Black and Latino communities in Pilsen are calling for an end to police brutality against their communities

The corner of 18th Street in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, on the Lower West Side. (Diamond/MEDILL)
The corner of 18th Street in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, on the Lower West Side. (Diamond Palmer/MEDILL)

By Diamond Palmer
Medill Reports

Police use of force against Black and Latino communities in Pilsen has residents in an uproar. Some residents feel Mayor Lori Lightfoot has not delivered the police reform she promised, as demonstrated by police behavior in Pilsen, and community members are determined to hold Lightfoot accountable to stop police brutality.

According to NPR, Lightfoot said in June, “So the supervision is critically important. You’ve got to think about how you hire, how you train and how you hold those supervisors accountable because that’s where the culture lies, particularly at the first level of supervision. And we’ve got a ways to go in Chicago, but I’m committed and determined to make sure that we get it right.”

As acknowledged by Lightfoot, police brutality in Pilsen continues to be a serious issue. Pilsen resident Miguel Vega was fatally shot by Chicago police officers Aug. 31. Witnesses say they saw a group of men including Vega at the end of the block prior to shots being fired at officers. Vega’s mother requested the body camera footage be released because she feared she was not being told the truth by the Chicago Police Department. When the footage was released in October, Vega’s family and other residents said it raised doubts about the police department’s story.

Vega’s death hasn’t been the only time Pilsen community members have questioned the treatment of Black and Latino communities by the CPD. According to the Citizens Police Data Project, the Lower West Side (including neighborhoods Pilsen and Little Village) were the sites of the most complaints about excessive force between the years of 2001-08 and 2011-15.

Types of complaints are separated into different categories. The use of force category accounted for a total of 239 complaints involving officers on the Lower West Side. Of those 239 complaints, only 1% resulted in discipline. Excessive force by an on-duty police officer that included injury to the detainee accounted for 109 of those 239 complaints. All of the complaints involved majority white and Hispanic male officers; the Lower West Side’s population is majority Latino.

When asked about the data, the Chicago Police Department’s Sgt. Rocco Alioto said, “CPD strives to treat all individuals our officers encounter with respect. Anyone who feels they have been mistreated by a CPD officer is encouraged to call 311 and file a complaint with COPA, who will investigate the misconduct. Any misconduct on the part of our officers will not be tolerated.”

(Citizens Police Data Project)
The Lower West Side (including neighborhoods Pilsen and Little Village) police complaints and disciplines data. (Citizens Police Data Project)

Jeff Maldonado of Pilsen is an artist who uses his work to build community including addressing police violence and accountability.

“The nature of the community is trying to look out for the best interest” of residents, Maldonado said. “I want to illustrate that we want to protect our community here in Pilsen.”

In Pilsen, as in other predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, community members say they are reluctant to call the police when they need help, feeling that any interaction with police could turn violent. A call to the police shouldn’t cost someone their life, many say.

“Vulnerable communities are in need of crisis teams that really treat trauma and mental trauma, and not police who brutalize even further and victimize communities,” 25th Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez said during a September 2020 Zoom event titled #TreatmentNotTrauma. “We stand up together strong because that’s the right thing to do.”

Many Pilsen residents are demanding police reform and defunding of the Chicago Police Department because of the way crime is handled in their community. Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen has already removed its school police officers. It became the second high school in Chicago Public Schools to do so, in July.

Lightfoot proposed the idea of reforming instead of defunding the police. “I’ve been very clear that I do not support defunding the police,” Lightfoot said during her October 2020 budget address.. “Our police officers are not our enemies.”

But Sigcho-Lopez opposes the mayor’s position, maintaining that funding should be reallocated to sources who can help his community, not harm it.

“We support legislators who believe in best practices and public safety, and not politicking with this critical issue,” he said.

According to CPD, most recently, the city no longer requires victims of alleged police misconduct to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for body camera footage. It will be available to the public immediately under a policy effective March 7.

Diamond Palmer is a community and culture reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @diamondpalmertv.