One year ago, shortly before the riots began in her native Twin Cities and then moved to Chicago, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle expressed astonishment to the Herald that the Minneapolis mayor had immediately fired Officer Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd and called in the FBI to investigate the case.
She noted at the time that it had been 34 years between the time an officer of the Chicago Police Department had been convicted of murdering someone and when former officer Jason Van Dyke was convicted, in 2018, of murdering Laquan McDonald.
"What I've always said is that I live in a country in which the police can murder Black and Brown people with impunity," Preckwinkle said in 2021. "The thing about the conviction of Derek Chauvin, of course, is that it's exceptional. It's not standard operating procedure. It's not what you'd expect in almost all situations in this country. It's extraordinary.
"And that's what stands out to me: not only was he dismissed from the police force promptly, as were the three other officers who aided and abetted George Floyd's murder, but he was convicted, and convicted on all counts, furthermore."
"The murder of Black and Brown people in this country, whether it's intra-communal violence or whether it's murder by the police, is not considered anything of consequence, because it's not addressed," Preckwinkle said, suggesting that significant efforts would be made if White people were murdered in the streets by each other or the police like people of color are.
"But the lives of Black and Brown people are cheap," she said, "and neither the violence that takes place in our neighborhoods nor the violence that is imposed on our communities by the police is addressed."
The one-year anniversary of the largest civil unrest and protest wave in Chicago's history has come without the City Council passing a single measure of police reform, though Mayor Lori Lightfoot has directed policy changes for CPD to enact.
Preckwinkle, asked whether community violence or police brutality is substantively changing in Chicago, said she was encouraged by the number of White protesters out a year ago. "Black people, we're people who believe in protest," she said. "The fact that Black people were in the streets was not surprising. The fact that non-Black people of all descriptions were in the streets was heartening."
In terms of actions taken, she credited the Illinois General Assembly's passage of a criminal justice reform package earlier this year, spearheaded by the Legislative Black Caucus, which Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law in February.
It bans pretrial detention through cash bond for most offenses, a priority of local state Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th). It gives the state more power over certifying and hiring officers at local levels through a police certification system, a priority of Attorney General Kwame Raoul (D). It bans chokeholds outside of situations that authorize the use of deadly force, and it mandates the use of body cameras.
"I think that you have to say the environment changed sufficiently that that legislation was not only proposed, but passed," Preckwinkle said. "The fact that they passed substantial criminal justice reform legislation in the aftermath of the demonstrations and civil unrest of the summer I think is not a coincidence."
But in Chicago, Preckwinkle would like to see investment in communities where there is the most violence, as well as the highest level of unemployment, the poorest-performing schools, no grocery stores and no access to quality health care.
"There's a whole constellation of challenges that they face, and violence is one of them, but it's not the only one," she said. "I would argue that the other challenges — I won't say 'foment' violence but certainly contribute to the magnitude of the violence."
And Chicago must improve police-community relations, she said.
"What I always say is we live in a city in which the closure rates for murder are less than 20% and the closure rates for shootings are less than 10%," Preckwinkle said. "As long as that's the case, you're not going to get anybody to believe that the police in the communities protect and serve them."
She questioned how people can believe in the "protect and serve" motto with such low clearance rates and suggested it leads people to pursue vigilante justice "because they know that the police, the criminal courts and the criminal justice system are not going to deliver it to them."
"You solve crimes by having the police talk to people," she said. "If people have no confidence in the police and don't talk to them, then the police of course can't solve the crimes. And if the police are the oppressors in our community rather than looking at themselves as guardians, then it's pretty hopeless.
"And I'm afraid that's where we are at this moment. We're in a situation where, in many of our neighborhoods, the police are not seen as guardians. They're seen as part of the oppressive institutions that folks encounter on the street. That is an insurmountable thing. Part of the problem is training; part of the problem is just the endemic racism in this country, and the arena at which it's most starkly evident is, of course, in the relationship between police and community and in our criminal justice system."
Preckwinkle walked back the "insurmountable" comment when pushed, saying, "I should not be so pessimistic." Asked by what means that relationship could be changed, she answered, "I'm an elected official in a democracy, and so I believe in the importance of leadership.
"When I came into this office, one of the first things I said was, 'The criminal justice system in this country disproportionately impacts Black and Brown people and is inherently unjust,' " she said. "We've got some serious challenges in this country that historically we've either denied or ignored or pooh-poohed around racial injustice and racism. I mean, if we don't start acknowledging those challenges and trying to figure out how to address them, we're not going to get anywhere."
Police should be trained more broadly and continuously, she said, and social and community workers trained in de-escalation should respond to domestic calls instead of police. "And you've got to frankly weed out who are bad actors. If you look at Jason Van Dyke's record, he had all of these complaints about the way in which he treated our residents. This wasn't the first time in which he was accused of racist behavior."
But at this point, the General Assembly's action — and the work of Black South Side legislators — gives her hope. "The response of the state legislature was broad criminal reform legislation," she observed.