On police reform, it’s back to business as usual for the mayor

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the creation of an appointed task force to oversee and recommend reforms for training and accountability on December 1, 2015.

Photo by Stacey Rupolo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the creation of an appointed task force to oversee and recommend reforms for training and accountability on December 1, 2015.

It looks like Mayor Rahm Emanuel thinks he’s gotten past the political crisis of the past few months – at least judging from his response to the recommendations of his own Police Accountability Task Force.

That response was back to business as usual: appoint a commission and ignore its most significant conclusions, then hold a press conference with a long list of flashy but vague promises.

Emanuel needs to recall that it was business as usual that created the crisis in the first place: his own record of tolerating and defending the police department’s code of silence and of prioritizing “proactive policing” over human rights, coddling the police unions at the expense of the public interest, and paying exorbitant legal settlements while turning a blind eye to underlying police misconduct.

It was business as usual that led to Laquan McDonald’s killing two years ago, as Officer Jason Van Dyke’s years-long record of civilian complaints and legal judgments went unaddressed, and as a legal settlement with the McDonalds’s family was used to bury evidence of compelling public interest.

And critically, Emanuel needs to understand that business as usual means continuing accountability failures, widespread alienation from law enforcement, and in the worst case, more unnecessary deaths, particularly of black Chicagoans.

RELATED:       web_srupolo_PATF-15Data plays central role in police reform efforts in Chicago and beyond  

The biggest can the mayor kicked down the road was what to do about the entirely discredited Independent Police Review Authority.  Emanuel said he’d wait for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation to conclude – which could take a year or much more – before considering his task force’s recommendation.

That conflicts with his own statements shortly after appointing the task force, when he said he was taking leadership and not waiting for DOJ. And it directly conflicts with the task force’s position, which is “to adopt as many changes … described here as quickly as possible.”  The task force said it expects action “in the next 90 to 180 days” to “implement the recommendations in this report.” And it notes quite plainly, “Chicago’s police accountability system does not work.”

The City Council could step up here and hold hearings on Ald. Leslie Hairston’s ordinance , which crucially (and in line with the task force’s recommendation) bars former CPD personnel from serving as investigators and guarantees a sufficient funding stream for the new agency.

But Ald. Ariel Reboyras, chair of the council’s public safety committee, has said no hearings will be held on that ordinance, though it has 34 co-sponsors. Reboyras has also put the kabosh on Ald. Jason Ervin’s ordinance enacting another task force recommendation to create an inspector general for public safety.  In this Reboyras is undoubtedly taking direction from the mayor’s office.

It’s quite curious the way Emanuel’s press release lists reforms – many just baby steps – and links them to page references for recommendations in the task force report which it ignores, or which are entirely irrelevant to his point.

Emanuel trumpeted the ongoing, very slow rollout of body cameras without addressing his task force’s question: “Why aren’t all CPD officers already wearing body cameras?”  Under “expanding transparency” he highlighted last month’s new video release policy but ignored the task force recommendation that all disciplinary information and details of legal settlements be posted online.

Referring to the task force’s call for a reconciliation process, he says the new Police Supt. Eddie Johnson has been holding community meetings.  But a broad, public reconciliation process moderated by professional facilitators and digging systematically into historical and ongoing injustices is very different than sending your superintendent out to take some heat in small, private meetings.

Citing a section of the report discussing the need for stress management for 911 operators, among whom post-traumatic stress is not uncommon, the mayor reports plans to implement customer service training and subject operators to discipline for rudeness.

Emanuel promises a minor tweak – establishing a deadline to expedite supervisory review of disciplinary recommendations – and ignores the substance of the section he cites, which is that command channel review is a means of “weaken[ing] discipline” and should be eliminated entirely.

Most absurdly, Emanuel cites a section that doesn’t even mention Tasers for his claim about “expanding the use of Tasers.”  Nowhere does the task force actually call for more Tasers.  What it does say, further on, is that “statistics on Taser discharges [which are disproportionately used against African Americans] show the need for a fundamental rethinking of use-of-force policies.”

In his obsession with “putting points on the board,” Emanuel trots out a bevy of small-bore fixes. A few are significant, it should be noted, including establishing a hotline to allow officers to make anonymous reports of misconduct, and allowing internal disciplinary investigations to proceed concurrently with criminal investigations.

But most recommendations of major significance are ignored, including a community oversight board, an inspector general for public safety, a deputy chief for diversity to address woeful promotion statistics, and an independent prosecutor for police killings.

The mayor needs to quickly address the task force’s call for a timeline spelling out when and how its recommendations will be addressed.  And City Council members need to understand that it’s time for them to do their jobs.

The task force concludes with a call for “advocates, community and faith organizations, philanthropy and the broader community” to “push for and demand that the police accountability system in Chicago change.”

Judging from the initial response from the mayor and City Council leadership, it’s going to take a big push from Chicago’s communities to move this process forward.

The alternative is business as usual, and that’s unacceptable.