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Black Chicago officers form outreach group to lend perspective

“We want to break the us v. them mentality: ‘you are with the cops, or you’re with the community’”

Chicago police Officer Akiba McKinney speaks outside Stone Temple Church along with fellow officers J'mal Riley, left, and Sgt. Jermaine Harris

Chicago police Officer Akiba McKinney speaks outside Stone Temple Church along with fellow officers J’mal Riley, left, and Sgt. Jermaine Harris on Feb. 24, 2021.

Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune

By Annie Sweeney
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Black officers in the Chicago Police Department are forming their own professional organization to lend perspective amid long-standing tensions between law enforcement and communities of color, they said, and to serve as a counterweight to an often divisive message coming from the city’s largest police union and its president.

With race at the core of the national reckoning in law enforcement, the officers’ voices and experience are essential, they argue. So they have formed the new Black Public Safety Alliance as a way to collectively speak out on policing issues.

“A lot of us are very, very active in the community. It’s just a lot of us coming together supporting each other … and then providing just a different narrative,” Officer Akiba McKinney, who will serve as second vice president of the new organization, said recently while standing on the steps of the historic Stone Temple Baptist Church in North Lawndale, where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached and a site significant to some in the group.

The officers see the forming of the organization as part of the civil rights conversation the country finds itself in the wake of high-profile killing of George Floyd and others by police. As leaders in a historically marginalized group, they said they feel it is their responsibility to use their power to support the Black community and also challenge, if needed, the positions of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 and particularly its president, John Catanzara.

“We want to not just let other officers (know) but let the community know: He doesn’t represent us,” McKinney said of recent controversies surrounding the FOP leader.

The organization has incorporated as a nonprofit and formed subcommittees on department diversity, mentoring of youth, police reform and one dedicated to helping officers with work-related concerns. There are 25 members, which includes officers, sergeants and a lieutenant.

They have quietly sought support from Black professionals and leading Black organizations. On Sunday, they plan to formally introduce themselves with a virtual news conference, as Black History Month winds to a close.

Their own voice

While criticism of the FOP has reached a fever pitch of late over controversial social media posts by Catanzara that have him facing discipline, the decision by the Black officers to organize still is a noteworthy move within a profession known for closing ranks and falling in line.

It also comes as police unions nationally face criticism for increasingly polarizing positions, and as rank-and-file officers are instructed to try to repair relations with the Black community. As recently as July, a Black rookie officer in Chicago announced he intended to leave the union, also citing concerns with the FOP.

The officers involved in the Alliance described several reasons for wanting their own voice. Those include Catanzara’s disapproval of officers who have knelt in support of social justice, including one who did so outside the FOP lodge, and his failure to initially condemn the Jan. 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol by the supporters of former President Donald Trump, despite fellow officers being targeted and one being killed.

They noted that the department is seeking to fire him for posting the offensive and incendiary comments on social media, as well as the fact he has been denounced by national groups, including the National FOP.

Black officers, group members said, do not feel supported or comfortable at the FOP. And the union in general has resisted a court-ordered department reform process that aims to restore community trust and also address policing practices that cause harm in Black neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the officers who have created the new group said they want to work to support programs and policies that strengthen bonds between residents and the community.

“The Black community-despite their very tumultuous history with police, still want the police patrolling their neighborhoods,” McKinney wrote to the Tribune in an email to explain the group’s stance. “So why is there such resistance in uniting and respecting the citizens in the communities in which we serve and protect?”

But the officers said the organizing is not only about challenging the FOP, but about creating a group that will support both Chicago’s Black and Hispanic communities and the police department.

“The biggest piece is we see ourselves as parts of communities,” said Sgt. Jermaine Harris, the president of the Alliance. “We don’t separate. To support the black community is to support us. We want to break the us v them mentality (meaning) … you are with the cops, or you with the community.”

‘Sacred ground’

On a recent Tuesday night, as part of their outreach, Harris spoke at a forum hosted by the NAACP’s Chicago Westside Branch.

“We need more people that come from our neighborhoods, that look like us,” said Harris, a member of the department for 18 years. “But not only that we need ways to support them once they’re here.”

With him on the panel was former Chicago Police Officer Howard Saffold, a man Harris considers a mentor.

Saffold, in the wake of King’s assassination, organized the Afro-American Patrolman’s League in Chicago in 1968 to challenge the department’s treatment of officers and to also be a voice for the community.

The parallels between the two movements are striking.

“We saw a need,” Saffold said of his effort. “The Chicago police department had a history of brutality. It had a history of discriminating, in terms of hiring, promotions and assignments and discipline towards Black officers. ... Our bigger issue was the double standard of the treatment of our citizens. We were in the middle of a civil rights movement.”

Harris listened intently as Saffold offered advice and guidance. Stay close to the community, he advised his younger counterpart at one point. And Saffold warmly told Harris, who is from Austin and lives in North Lawndale, that he is a proud West Sider too.

