The pain was palpable Thursday night as black attorneys and citizens recounted their own and others’ negative experiences with Chicago’s criminal justice system.
Jeanette S. Samuels, the managing partner at Samuels & Associates Ltd., shared how she confronted a police officer who was physically blocking protesters from interfering with a nearby arrest. A man was being arrested for having a heated argument with an officer, Samuels said.
“I told him, ‘You know he didn’t do anything wrong,’ and he said, ‘Yeah,’” she said.
Samuels’ account was among many described during a town hall meeting hosted by the Cook County Bar Association at Trinity United Church of Christ at 400 W. 95th St. in the Washington Heights neighborhood.
The event served as a launch pad for the 101-year-old bar group’s new criminal justice reform platform, which it adopted earlier this week.
The 10-point plan calls for a variety of administrative and legal changes to municipal and state law in an attempt to address the recent killings of black people by police officers in Chicago and nationwide.
As the association pushes its platform, it will take into account the stories that were shared and propose solutions, said CCBA President Arlene Y. Coleman in an interview after the 2½-hour meeting.
“This is going to take time,” Coleman said. “We have to be patient and focused and diligent. After this meeting, we’ll review what we learned here and then we might meet again or meet with different community groups.”
Coleman said the town hall’s turnout of more than 200 people indicated to her that people “want to have this conversation.”
The CCBA is calling for the creation of an independent civilian body that would investigate all police shootings. Community organizations would recommend members, whom the mayor would then appoint.
The group is also calling for State’s Attorney Anita M. Alvarez to recuse herself from prosecuting Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke because of “an apparent conflict of interest.”
Van Dyke was charged with murder after the city, under court orders, released a video showing the white officer shooting Laquan McDonald, a black teenager, 16 times.
In Alvarez’s stead, the CCBA wants a special prosecutor to handle police-involved shootings.
The association is also calling for the ongoing U.S. Department of Justice probe into the Chicago Police Department to be expanded to include the Independent Police Review Authority and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.
Furthermore, the CCBA’s newly-adopted criminal justice reform platform requests the immediate release of all dashcam videos in police-related shootings.
To that end, the association is backing House Bill 4355. This legislation — sponsored by Rep. Arthur L. Turner, a West Side Democrat — would prevent both videos from dashcams and officer-worn cameras from being exempted under the Freedom of Information Act unless a public body files suit to prevent it.
If a public body does file suit, the court would hold an “expedited hearing on the issue.”
Other reforms were offered up during the town hall meeting, but a number of them were intangible or did not offer an immediate path forward.
For instance, many identified the “code of silence” among police officers and the need to “change the paradigm” in the police force.
But other individuals simply wanted to express their pain. During the question-and-answer session, one man described watching the children of Bettie Jones — the 55-year-old mother of five who was killed by Chicago police on Dec. 26 — clean up her blood.
Speaking at the outset of the meeting, Coleman described the town hall as being “step three” in the CCBA’s criminal justice reform campaign. Steps one and two involved the creation of its platform and community outreach.
Step three also involved showing unity with black communities in other cities and states. Consequently, the CCBA invited Benjamin Crump, president of the National Bar Association, to deliver the keynote address at the town hall.
A partner at Tallahassee, Fla.-based Parks and Crump LLC, Crump described how the family of Trayvon Martin hired him to represent them after their son was killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in 2012.
“If we don’t stand up for Trayvon, who will stand up for Trayvon?” Crump asked. “Are we going to try to do the right thing for our community?”
The town hall meeting comes nearly two months after Cook County Associate Judge Franklin U. Valderrama ordered the city to release the video depicting Van Dyke killing 17-year-old McDonald.
Since the video’s release, leadership in the police department and IPRA has toppled — police superintendent Garry McCarthy was fired and IPRA head Scott Ando resigned — and many in the city are calling for more resignations.