CPD Superintendent addresses student activists concerns

Chicago Police Superintendant Eddie Johnson addesses the questions brought up by members of Youth For Black Lives meeting at Experimental Station, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave. Jan. 17.

By Jackie Murray

With only days notice to find a new location and a battle over a public or private meeting, a local teen activist group and community members were able to openly speak with Chicago Police Department Superintendent Eddie Johnson about pressing citizen concerns.

Youth for Black Lives struggled to avoid cancellation after Chicago Public Schools said Jan. 13 that the Jan. 17 meeting could no longer be held at  Walter Payton College Prep, according to a group member’s tweet. 

A day before the meeting, the teens found another discussion space at Hyde Park’s Experimental Station, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave. The meeting, which Johnson agreed to in November 2016 with the promise of more to come, went as scheduled despite low attendance.

Issues of police accountability and training, among others  were posed to Johnson in the open forum discussion.

“I’ve already acknowledged that the Chicago Police Department is not a perfect agency, and we have a lot of work to do in terms of restoring the public’s trust,” Johnson said during the meeting. 

The questions, some of which were submitted to Johnson on index cards from attendees, were often blunt, especially one posed by 8-year-old attendee Claire who asked,“Why do you harm people who don’t even do anything?” 

Another attendee asked, “Why is fear a reason for taking a human’s life when police officers train and sign up for the job?” 

The goal of the meeting was to discuss how to obtain justice for Chicago communities and hold higher-ups like Johnson and Mayor Rahm Emanuel accountable, according to a Nov. 11, 2016, press release from the organizing group. 

Youth for Black Lives was founded in July 2016 by five teenage girls who wanted to validate and amplify the young black voices, according to its website.

Addressing the 13-month long investigation of CPD by the U.S. Department of Justice, Johnson and Emanuel said they have already begun to reform the police department and work toward greater transparency with a new oversight agency and body cameras, as reported  Jan. 13 by The Chronicle.

“You say accountability starts with you; my question is, how do you hold yourself accountable?” asked organization member and 18-year-old Walter Payton College Prep student Eva Lewis. 

Johnson explained that he will be holding officers accountable for inappropriate or intentional misconduct, but he said honest mistakes made by police officers will call for coaching, mentoring and the training needed in order to go back out on the street. 

“Police officers are not machines,” Johnson said. “They’re not robots. They’re humans. They’re people—everyday people. They can make honest mistakes, but they’ll still be held accountable.” 

Johnson also mentioned that CPD is looking for a new facility  to provide state-of-the-art training that will produce more well- rounded officers. 

“On TV, it looks like that’s a simple thing, but when officers are involved in those stressful situations, it is difficult,” Johnson said in response to a question asking why officers are trained to shoot to kill instead of merely incapacitating suspects. 

Another concern brought up by the group was the quality of  safety CPS students experience while commuting and attending their assigned schools. Johnson was also asked how officers appointed to schools are trained for the job. 

He explained the officers receive additional training, typically want to work in schools and have a strong background in community policing.

Later in the meeting, group member and 17-year-old Jones College Prep student Maxine Aguilar asked Johnson what CPD is doing for CPS students to educate them on their rights as citizens. He replied by noting how a couple of programs are in place for officers to visit schools and teach the dos and don’ts and the best way to handle being pulled over by police. 

A goal for the next meeting is greater involvement from the community, Aguilar said.

“Next meeting, we want to have a much larger youth presence, so they’re asking questions and [helping to craft] the meeting,” Aguilar said.

Although CPD News Affairs declined to discuss the debate over a public versus private meeting, the office said in a Jan. 19 emailed  statement that Johnson values ongoing dialogue and would “very much” like to continue meeting with the group.

Lewis noted that the group was glad Johnson held himself accountable by coming to the meeting and being willing to talk. 

“We accomplished accountability, and that in itself is incredible,” Lewis said.