CITY HALL — Two days of City Council hearings on police accountability began Wednesday with attacks on several fronts calling the meetings "a farce" and "wholly inadequate" to the task of reforming the Police Department.
"To us, the hearings are a farce," said opening witness Mike Elliot of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression, and he added there was little Mayor Rahm Emanuel or aldermen could do to change that perception.
"We no longer accept appointments by the mayor or the City Council," he said.
Chicago Urban League President Shari Runner echoed that, though in slightly less confrontational language. "We must not squander this moment," she said, when "the police are no longer trusted" in many neighborhoods across the city.
Yet she complained that the joint meetings of the Public Safety and Budget committees on Wednesday and Thursday were being held with little advance notice during normal working hours immediately after a holiday, in effect to dissuade or minimize public participation. Runner called for "more-focused and well-planned hearings."
Paul Strauss of the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights agreed, charging that the hearings were being held "without an agenda or any real effort" at reform. He called the hearings "wholly inadequate" to the task of reforming police procedure.
"There needs to be a much greater degree of community engagement," Strauss said, asking aldermen to "postpone action until a real process for genuine civic engagement can be put in place."
For all that, there was much agreement on immediate reforms that could be instituted.
Strauss suggested a "police auditor," and Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), chairman of the Budget Committee, and Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th), chairman of the Public Safety Committee, tacitly endorsed that by backing the appointment of what they called a "public-safety inspector general," as well as a civilian police oversight board to replace the Independent Police Review Authority.
Austin said those measures would "help restore the public trust" in the department.
Reboyras insisted he was out to "solicit feedback from the public" for a "package" of reforms to be put together along with the Emanuel administration.
"Let's stay on topic," Reboyras said at one point. "We're here to address recommendations for reform."
Yet others maintained true reforms could only come from voters and the community and not elected officials. Frank Chapman of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression called Emanuel "illegitimate," charging that the mayor "suppressed the Laquan McDonald tape" while running for re-election.
"It's time for some action, and we're not going to get it from the City Council," Chapman said.
"You can't rebuild trust just by writing ordinances," said Erica Rangel of the Little Village-based community group Enlace Chicago.
Many of the aldermen in the joint hearing sat back and took the criticism, but Ald. David Moore (17th) agreed, saying, "At the end of the day, if there's no community engagement, there's no ordinance."
After the 100-minute hearing ended, the Progressive Reform Caucus issued a statement calling for additional community input, with Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) saying, "The challenges of police reform cannot be confronted from the top down."
"We must pursue a thorough community-engagement process that elevates the voices of our constituents who are most impacted by excessive use of force and other common issues," Hairston said.
"We must meet with Chicagoans on every side of the city to make sure the needs and concerns of every community are accounted for," added Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd).
Nonetheless, both Austin and Reboyras declared Wednesday's two-hour hearing "productive."
"People need to be able to vent," Austin said. "I have to agree with some of their statements that maybe we do need to be in the community," she added, although she also cited how Emanuel's appointed Police Accountability Task Force had already conducted public meetings on the same basic issue.
Reboyras said Thursday's hearing would focus more on expert testimony, although the Police Department and its Fraternal Order of Police union were not expected to formally be in attendance.
"That has not been requested," Reboyras said, adding that he didn't want to "take away from" the public participation in the process. "The objective is we want the community to be part of this."
Reboyras granted that perhaps more extensive hearings, away from City Hall, might be called for, but he and Austin rejected estimates that it could take six months or more.
"That's kind of far out," Austin said.
"We're looking at two, three months," Reboyras added, with the goal being to submit a package of police reforms for the September or October Council meetings.
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