JEFFERSON PARK — More than 100 people lined Milwaukee Avenue Thursday evening outside the Jefferson Park Police District station for a rally in support of local police.
For more than an hour, people milled in front of the station and stood along both sides of the street, holding up printed signs saying "Police Lives Matter" for passing traffic to see.
The event was cobbled together with less than a week's notice by two of the area's aldermen, Nicholas Sposato (38th), a former firefighter, and Anthony Napolitano (41st), a former police officer.
"This isn't meant to be any kind of political statement or to offend anyone," Sposato said at the event. "We just want [police] to know that we're proud of them, and that we'll always have their back."
Ever since the substantial backlash that followed last year's release of a video showing the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, Sposato said, morale has plummeted among the city's police.
"We've got guys who are scared to death out there, thinking that every time they make an arrest they're going to be sued," Sposato said. "I just wish people didn't think police were always out to get them."
The rally took on special meaning in light of a cell hone video released this week showing an officer kicking a man's head while he resisted arrest. The video sparked an immediate investigation by the Independent Police Review Authority, and the officer involved was relieved of his police powers, police said.
The man, 23-year-old Shaquille O'Neal, was later released from custody without being charged, according to the Sun-Times. He was later re-arrested and charged with battery and heroin possession, but not before Fraternal Order of Police president Dean Angelo wrote a blistering public note saying police are "tired of being considered by some to be second class citizens."
The video and its aftermath were high on the minds of many people at the rally, including Ginny Procuniar, a retired Army reservist who wore a shirt reading "Never mess with an old lady on a bicycle."
"I mean, what was [the arresting officer] supposed to do? Let the other guy win?" said Procuniar, whose husband is a retired Chicago Police officer. "These guys are working in some really rough areas, and they're starting to think that unless they do nothing, they're going to be under serious scrutiny."
Even with the scrutiny, Officer David Disanti said, the officer in the video had clear evidence on his side.
"Right before [the officer] boots him, the guy reaches up and puts [the arresting officer] in a choke hold, which is deadly force," said Disanti, who was off duty when he came to the rally. "You're taught that in that situation, you can use direct mechanical force to deal with the situation."
"People need to understand that police officers are doing the best job they can, under really difficult circumstances," Disanti added. "You don't have time to second-guess yourself when you're in a dark alley in a dangerous neighborhood, the way you do when you're sitting at the breakfast table reading about it in the paper the next day."
For Napolitano, meanwhile, showing unequivocal support for police is more than a moral choice: It's vital to public safety.
"The fact is that we've got over 1,700 people shot in this city, 300 people killed, and it's not even summer yet," Napolitano said. "Police officers are going to be out there taking this on every day, and if they don't know that we're all behind them, things could get even worse."
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