The Problem of the Police-Community Divide

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The Problem of the Police-Community Divide

Police making an arrest in Chicago. Credit: Flickr user grendelkhan

On a Tuesday afternoon late last month, 15-year-old Hadiyah Pendleton and her friends were hanging out in a Chicago park shortly after finishing exams at their nearby high school. Around 2:30pm, an unknown gunman appeared from an alley and opened fire before escaping to a getaway car.

Pendleton, who just days before had performed with her marching band at President Obama’s inauguration, was shot in the back and killed. She became one of more than 40 Chicagoans murdered in January, the same month that Obama put on the full-court press to advance his gun control package.

The tragic irony of these events has caused Chicago a moment of pause, starting a discussion of what public safety measures are needed to move forward. Pendleton’s death points to the need for stricter federal laws to support Chicago’s ongoing gun control efforts. But it also reveals the extraordinary limits of relying solely on a legislative strategy to protect residents.

What more is needed to bring safety to Chicago’s streets? In addition to making it harder for potential gunmen to obtain weapons, what can be done to create peace in parks and on sidewalks and street corners?

These are huge questions, the kind that cannot be adequately answered in blog posts. Nonetheless, I would like to put one idea on the table. It’s not new, yet it is desperately needed: We must heal the divide between police and community.

The gulf between Democrats and Republicans is not the only rift preventing progress in the public safety arena. In cities like Chicago, the police-community divide is also keeping us from building a safer world for our children.

In Pendleton’s case, evidence of this divide has been abundant. Though the Chicago Police Department has since corrected its statements, the first officers interviewed after her killing painted it as a gang-related incident, positioning Pendleton and her friends as active members in Chicago’s illegal street life, rather than seeing them as regular teens hanging out in a park.

Statements like this are common after the death of black youth in Chicago, though only rarely do cases become high-profile enough that those statements get checked by fact.

Meanwhile, since the shooting, the police have announced a reward for information leading to the arrest of the gunman — a reward that started at $11,000, then grew to $24,000 and now stands at $40,000. This vast sum of money is intended to counteract the silence in many Chicago communities, where non-cooperation with the police is reinforced by a popular “stop snitching” mantra, one that protects the identity of shooters like Pendleton’s killer.

What does it mean when police officers confuse a group of honor students for gang members? Or when huge rewards must be offered to get a lead on a highly public murder that took place in broad daylight?

It means that the police and the community no longer trust each other.

In large parts of Chicago, it is clear that police officers and community members don’t consider themselves allies. This is especially true on the South and West Sides, where most of the shootings happen, as well as most of the arrests and cases of police misconduct.

Though it captures few direct headlines, the consequences of the police-community divide are painfully evident. Every time detectives seek information to solve a case, they know the odds are against them. And every time young people are stopped on the street, they know that the encounter can quickly escalate for the worst.

Though its scope is still not clearly defined, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has talked about reviving the city’s longstanding tradition of community policing. If this becomes a priority for his administration, the challenge will be developing a strategy that is more than just inviting people to share concerns at meetings, which has been the default program for the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, infamous for almost exclusively attracting senior citizens.

Will the mayor’s plans actually lead to a new direction in police-community relationships? Achieving this would require Emanuel to play a role that falls far outside his public persona: He would have to play the role of a healer.

Through his top brass, Emanuel would have to create spaces for community members and officers to come together and talk through their issues, expanding the possibilities for positive encounters. This would mean be a serious departure from business as usual. In Chicago, like most major U.S. cities, the rift between police and community has built up over decades.

Especially severe in African-American neighborhoods, the divide has been aggravated by the War on Drugs, where our country has spent over a trillion dollars to create the world’s largest prison population, without ever getting to the root of drug sales or addiction.

More than any other professional group, the police are the ones tasked with enforcing drug laws responsible for mass incarceration, a phenomenon that has been incredibly toxic for their relationships with community members. When many Chicagoans see a police officer today, they are poised to think of the people who locked up a husband, father, brother or any number of other family members.

As the city seeks to prevent future murders — whether they be of honor students or youth struggling to stay in school — it must learn to do more than just take people away from their homes and families.

Chicago must foster real relationships between law enforcement and those they are meant to serve, reclaiming many years of lost trust and developing enforcement strategies that are not based solely on widespread removal.

So long as community members see the police as a destabilizing force in their neighborhoods, random gunmen will keep getting away with murder. And as long as police officers still just assume that groups of black youth in public places are gang-affiliated, they will never be able to see the community as a true partner in keeping communities safe.

Ryan Lugalia-Hollon has worked at major educational institutions across the City of Chicago, including The Field Museum, Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Chicago. He currently serves as a Justice Fellow for the Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice at the Adler School of Professional Psychology, and is a founding board member of the Community Justice for Youth Institute.

Ryan Lugalia-Hollon has worked in youth development for over twenty years, including restorative justice, violence prevention, and trauma-informed care efforts in Chicago. He holds a PhD and Masters in Urban Planning and Policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He currently leads an education network in San Antonio, Texas. He is a Next City Vanguard.

Tags: culturechicagopoliceracecrimepublic safetyrahm emanuelgun violence

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