We all want our communities to be both safe and just. We want to tuck our children into bed, go to the parks and send them off to school without fear of their being put in harm’s way. At the same time, we want fathers and mothers to be home with their children, and not locked up behind bars when they do not pose a threat to our communities.
For decades, we’ve tried the lock-everyone-up tactic. The U.S. became the most incarcerated nation in the world. The results were financially costly, extracted a massive human toll and did not make us safer.
In 2018, homicides in Chicago decreased by 14 percent from 2017, and 32 percent since 2016. At the same time, Chicago reduced its use of money bail, which holds people in jail before trial who are presumed innocent but are too poor to pay. And it kept thousands of people out of the justice system who posed little safety threat by diverting them into alternative programs. As students of the need for smart justice reform, one of us as an activist and one as a former law enforcement officer, we watched these changes with admiration and elation.
Chicago is making great progress. Just a few years ago, Chicago regularly made front-page headlines, but not because it was on the cutting edge of criminal justice reform. Homicides were up and too many went unsolved. Police abuses of power went unchecked. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Hall delayed publicly releasing a police dashcam video showing Officer Jason Van Dyke killing Laquan McDonald.
But now, Chicago is on the forefront of a movement that is finally bringing justice, accountability and safety to the criminal justice system.
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has stood at the center of this transformation. Since taking office in 2016, Foxx increased transparency in the office, stopped prosecuting marijuana possession, reduced the use of money bail, diverted more cases out of jail and prison and back into the community, and developed a conviction integrity unit that has vacated dozens of cases.
She hasn’t done it alone; Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart ended use of solitary confinement in county jails, the state legislature passed a bill sealing the records of those who have paid their debt, and we’ve seen champions such as state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth and Attorney General Kwame Raoul leading the way on criminal justice reform. Now, Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot joins their ranks. All of these leaders partner with and are pushed by such grassroots groups as the Chicago Bond Fund and the People’s Lobby, both of which play leading roles in the movement to end the criminalization of poverty.
The Chicago police are playing a key role in helping us build a safer and more just future. With Eddie Johnson at the helm, the Chicago Police Department has moved to more community policing, and he and Foxx continue working together on reforms. This is a welcome turn, but there is much more work to do: The city only solves 1 in 6 homicides, but the trajectory is brighter than it has been in decades.
But there is one influential group in Chicago that poses a grave threat to this city’s safety: Chicago’s police union, the Fraternal Order of Police. The union is a relic of the past, with a commitment to protecting all officers, even those who give it a bad name. After Van Dyke killed McDonald, the FOP not only vociferously defended Van Dyke, but the union also hired him. The FOP has criticized the city for settling cases involving gross allegations of police misconduct. And it defended former police Cmdr. John Burge after his death, despite his squad’s documented history of physical and psychological abuse.
The FOP has regularly lambasted Foxx and her office. Recently, it led protests outside of her office where some report that hate groups were also present. The FOP called the Van Dyke trial “a sham.” Recently, the union unleashed on Foxx after she dismissed charges against a teenage girl accused of assaulting a police officer. A video released recently shows the officers abused the child, not the other way around.
The FOP makes the work of the mostly good, honest and dedicated officers harder and communities less safe. Communities of color that believe police are in alliance with white supremacist groups are not going to come forward as witnesses to crime, a phenomenon documented by law professor Monica Bell in a recent article for the Yale Law Review. When the FOP defends officers who abuse children, how can the community trust the police?
We must, therefore, demand that the FOP stop its baseless and dangerous attacks on smart reformers such as Foxx. If we do not call them out, we embolden their voices, make them credible and allow them to drown out the work of good police officers and public officials while halting necessary change. We need more accountability and elected officials who are smart on crime, not overly punitive. We’re calling on all leaders — the mayor, the state’s attorney, the police superintendent and the sheriff — to reject the politics of the FOP and relegate its destructive ideas to the dustbin of history where they belong.
John Legend is an entertainer and activist. Neill Franklin is executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership and a former police officer.
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