As part of the United States Department of Justice investigation into the pattern and practice of the Chicago Police Department, the DOJ held public forums and welcomed feedback from community members. Several CIC Summer 2016 interns attended the forums as well as wrote letters to the Justice Department with suggestions on how to rectify police and prosecutorial misconduct in Cook County.
To Whom It May Concern at the Department of Justice,
When I first came to the Chicago area for school, I was excited to be in a new city with a
different culture and slightly worse weather than where I came from. As the city that gave us our first Black president, I expected to find a place teeming with diversity and rich cross-cultural dialogue. I was wrong.
Chicago remains one of the most segregated cities in the nation and most of the city is plagued by horrific violence, which I first experienced through the eyes of the children I
volunteer with at the Gary Comer Youth Center. These kids, ranging from 16-18, would speak of their friends, brothers and sisters being gunned down and, despite going to a charter school and being in a Northwestern University program, they often had little hope for their futures.
Autif, one of the kids I mentored my freshman year, told me a story I’ll never forget. On
his way back home from a party, he began to race with his friends. As they ran through the streets, a police officer flashed his lights and started following them. Scared to death, the kids stopped and put their hands up. When the officer got out of his car, his hand was on his gun. There had been a robbery in the area and he found the running teens suspicious. Now, Autif didn’t rant about police brutality or tell me this to paint cops in a bad light. This was just how cops were for him. This was normal. They were not to be trusted and they weren’t called in the event of a crime, because it was more likely they would arrest you or a friend than actually do anything to help.
My freshman year, I also worked on a documentary about a man from Cabrini Green who had been through the justice system and now worked as a community organizer. He is not an ex-convict, he says – he is a returning citizen, ready to contribute to society. His organization, Brothers Standing Together, prevents kids from getting caught in the system and helps returning citizens who want to turn their lives around. He told me about the hopelessness of living in a ghetto, the brutal conditions of prison and the difficulties of turning his life around after being released. I learned about the dangers of treating homelessness and drug addiction as crimes to be arrested for, rather than social issues to be addressed humanely.
The problems that lead to incidents like the death of Laquan McDonald or Rekia Boyd,
or the more ordinary abusive behavior by police will not be solved overnight by any court order or lawsuit that comes out of the DoJ investigation. The reason that the wealthy New York suburb I grew up in has far less crime than the city of Chicago is not because we have more police officers patrolling the streets and it is not because those officers are inherently far better at their jobs. It is because we have supportive, well-funded schools, strong after-school programs and jobs for our young men and women. It is because in that suburb, the government believes that we matter and that we deserve the services and economic investment that make our lives better. Here, in Chicago, the government has shown time and time again that to them, Black lives don’t matter and Brown lives don’t matter and if you’re on the West side or the South side you don’t matter, if you’re in Cabrini or Robert Taylor or Ida B Wells, you don’t matter.
Laquan McDonald’s family was paid $5 million in the settlement to keep quiet, so that the police wouldn’t have to be exposed. The Chicago Reporter’s report on misconduct settlements found six hundred and fifty-five cases, costing the city over $200 million. At the same time, there isn’t enough money for the schools to stay open. What do you expect to happen if kids aren’t in school and people don’t have jobs or enough money to feed their families?
No, to solve this problem, you’re going to have to go much deeper than the police
department, but let’s start there. Injustice Watch, a non-profit journalism group based in
Chicago, just released a report on the inequality of police stops, specifically in Chicago. Their map shows widespread racial disparities in the 250,000 stops they tracked between May and August, 2014. On top of that, they showed significant evidence that many stops are not recorded. A recently settled lawsuit by Larry Nelson against the police for an unlawful stop uncovered evidence that there had been as many as 44 unrecorded incidents the night Mr. Nelson was stopped. These stops and the aggressive policing style that comes with them break down trust in the police.
And trust is nowhere to be found. The process through which a police officer goes through if accused of misconduct is byzantine, protected by city hall’s cushy agreements with the police union and subject to years of procedures that culminate in a hearing with the Police Board. According to DNAinfo Chicago, only about 30 percent of officers facing termination are actually fired by the board. On top of this, police officers are defended during this time by the city attorney – the same office that so often denies our Freedom of Information Act requests or returns them with page after page of redacted information. If our police officers are supposed to be peace officers, working with the community to help keep us safe, if they are supposed to protect and serve us, why is there no accountability? Why is there no way for us to actually see what they’re doing and how they’re doing it?
By now, I am fully aware of the depth of Chicago’s problem. Ghettos that were built under predatory practices like redlining and contract buying were systematically disinvested in
and destroyed. Poverty was concentrated. And law enforcement patrols the streets of these ghettos, rounding up people for minor offenses and trapping them in a byzantine system plagued with errors and bad actors. In Chicago, I see four hundred years of history come to bear.
So when I was given the opportunity, I decided to intern at the Chicago Innocence Center, investigating potential wrongful convictions. I found court records with misspelled names and typos. Police reports missing basic facts and relying on circumstantial evidence. I learned about the myriad ways in which police interrogation tactics and witness interviewing techniques were horribly flawed when scientifically evaluated. I saw the way Freedom of Information Act requests were routinely ignored, with documents being returned far later than required and often with the most pertinent facts and information redacted. I found a system broken and creaking, with more people who cared about cashing a paycheck and making it home than pursuing truth or justice. It is not hard to see how we get here from a system built on numbers, on treating American citizens as enemy combatants, on creating a protected class of warriors who face no consequences for their actions rather than a trusted force working with the community to preserve peace and order. Why do organizations like CeaseFire and Safe Passage have to do the vital work of preventing violence and keeping our children safe?
I have grown up with privilege and comforts. I have been allowed to make mistakes as a
teenager. I have been given a world class education. Every day, I find little ways in which my privilege holds me up. My knowledge of other countries from family vacations. My understanding of finance and banking. My ability to afford little luxuries, like Ubers to class or eating out, instead of at the dining hall. This is power, accumulated and amassed simply by being lucky. And this is why my interactions with police officers end with high fives and the men in so many neighborhoods in Chicago end up in chains, beaten or worse. The system is deep and intersecting. I have only given insight into a small sliver of what needs to be done and what can be done. But first and foremost, we need to begin with a new idea of policing. Not CAPS, but real community policing. Officers need to have a stake, they need to be trained at addressing the disputes and conflicts that naturally arise in these areas. They need to be connected with other professionals in public health, mental health and social work, so that they can deliver the appropriate resources to the people who call them, rather than answer every request with a gun or a taser. No matter how many times you call it Chiraq, this city is not a war zone. And it will not be safer until you stop treating it like one.
Chicago Innocence Center Intern
Northwestern University | 2018
Journalism | Linguistics | African American Studies |