During an emergency community forum Tuesday evening, residents spoke about the problem of over-policing both locally and nationally, while state legislators outlined a series of policy reforms they planned to push in response to the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests and unrest across the country.
The forum was convened by the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference (HPKCC), which has hosted a series of virtual discussions during the COVID-19 pandemic. It began with testimony and thoughts from neighborhood residents.
Damon Jones, a neighborhood resident and an associate professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, spoke about the need to take a longer view of the crisis.
“I have seen a lot of anger focused on those people who have taken it upon themselves to maybe loot and engage in vandalism — it’s important to put this into perspective about why it might be happening,” he said. “There were police murders of Black people around the country that sparked those things. What things led to these chain of events? I think there’s a lot of focus on the most proximate events.”
“I’ve seen many public calls for peace, for conduct to be carried out in a certain way in the context of these protests,” he said. “I’m not surprised that people have called for protesters to behave themselves in a certain way, but I would also like people to consider what role police play in escalating things as well.”
Juan Carlos Linares, a Hyde Park resident who resigned from his position as the city’s chief engagement officer in December, spoke about some of his own past interactions with police.
“I was first pulled over, harassed, searched by police when I was 14 years old riding along in a car with some coworkers of mine, just coming out of work in Oak Park,” he said. “And just really the venom that my brother and my good friend who’s African American faced at the time changed the way that I viewed our law enforcement.”
Linares said that one of his sons had been stopped and searched by police when he was 5 years old. “He got to see very early on that we are viewed because of the way we look in a light that’s not always dignified for us,” he said. “I feel like we’re fortified more than any other neighborhood, but we don’t always feel safe because of the way we’re viewed by law enforcement.”
Hyde Park’s three state legislators also outlined the series of police reforms they plan to push for — the trio have called for a special legislative session on law enforcement and criminal justice. Rep. Curtis J. Tarver II (D-25th) said that in February he filed HB4999, which would strip police officers of their pensions if they are convicted of a felony, even if they’re off-duty.
He also said he wanted to expand situations in which police officers can be decertified, and funnel some money from the Cannabis Regulation Fund, which contains revenue from cannabis sales, toward training in de-escalation, traffic stops, and other scenarios for police officers.
Tarver and Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) said they would look to revive an old conversation over private policing, particularly whether the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) should be subject to public records requests.
Rep. Kambium Buckner (D-26th) noted that he had introduced HB3926, which would appoint a special prosecutor in any case where a police officer kills somebody. “The purpose behind it is to make sure that any time situations come up like this that there’s no chance to be subjective, that charges are to be brought that they’re done in a quick and uniform way,” said Buckner. “Not a situation where prosecutors have trouble bringing charges against probably their closest allies in the criminal justice world.”
Buckner also said that he had just introduced a bill similar to a law passed last summer in California, which only allows police officers to use deadly force when it is “necessary.” The current law allows for the use of deadly force when it is “reasonable.”
Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) introduced SB3449 in February — the bill would require that local governments create another option on their emergency hotlines, which would provide response services to people experiencing a mental and behavioral health crisis.
“Oftentimes, we have used the police to be a replacement for services that people need, especially in Hyde Park and in Woodlawn,” said Peters, invoking the 2018 incident in which a University of Chicago student was shot by UCPD officers while experiencing a mental health episode. “I think it can help us move from police being the pure answer to something that’s more open to what the public needs.”
During the last half of the forum, the legislators participated in a question and answer session. One question was about who was responsible for the break-ins and property damage that took place over the weekend. “There are lots of different reports of outsiders coming in,” said Ali Ammoura, an HPKCC member and one of the moderators.
“I think we often rely on the narrative about the outside looter, the outside agitator. I find that a little hilarious because when Dr. King went to Selma, he was an outside agitator,” said Peters. “In terms of Hyde Park, in terms of any damage that was done — compared to some other damage that was done, it seems like it was mostly contained …. It’s not a known thing on exactly who did what.”
Peters also quoted a line he attributed to Toni Preckwinkle: “There are those who loot out of chaos, but most people who are looting are because they live in chaos and pain.”
That brought up a thorny question: how to protect stores in the community without resorting to extreme measures like hiring armed security guards, as Akira, 1539 E. 53rd St., did over the weekend. “What can we do to prevent that in the future as any kind of response to what were mostly peaceful protests?”, asked Ammoura.
Tarver noted that what helped get rid of the guard in front of Akira was the intervention of the U. of C., which owns the building. “At the top of the list of what we can do is speak with the university and hold them accountable for what their tenants are doing, and who they’re able to hire,” he said. “We should really press the university — we don’t want that type of presence on 53rd Street.”
Buckner said there needed to be more conversations about what businesses bring to the community. “Communities like Hyde Park and Kenwood have been very vocal to assert with retailers what we expect from them, but I think we often don’t have those embryonic conversations after (businesses) are actually in the ground,” he said. “It should have been very clear to the owner of Akira that this is not something that flies in our neighborhood.”
At the end of the forum, legislators highlighted the need for people in their district to stay engaged, both with them and the larger social problems at hand.
“We need to keep police accountability and reform at the top of the to-do list,” said Tarver. “This is a priority, this is what sets the grounds for our society. These are individuals who are implementing our laws, and they should be held to the highest standard.” He said he would also like to see more specific conversations with community members about the type of legislation they’d like to see.
Buckner echoed this last point. “Being able to engage in this conversation and being informed and empowered by our constituency is extremely pivotal,” he said. “Being able to go to Springfield with the mighty wind of your constituents at your back is helpful as we work through the legislative process.”
Peters spoke about the possibility of change as a result of the present moment. “It’s in the crisis that we have our best shot to win the accountability we need, and to show how the police haven’t been accountable,” he said. “We can’t just keep missing this boat and this opportunity.”
The entirety of Tuesday evening’s forum can be found online at facebook.com/HPKCC.Chicago/videos/594849987806175.