Urban League panel works out community trust issues

An audience member at Tuesday's forum asks a question.

By Thomas Vogel
Video by Hannah Gebresilassie

Police tactics, mental-health awareness and youth engagement were top concerns for a panel of community leaders, government officials and media personalities assembled Tuesday for a community forum at the South Side headquarters of the Urban League of Chicago.

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Representatives from Chicago Police Department, community leaders and citizens discussed issues around building trust within the Chicago community, coordinated by Chicago Urban League and Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. (Hannah Gebresilassie/MEDILL REPORTS)

The event, co-sponsored by the Campaign for Political Reform, comes at a low point in the relationship between city government and residents. Persistent crime, lack of jobs and decreased government services coupled with several recent high-profile police shootings, including the killing of teens Laquan McDonald, Quintonio LeGrier and Cedrick Chatman have contributed to the rocky relationship. The panelists, who each brought a different professional perspective, helped workshop solutions but acknowledged the complexity of the problem.

“It’s devastating to see the lack of trust,” said Alexa James, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Chicago, a mental health organization. “We have years and year of work to be done. This is a significant culture change.”

Moderator Robin Robinson, a veteran Chicago journalist, stressed the event should center on solutions, positivity and collaboration. Audience members and panelists, however, quickly focused the discussion on the sole representative from the Chicago Police Dept., Eric Washington, a deputy chief.

James appealed to Washington to require more mental-health training for the department’s beat officers and lamented the stigma rookie officers often feel when reporting stress to the department’s counseling branch.

“They are responding to someone’s worst day, every day,” James said. “We have no idea the trauma they go through.”

Washington admitted more training would be beneficial but reminded attendees although the department’s current voluntary Crisis Intervention Team program has limited capacity, every district is staffed with officers who have completed the training and can respond to situations. The deputy chief also said it’s important to not force officers to attend training sessions.

“You want people in there that are willingly to be there,” Washington said.

Another panelist, Rufus Williams, CEO of Better Boys Foundation Family Services, pressed Washington on the current policy.

“If you are Laquan McDonald, you need that officer to be there at that time,” Williams said. “If things are escalating quickly, you don’t have time to call.”

Other attendees, including Marc Loveless, who lives in Bronzeville, were less kind to Washington. He asked the deputy chief, somewhat sardonically, if the department has a policy discourages officers from shooting citizens “in the back.”

Acknowledging improving police interactions as an important way to establishing trust, Robinson and several panelists mentioned economic opportunity, community development and access to education as solutions, too.

“It’s housing, It’s employment,” James said. “It’s making sure your community is supportive.”

“We are talking about inequity,” said Katya Nuques, executive director of Enlace Chicago. “We don’t have self-determination.”

Robinson even asked each panelist directly to quantify, on a one to 10 scale, the level of trust between communities and city government. The answered varied, but most panelists put the number at around three.

Despite criticism directed toward the CPD, attendees and panelists agreed any solution will be multifaceted and must involve community collaboration.

“We have to be met in the middle,” Washington said. “We are stronger together than separate.”

Photo at top: Audience members at Tuesday’s community forum drilled down on issues of policing, mental-health and economic development in underserved communities. (Thomas Vogel/MEDILL)