UPTOWN — When Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy announced plans to venture into the neighborhoods on a “listening tour,” he told reporters to stay away so he could have an open and honest dialogue with community leaders in hopes of repairing the fractured trust between his department and the public.
As things turned out, Chicago’s top police officer isn’t the only one out there “listening” behind closed doors.
McCarthy ordered district commanders to host at least three meetings with neighborhood “stakeholders” this summer as part of a broader fact-finding mission that aims to revamp the department’s community policing strategy — CAPS, that is.
But if you want to be heard or even listen to what’s being said, you’ve got to be invited — and the police make the guest list.
Typically, a CAPS worker sends out a flier inviting community organization leaders — pastors, block club presidents and business owners, among others — for an intimate chat with the district commander.
A flier distributed for one "community meeting" with Chicago Police did not state that it was an invite-only meeting. [Chicago Police]
Recently, a couple of my colleagues showed up at these community meetings — at least that’s how the talks are billed on invitations that carry the CAPS logo — only to have police sergeants kick them out of the closed-door chats with handpicked locals.
Last week, a Town Hall District sergeant told DNAinfo Chicago reporter Mina Bloom it was his job to “fight crime” and her job to “sell papers” just before giving her the boot from the meeting.
Now, it’s no secret that reporters can get especially testy when they get shut out of meetings — we’re pretty protective of the public’s right to know.
But we’re not the only ones.
Uninvited neighborhood stakeholders say they don’t like being left out, either.
Take Alan Mills, executive director for the Uptown People's Law Center, who called the closed-door meeting that he wasn’t invited to attend "absurd" and "deceitful."
"The whole purpose is supposed to find out what the community's concerns are. If police are allowed to hand-pick the people they hear from, they're not hearing from the community," Mills said.
"The fact they're not allowing the press to listen ... we only get to find out what the police department wants us to know."
When I brought that up to new CAPS boss, Deputy Chief Eric Washington, he said that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The invite-only meetings are designed to be an additional way to talk with community leaders — pastors, civic organizations and business leaders, to name a few — without having folks worry their name will appear in a news story, he said.
“This is not a regular beat meeting talking about district problems. It’s about police and community relations and suggestions and solutions for improving that relationship,” Washington said.
“One of the reasons we are not including the media is that a lot of people are not comfortable discussing some things when the media is present. We want people to be honest and open. We don’t want to have anything that is going to inhibit that conversation.”
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi stressed that despite being billed as “community meetings” on invitations, “these are not public meetings.”
And they’re not “propaganda meetings,” either, he said.
“These are part of a process, and the strategy will become public,” he said. “[Reporters] will have plenty of time to look at the strategy and give your two cents.”
Guglielmi offered this analogy: “When you’re buying a wedding cake, they don’t invite the bride and groom when they’re mixing the flour and chocolate in the kitchen. They get invited to the tasting,” Guglielmi said.
“Well, think of it this way, we are building a strategy, we’re inviting counsel from the communities and when we’re at a point we feel we’ve gathered enough and can present it publicly, it will of course be part of the public process, including the media.”
Washington said revised community policing strategies inspired by the invite-only discussions — and regular CAPS beat meetings for that matter — will be “public with no secret documents” and “constantly reviewed and revised.”
“There’s nothing secret that we’re talking about,” he said. “Because if it was, we would tell them not to talk to the media when you leave here. But we are perfectly fine with them having those discussions once they leave the meeting.”
And when the time comes to make changes to the CAPS program, Washington said there’s at least one thing that won’t change.
“The CAPS philosophy is that community meetings are open to everybody including the media,” he said. “It has been [that way], it still is and will continue to be. We are not excluding anybody out of the CAPS process.”
The longer we talked, though, the less clear it was why the police insist on doing all this listening in private when, as Washington told me, the talks center on improving communication and healing the department’s relationship with neighborhood folks rather than offering up crime-stopping tips.
No matter how well intended, the series of invite-only meetings behind closed doors mirrors a brand of selective transparency and message control that reporters increasingly encounter when dealing with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration — even when there’s nothing to hide.
Frankly, and without complaining about it too much, police officials have told DNAinfo Chicago reporters several reasons why uninvited guests aren’t allowed in these private listening tour discussions with district commanders — some that conflicted with Washington’s reasoning for keeping the media and others out.
Maybe it’s just me, the cynical reporter, but that’s always a red flag.
If the police want an open and honest conversation to improve its relationship with the public — and that’s the goal here, right? — I honestly think the best place to do that is out in the open.
Or to steal a metaphor from Guglielmi: Maybe our city's relationship with police will get better if we bake this cake together.
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