“You are standing on sacred ground, Jermaine,” Saffold told Harris.

Harris, sitting in his home office in front of a U.S. Marine Corps flag, smiled. He had already told the group that he was launching the Alliance in part because of men like Saffold.

“This is living Black history right here,” Harris said, referring to Saffold. “Which made this opportunity even possible. ... To realize where we came from to where we are right now, and I look to take advantage of that in every way I can.”

Controversy brews

Harris had already decided he wanted to organize Black officers before Catanzara’s most recent comments about the Jan. 6 attacks.

In those comments to a local radio station, Catanzara described the crowd as “a bunch of pissed-off people,” saying that it was “beyond ridiculous and ignorant” for some people to call the unrest at the Capitol treasonous and said the Trump supporters’ actions were “very different than what happened all across the country all summer long in Democratic-ran cities.”

Catanzara immediately walked back from those remarks to say he did not condone violence. Weeks later, the department recommended he be fired for a long list of other department violations, including numerous offensive social media posts. One, from 2017 that was deemed by city officials as disparaging to Muslims, stated, “Savages they all deserve a bullet” in reference to a video of a woman being stoned to death.

In the wake of the controversy, some 80 civil and legal organizations, as well as a group of Chicago aldermen, demanded that Catanzara resign. He later apologized if anyone was “genuinely offended” by his remarks and said they weren’t directed specifically at Muslims.

As for the formation of the Alliance, Catanzara told the Tribune this week that he is aware that Black officers do not feel welcome at the lodge, but he questioned why leaders of the new group did not speak to him directly.

He also said that he believes the entire profession of policing is under attack, citing the passage of the recent state crime bill, and suggested race was not the issue.

“I think they couldn’t be farther off base,” he said of the contention that Black officers are not adequately represented. And of one of his chief critics, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Catanzara added, “It doesn’t matter what race you are, this mayor hates everyone with a badge and a gun. They are coming for all of us.”

The mayor has said she does not have a good a good relationship with Catanzara, and in September said, “I don’t have a lot of good things to say about him in particular,” Lightfoot said. “But I care deeply about the men and women of the Chicago Police Department.”

Catanzara also said the social media comments in question are from several years ago and that he has already addressed the controversy over his statement on the Capitol attack. And he defended his criticism of the officer who knelt outside the FOP, saying that he was addressing her decision to protest outside her union, not her political opinions.

But that view goes to the very heart of why the new Alliance is needed, the organizers said. An officer should be able to speak out against racist behavior in policing, challenging problems from within by taking such a stand.

Harris also pointed out that policing is under intense scrutiny and attack from all sides, and he and the other officers say they feel compelled to join the conversation, no matter how uncomfortable or complicated it is.

“This was my 2021 goal — to unite and organize, specifically, Black officers,” Harris said. “We want to take an active role to share our stories as Black officers. We’ve got so many groups marching and protesting and making demands. We need to get some support from within.”

The department did not have any immediate comment about the new group.

Because of department rules, rank and file officers are generally not allowed to comment to the media. That leaves the FOP quoted in most media accounts.

“We all felt somewhat alone,” was how J’mal Riley, an officer assigned to one of the department’s detective technology centers, described hearing the controversial remarks he disagreed with. “We’re all talking on the phone, we’re all texting. But there is no way to publicly push back on it.”

They also feared that the positions taken by the FOP and Catanzara are undercutting any progress the department has made in terms of relations in the Black community in Chicago.

“I think we’ve moved in a great direction from the time I got on to now,” said McKinney, a seven-year officer assigned to the Harrison District. “The department has changed drastically. And I’m really proud. (But) I know the public doesn’t see it. ”

Riley, who grew up on the West Side and served in the Marines before joining the department, said he also grew alarmed at the stark divisions about policing, that one must either oppose police or oppose change.

Riley, though, sees himself somewhere in the middle, proud of the work he has done as a tactical officer in the Harrison District to protect the community, yet aware of the challenges the young people there face. He worries about the impression young people have of police.

“I know there is some kid in those neighborhoods who is like me,” he said. “But he is getting the wrong idea about me.”

Finding routes for support

When Riley was still assigned to a tactical team, he took an opportunity to reach out to one of those young kids he thought was heading for trouble.

Numerous attempts to help the teen find work failed, and Riley eventually learned the youth had been targeted and shot multiple times.

“That broke me,” the officer said. “I don’t much know what else I could have done.”

In addition to being a voice for officers, the new Alliance is seeking to provide support to officers struggling with the stresses like this that come with policing, not to mention the added pressures of the pandemic, skyrocketing violence and last year’s civil unrest.

And while the group plans to extend support to any officer who needs it during this difficult time, Harris said Black officers are in a position that is as unique as it is challenging. And that is why they need to come together.

“The real story is you are stuck in the middle,” Harris said. “The community only sees the uniform. In the uniform, among other officers, you are only Black. You struggle to have an identity. And it takes a lot of strength to be able to face that.”

(c)2021 the Chicago Tribune

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