By Erica Walker
Erica gave this presentation at KAM Isaiah Israel last Shabbat in preparation for our upcoming Passover community meeting for police accountability: Out From The Narrows. Join us!
Shabbat shalom. On April 2nd, our congregation will be hosting a police accountability community meeting with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. It’s important that the Jewish community takes a stand on this issue. We have an opportunity to take that stand right here at KAM Isaiah Israel. Tonight I stand here at the bimah before you, my chosen community of values and faith, to share a few thoughts on the issue of police accountability as a South Sider, a woman of color, a mother of two young boys, a historian, a member of the social work profession and as a concerned citizen.
When I think about the persistent undercurrent of tension, disconnection and distrust between the Chicago Police Department and the community within which we are embedded, I am reminded that the tension hasn’t emerged from a vacuum. I think about the historical origins of local law enforcement in this country, and in Chicago specifically, where the establishment of our police department actually predates the incorporation of the city itself. Although the city of Boston can take credit for establishing the first organized community watch in 1636, the dynamic of enforcement and control which we recognize in law enforcement today finds its origins in slave patrols in the South, as early as 1704. In many cases law enforcement patrols were established as the front line mechanism to secure protection of privileged classes of people and to control, intimidate and suppress people on the margins of society: poor people, people of color and ethnic minorities, people suffering mental illness, social misfits, and other community members seen as “disorderly” or outside the norms of civil society. Constables and patrollers worked within the auspices of a legal system which in some cases sanctioned discriminatory practices, as well as a persistent undercurrent of conspiratorial silence, bribery and corruption. Chicago was no exception, and from early on our department garnered a reputation for serving and protecting a select few. Although the social landscape has become more complex and many advances have been made to promote equality both within the ranks of the police force and with respect to the treatment of citizens they have sworn to serve and protect, there is still so much work to be done.
On January 6, 2011, Chicago police pulled over Darius Pinex in Englewood, 3.5 miles from this synagogue. Within minutes of the stop, officers Raoul Mosqueda and Gildardo Sierra fired into the car. One of their bullets struck Darius in the head. The father of three died at the age of 27. Since the shooting, it was revealed that the City’s legal department intentionally withheld evidence about the incident. The officers had lied and covered up their reasons for stopping Pinex’s car. Both officers have troubling records, including other fatal shootings. In the six years since this shooting, neither officer has been disciplined. Officer Sierra resigned in 2015. Officer Mosqueda is still on the force. The Independent Police Review Authority (known as IPRA) recommended firing Mosqueda last month, but the department has not acted on that recommendation. Just days before the recommendation, the police department appointed Mosqueda to field training officer, a post that would have positioned him to train rookie officers.
Darius Pinex’s shooting was not an isolated incident. A January report by the Department of Justice concluded that, “CPD engages in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional force.” The prevalence of police misconduct in Chicago stems from a history of unchecked, disproportionate enforcement against citizens unfairly profiled for criminal activity, in addition to decades of policies that have weakened our police accountability systems. The “code of silence” among police officers is codified into law through the police union contract. This contract includes clauses that protect officers from providing testimony in the first 24 hours after a shooting, and allows them to retroactively change testimony if provided with new video evidence.
In speaking about police accountability, we must remember that this issue is not solely a matter of individual behavior. The opacity of the department’s inner workings, its labyrinthine accountability processes and the organized silence of its fraternal order take bureaucracy and use it effectively as a shield to defend itself from answering to the public in a forthright and meaningful way, discouraging individual citizens from taking action against officers who behave unethically or illegally. When 4 of 5 new police recruits cannot accurately describe the use of force policy, that is an indictment of the department itself. It is a system riddled with dysfunction, ineffective at preventing misconduct, or applying consequences for it.
With these conditions in mind, it’s our duty to advocate for increased transparency within the force and an expanded, permanent place at the table for community members and concerned citizens to be genuinely heard, consulted for input and communicated with to develop and monitor improvements. All across Chicago, community organizations are coalescing to ignite a campaign for improvements in police accountability processes. The Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (known as GAPA) has begun organizing for improvements in the practices, accountability and community relationships of the Chicago Police Department. This movement is unique in that it is community led. More than 1,600 Chicagoans participated in community meetings across the city to shape GAPA. I participated in one of these conversations in Bronzeville, along with Rabbi Reeves and other members of KAM Isaiah Israel.
As this grassroots movement gains momentum, I believe we must take our place in this process as a Jewish community. We are charged both by our collective experiences throughout history as a group persistently targeted for suppression, and our definitive identity as a minority group, as strangers in a strange land, so to speak, to advocate for and stand with others with similar experiences, especially those who are vulnerable, disempowered and socially isolated. Woven into the fabric of our lives, our celebrations and our values as Jews, is the strong imperative to never forget the conditions within which Jewish identity has been forged, the circumstances our ancestors experienced, and what our mission is as a people in this world. As we approach Pesach and recall the great imbalance of power between apathetic Egyptian authority and a weary, enslaved Hebrew populace, we also see how powerful a dedicated advocate with strength of purpose can be in irrevocably changing the established order. Like Moshe, we can each use our unique positions, strengths and abilities to seek justice and effect powerful, positive change.
On Sunday, April 2nd, more than 200 people will gather here for Out From The Narrows, a Passover community meeting. Together, we will learn how Jews across Chicago can take action with GAPA. I am proud that our congregation has chosen to continue in its legacy as a leading voice for social justice in Chicago by hosting this program. Police accountability is not a consensus issue in the Jewish community, particularly in a time of increased Anti-Semitism, but it is an issue which impacts everyone in the Jewish community. As we watchfully defend our sacred spaces from threats and desecration, we must remember that police accountability does not conflict with our safety, and that a just, transparent relationship between community and police contributes to security and stability. An essential aspect of bringing this ideal to fruition involves ensuring that police officers understand themselves as our fellow citizens and as partners in shaping our communities.
I personally believe that today, most people join the CPD because at their core, they are driven by the same commitment to community service as I am, and that the vast majority of men and women who serve as CPD officers do so with integrity and desire to collaborate for improved conditions within the department. For that reason I am hopeful that increased, meaningful collaboration and mutual respect will be the outcome over time. Therefore, I am calling on you, as stakeholders in the safety, vibrancy and growth of this community, to take your place in this process.
Do not underestimate the power you have as a single person, but especially the power you partake in as a member of a collective voice, calling for a more just, more accountable police force, in better touch with its directive to serve and protect. I will join JCUA, Jewish leaders from the region, and representatives of GAPA for Out From The Narrows on April 2nd. I hope to see you all there.