On a subject as fraught as policing in Chicago, there isn't much room for consensus—except, perhaps, for this one point: The status quo isn't working.
It's time for police to embrace reform
Talk of improving policing—and holding officers accountable—raises the union’s hackles and, in the past, that’s been enough to stymie lasting change. Chicago can’t afford to let that happen again.
As political reporter A.D. Quig notes in this week's issue, Chicago certainly isn't underspending on policing. We spend more per resident on policing than eight of the 10 largest cities. Chicago's $660 per capita police spending trails only New York's $671. And yet, our crime problem persists.
Too many people on the West and South sides of Chicago live in fear of gun violence and gang intimidation. Each summer weekend generates a fresh roster of the fallen, victims young and old—and even children—caught in the crossfire. Meanwhile, residents and the police who are paid to serve and protect them coexist in a climate of mutual distrust. The community feels more policed than protected, living under suspicion, worried that any wrong move could draw attention from law enforcement—attention that could turn lethal in a heartbeat. Black elders teach their children from early in life how to behave during encounters with police, knowing these unwritten rules could spell the difference between life and death. And like a steady drumbeat, social media regularly delivers fresh images, pulled from cellphone videos or surveillance cameras, of policing gone wrong.
Frustration over decades of bad blood between people of color and police has boiled over into demonstrations in cities large and small throughout the country, including here in Chicago. It's a moment that calls for deep reflection on the many ways we have all contributed to a situation that has become so dysfunctional.
Unfortunately, as happened in the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting in 2014, one of the key constituencies in this drama—the police force itself—seems unwilling to engage in that sort of reflection. The defensive crouch is understandable, to a degree. Cops put their lives on the line every day, and feel under attack. But if the situation is ever going to change, if we're ever going to achieve something like real community-police cooperation in this town, then the police need to be willing partners in that change. Resorting to the coded language of the "blue flu" every time anyone raises the prospect of reform only ensures nothing will change.
So it was disheartening to see John Catanzara, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times on July 1 blaming morale problems for the steep rise in murders during the month of June.
"I'm not telling them not to do police work," Catanzara said of his members. "But I hope they just slow down and decide 'Is this necessary?' before they do it."
If Catanzara was encouraging his members to stop and think before using deadly force, then we might be getting somewhere. But what he actually seemed to be saying, in a tone familiar to anyone who has observed Chicago's police culture, is that if you don't like the way we police, then maybe we won't police at all.
In the post-George Floyd moment, many new ideas are coming forth that could improve life for ordinary Chicagoans and for the officers dedicated to maintaining law and order—and hopefully be more effective at curbing crime than the tactics we've used until now. On Page 2 of this issue, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul shifting money now poured into policing toward other sorts of interventions—social workers, counselors, community liaisons, educators—to reduce the burden on police to be all those things in the neediest neighborhoods.
But such talk raises the union's hackles and, in the past, that's been enough to stymie lasting change.
Chicago can't afford to let that happen again.
The police can't have it both ways. You can't say you feel disrespected and unsupported if you're not willing to come to the table and work out solutions with the others who have a stake in fixing this city's obvious crime problem: local residents, business owners, landlords, church leaders, police brass, aldermen and the mayor. To do anything less is to signal you believe the status quo is just fine with you. And given how miserable the police seem to be, we know that's not true.
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