Op-Ed: Behind on Justice

By Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Cook County Commissioner

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]our hundred days. That is too long for justice to be served for Laquan McDonald and his family. It is too long to bring to light the dashcam video of Laquan’s final moments. And, it is too long to wait before we heard directly and fully from Mayor Emanuel, State’s Attorney Alvarez and Police Superintendent McCarthy It is only yesterday when we finally heard answers to questions that Chicagoans have been asking. This painstaking delay is especially poignant for communities of color and areas of concentrated poverty that do not feel that they are being well served by Chicago’s police department. Four hundred days of silence by those who have primary responsibility for the safety of Chicagoans simply reinforces distrust in the very institutions that they oversee. Significant reforms must be undertaken now or that distrust will be irreversible.

The motto of the Chicago police department is “We Serve and Protect.” The inaction of the last 400 days begs the question as to what is being served and protected. We need to change the culture that protects the bad apples who act without regard to life and who bring dishonor to law enforcement. It is time for leaders who have been unwilling to listen to communities of color to return the idea of service to its rightful place. My experience in Little Village, where we have worked hard to bring the community and police together, shows that local solutions can work and that public service, not rogue terror, will bring about constructive change.

But, it does not stop at the community level. We also need to change a criminal justice system that allows this type of slow-walked justice to occur. It is true that the City Council quickly settled the civil matter with the family of Laquan, but the action by Officer Van Dyke on South Pulaski Road last year is not a private matter between the shooter and the victim. It is a Chicago matter that reflects on all of criminal justice. Reforms must be systemic.

It begins with listening and acting on the demands of Chicagoans. Young African American and Latino men and boys are most likely to suffer violent deaths or be incarcerated. And yet, we hear a lot of lip service when protesters take to the streets. The phrase, “Black Lives Matter,” is not a statement that other lives do not matter. It tells us that Black lives have not mattered – and continue to not matter – but must matter if we are to have a justice system that serves all. It is a matter of human dignity, respect and recognition of true American values. So, we must give special focus to righting the injustices that have been and continue to be felt, especially by African American Chicagoans.

What our police do and act must also be reformed. It starts with training that is reinforced at every level of the department. There is no tougher job than being a police officer. They need the best training, the best equipment, and the best management. They need to know what is expected and be given every chance to succeed. They must also know that the public will have their backs when they stay within the rules. But, they also must know that individuals and the system as a whole will be held accountable when the rules are not followed. Last night’s events show us that body cameras with audio need to be adopted universally. Dashcams needs to be one of several views of police actions on the street. These are important teaching tools. These tools will help provide answers to questions of “What happened?” and “How did it happen?”

We also need a civilian oversight board that is representative of all communities in Chicago and is given the teeth and independence to take action against the few rogue police officers who have acted dishonorably and illegally. The recent series by WBEZ on investigations of questioned police actions shows that the current system needs to be assessed and reformed.

Finally, the key actors in the criminal justice system here must come together on a set of reforms that puts the police, courts, jail, prosecutors and public defenders on the same page. The system of justice in Cook County is divided into separate silos. Clearly, the Mayor and the Chicago Police Department, the State’s Attorney, the Cook County Sheriff, the public defender, and the courts have distinct roles, and sometimes these roles are adversarial. But, they can and must operate within a common vision of service and public safety.

Right now, it appears that leadership is acted on from behind – 400 days behind. The problems that we face in Chicago cannot be solved by ignoring or putting a blanket over what is happening on our streets and in our neighborhoods. As we struggle to find constructive ways to release our anger, let us not forget that our communities only grow from within and finding solutions should be our greatest priority .


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