They say social media is ephemeral, but a tweet last weekend from Grammy and Oscar winning rapper and Chatham resident Che “Rhymefest” Smith was tangible enough to draw the attention of the Chicago Police Chief of Patrol. “You wonder [why] we don’t report crimes? The police treated me disgustingly,” Rhymefest tweeted out with a video Saturday morning.
The two minute video is worth watching. Shot with Smith’s phone, it’s a group of Chicago police officers at the Grand Crossing station, impassively arguing with and walking away from Smith as he’s trying to register a complaint after being held up at gunpoint in his car earlier that morning. In the video, Smith is agitated, but not aggressive, as you might be if you had been recently held up. The police officers seemed to not have cared less.
You wonder we don't report crimes? The police treated me disgustingly pic.twitter.com/fY9VQrqDpz
— Rhymefest (@RHYMEFEST) August 27, 2016
To the police department’s credit, spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi tweeted back an apology just a few hours later. And later that night, CPD’s Chief of Patrol Fred Waller called Smith to apologize on behalf of the department.
The incident caught on video demonstrates a yawning chasm that divides Chicago’s police and minority communities. We’ve been hearing about that gap throughout the may hearings held across the city by City Council, the Police Accountability Task Force and the Department of Justice. “We don’t trust you,” has pretty much been the theme.
A group of police officers ignoring someone may not seem like a big deal, but in parts of Chicago, it’s just more fuel for the fire.
“The reason the police department has no legitimacy are these small indecencies,” says community organizer Anton Seals, Jr. “The only reason we hear about Rhymefest is because of who he is. I can name countless people that have gone through this. The police are completely disconnected.”
A South Shore resident, Seals has been working on the South and West Sides for decades to build stronger relationships between communities, institutions and the city. In Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, Seals observes, police officers are dealing with the realities of a broken society every day, and he doesn’t blame them for their reaction.
“The officers are inundated with so many things; the calamity of poverty, addiction, broken households. They think the worst of humanity, because they see the worst. You see it in that video. No sense of care. No sense of service, like, what’s wrong? They were antagonizing him,” said Seals “At that level, why would people come see you about a murder?”
Last Thursday, aldermen briefed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s staff on potentially sweeping police reform plans were told that the Mayor plans to put his reforms up for a vote by September 14, and he may or may not publically release a draft of his proposed ordinance this week–two weeks before a vote. Emanuel’s team was also not forthcoming about who they have been working with to draft the police reform ordinance. At the end of their briefing, Aldermen were even asked to hand back papers with the ordinance’s outline.
Aldermen at the briefing were not happy with Emanuel’s lack of interest in disclosing information about his process or a draft of the ordinance to the public. They’re going back for another meeting this morning at 10:00 a.m. I’m told that they’ll be calling for a public release for a second time.
At his best, Mayor Emanuel’s relentless drive to push through change serves the city well. The sheer amount of information available on the city’s data portal is a good example of transparency done right. But his demand for a quick policy fix–even a big one–can sometimes sweep aside important details, like extending Chicago Public Schools’ number of instruction days without getting just a little bit of teacher buy-in first.
Here again, the Emanuel policy freight train is gaining speed, and I’m concerned it will result in a Council rubber stamp without gaining public trust.
Police reform might actually be the biggest issue of Emanuel’s entire tenure. And unless Emanuel is able to enact meaningful reform, there is a real possibility the Department of Justice will take away mayoral control of the police, as they have in Newark and are threatening to do in Baltimore.
But reform requires more than policy, it requires trust.
Chief of Patrol Fred Waller’s apology call this weekend was a good step towards building trust. But that sort of thing needs to happen a thousand times over for Chicagoans that haven’t won Grammys or Oscars. If Mayor Emanuel can put some of his considerable energy into visiting Chicago’s communities to explain his proposed police reforms before a Council vote, he might begin to gain the trust he needs to make his policies work.