police department going forward. Within the speech were a handful of details about what will happen, primarily about the task force recently appointed by the mayor:

In a letter made public this week, the task force outlined a timeline and plans to hold public hearings with the community and with experts from across the country.

[snip]

The first recommendation by the task force is that we appoint a senior officer for civil rights at the Chicago Police Department who will have clear authority to implement the recommendations of the task force and ultimately the Department of Justice.

[snip]

The task force will also look at what other cities are doing and the steps they took. Cities all across America are dealing with similar challenges. There are lessons to be studied, lessons to be learned, and lessons to be implemented.

Shortly thereafter at a press conference, Emanuel mentioned that the task force will also have “subcommitees in [the] community,” according to WBEZ’s Lauren Chooljian. It’s a step closer to something that’s been called for from people like Richard Wooten, a 23-year CPD veteran, pastor, and non-profit head, and civil-rights attorney Flint Taylor, and something already part of the reform process in other cities: equal representation from community members outside the legal and law-enforcement communities.

I’ve written recently about this. Cincinnati seems to be about as good a model as we seem to have in America. Not remotely perfect, and there’s serious concern that the city is backsliding on the reforms it took on, but it’s a well-regarded process. And that’s in large part because of who it brought to the table—not just the city and its police department, but community activists and the Fraternal Order of Police:

One of those who thought negotiating was admitting guilt was Kathy Harrell, now head of the Fraternal Order of Police. When the collaborative agreement was presented to the police union, she voted no.

“I looked at it as a personal attack on me as being racist and saying it was racially profiling and that was not how I policed. I thought a yes vote was agreeing to that,” she said.

She’s changed her mind. The changes turned out to be good for the police.

Along with the FOP, the collaborative agreement also included the Cincinnati Black United Front, and the reforms agreed to were considerable. They included everything Chicago’s task force has agreed consider: “independent oversight of police misconduct”; best practices for identifying officers with repeated complaints; and “best practices for release of videos of police-involved incidents.” (Regarding the last of those, University of Cincinnati criminologist John Eck told me, it’s now expected practice that the Cincinnati police immediately alerts the community in the wake of officer-involved shootings and releases the video shortly thereafter.)

But it went much farther than that:

Cincinnati essentially had to change what it meant to be a police officer. Problem-oriented policing, where police not only respond to calls but try to identify the underlying issues that cause crime, can turn cops into social workers.

[snip]

A 30-member citizen advisory board meets monthly with department leadership, as does an internal advisory board. Some officers are “educational liaisons” and help third graders study for the state-wide reading exam, where success correlates to high school graduation. High school graduates are unlikely to commit major crimes.

But the collaborative agreement didn’t just call for police to change their style. It also called on civilians to work with police to reduce crime. The agreement created a civilian board to investigate complaints against police.

Consider this in the context of what DNAInfo’s Mark Konkol just reported—that recommendations which looked awfully similar to those floating around right now, in advance of the new task force, quietly died in an internal City Hall power struggle a couple years ago.

It was a slow and messy process in Cincinnati, which perhaps was inevitable. It’s a slow and messy process right now in Seattle, which had its police department taken over by the feds in 2011 and is going through Cincinnati’s pangs. And those pangs are complex, tense, and, pretty dry. But from here that looks like a vast improvement.

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