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Carmelita Earls, chair of the new Austin Police District Council, participates in a July 7 protest at a nearby police station where the city has housed dozens of migrants. She points to CPD’s nearly $2 billion annual budget and calls for the city to take greater responsibility for the migrants’ wellbeing.

Carmelita Earls, chair of the new Austin Police District Council, participates in a July 7 protest at a nearby police station where the city has housed dozens of migrants. She points to CPD’s nearly $2 billion annual budget and calls for the city to take greater responsibility for the migrants’ wellbeing.

Chip Mitchell

With no roadmap, new police district council members urge Chicagoans to lead the way

The day after chairing a monthly meeting of the new Austin Police District Council last week, Carmelita Earls went to a restaurant in that West Side Chicago neighborhood and bumped into a woman who had attended.

Earls, 58, said the woman wanted to report information about drug dealers near her house “but didn’t want to say it in front of the officers.”

The woman did not trust the uniformed cops at the meeting to protect her identity, said Earls, a retired firefighter. “This lady came with a purpose and didn’t get any answers. That bothers me.”

Earls shared this with the panel’s other two members: “How do we create a safe space for people to come and be able to express [concerns about] public safety?”

The councilors agreed that, from now on, Earls will dismiss the officers near the end of monthly meetings and open the floor for any issues that residents didn’t want to raise within earshot of cops.

“This is the work we are doing,” Earls said. “People have to take ownership and speak freely.”

It could be a pivotal step for the Austin council and possibly a model for others Chicago has established this year, one for each of the city’s 22 patrol districts.

After a multiyear push to create these councils, city voters elected them in February. They were inaugurated in May. They were tasked with providing a forum for city residents to raise concerns about policing in their district and help address them.

But, while the three-member councils are up and running, there’s no instruction manual for making them effective.

“A lot of people have no idea what the hell we’re doing,” Earls said. “Residents come to the meeting to talk about streetlights, potholes, prostitution and drugs, so we have to educate them that we’re here for police accountability.”



Carmelita Earls and fellow Austin Police District Council member Deondre Rutues. After being inaugurated in May, Earls said she wanted the council to be a “bridge” between officers and the community.

Carmelita Earls and fellow Austin Police District Council member Deondre Rutues. After being inaugurated in May, Earls said she wanted the council to be a “bridge” between officers and the community.

Anthony Vazquez

A revealing experience in Austin

You might expect Carmelita Earls to be as pro-police as a Chicagoan can be. She worked alongside cops throughout her 31 years as a firefighter. She is one of 9 district councilors endorsed by Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge 7, the union for most city officers.

But what drives her as chair of the Austin council is more complicated.

A fall afternoon in 2011 changed her view of policing, she said. Earls was doing yard work in front of her house when a young man and woman walked up with a sales pitch.

“I told them I wasn’t interested and, then, I don’t know how the conversation turned, but it did,” Earls recalled. “The young woman told me she was going to whup my tail. And I told her, ‘You and who else?’ So, it just went south.”

Earls said the young man was about to throw a punch. “At that point, I grabbed her and used her as a filter, a buffer, and he hit her.”

An elderly neighbor was watching and screamed, and Earls’ husband called the police. When the cops arrived, they spoke with the young woman and man, then one approached Earls.

“He was very disrespectful,” she said. He did not seek her side of the story, she said, so she went to pick up a stick as part of her yard work.

“He stomped on it and pinned my fingers underneath the stick,” she said.

Her response? “Get your goddamn feet off my fingers.”



Carmelita Earls leads a meeting of the Austin Police District Council on Oct. 10. Only about 10 people attended.

Carmelita Earls leads a sparsely attended meeting of the Austin Police District Council on Oct. 10. Only 10 people were there.

Chip Mitchell.

Earls said the cops handcuffed her and brought her to the Austin station, where another officer recognized her as a firefighter. But not just any firefighter. By this point in her career, Earls was a big boss.

“He said, ‘Do you guys know what you have in there? A high-ranking official of the Fire Department.’ ”

The officer asked Earls why she had not identified herself as a fire official.

“Why do I have to?” Earls said she answered. “If this is how the people on the West Side get treated by the police, I’m glad I’m experiencing it.”

Booked on misdemeanor charges, Earls did not get the full experience. At her first court hearing, the officers did not show up and the judge tossed out the case.

This episode, a dozen years ago, is what motivated Earls to run for her seat on the Austin Police District Council. She wants to change how officers treat West Siders.

“I know what people go through,” she said. “Now, wherever I go, I’m going to stand tall, speak up and not back down to anybody, I don’t care who you are.”

Trust gap between Chicago police and residents

After taking her oath in May, Earls told WBEZ her first priority was to raise awareness about the consent decree, the city’s court-enforced police reform agreement.

“We want to get their engagement, find out exactly what police accountability and public safety looks like for Austin,” she said. “And how do we bridge the trust gap? Because we’re going to be bridges.”

But building trust and engaging residents has been a challenge. The meeting chaired by Earls last week drew just 10 residents, not counting the councilors and cops. Everyone in the audience was middle-aged or older.

Attendance at monthly meetings of district councils citywide has been as few as two and as many as 50, according to Rev. Damon Smith, who leads support for the panels as a deputy director of the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, a new city agency.

Turning out young people has been especially hard, Smith said.

“The first couple of months have been just to convince the people of the city of Chicago that they can do this,” Smith said. “That has been a challenge.”



Rev. Damon Smith, a deputy director of Chicago’s new Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, says most police district councils have had a hard time turning out young people.

Rev. Damon Smith, a deputy director of Chicago’s new Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, says most police district councils have struggled to turn out young people.

Chip Mitchell

Well attended or not, district council meetings are airing out public safety issues as wide ranging as 911 response times, migrants living in police station lobbies, a need for more foot patrols, and a CPD traffic stop program that rakes in illegal guns but draws criticism for picking on young Black men.

The councilors, who host these meetings as an easy way to engage, range from police abolitionists to various reform-minded residents to retired police officers and others with CPD ties.

Many citizens come to these meetings with complaints about particular crimes, such as car theft. That’s similar to what happens at meetings hosted through CPD’s decades-old community policing program, the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy or CAPS. But advocates say there are important differences.

“CAPS meetings are led by the Chicago Police Department and … district council meetings are led by elected community officials,” said Loren Jones, an attorney who runs a criminal justice program of Impact for Equity, a Chicago-based nonprofit.

Another big difference, Jones said, is the potential solutions the district councils can take up.

“It’s not just an increase in police officers on the block [but] making the community safer as a whole and thinking about alternatives to policing,” said Jones, who has attended meetings of several district councils for Empowering Communities for Public Safety, a coalition that forged the ordinance creating the councils and endorsed dozens of candidates.

The alternatives, Jones said, might range from housing to street lighting or “community violence intervention” in which former gang members mediate street conflicts and avert reprisals to shootings.

“Such a localized approach to civilian oversight, especially because they’re elected, is unique to Chicago,” said Carlton T. Mayers II, an attorney who consults on police oversight for various U.S. cities.

“It’s definitely being watched by … civilian oversight authorities around the country, to see if there’s a way that they can possibly replicate this model,” Mayers said.

Just five months into this experiment, it’s too early to assess whether the councils are improving the policing of any district, most observers say.

In Austin, Earls said most of her work so far has consisted of public education about the district’s council. That work includes going door-to-door with a council newsletter and fliers urging residents to attend the meetings.

“We want them to realize this is only what people make of it,” Earls said.

Chip Mitchell reports on policing, public safety and public health. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at cmitchell@wbez.org.

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