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How Chicago's Political Leaders Are Handling Questions About Race, Police Use of Force

All this week, Chicago’s political leaders have been debating policing issues in light of the Laquan McDonald case and the firing of Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and those conversations are running up against issues of race.

The debate was on full display at the new Google offices in Chicago Thursday. Reporters surrounded longtime Ald. Ed Burke, asking for his thoughts on the McDonald case.

Burke said he didn’t think the Department of Justice should investigate the Chicago Police Department, something that other politicians have suggested this week.

“But of course, I’m probably a little bit biased, because I have great regard for the women and men of police department and law enforcement in general, having graduated from Chicago Police Academy in May of 1965,” Burke said.

These days, no Chicago politician can escape questions about the shooting of McDonald. The black teenager was shot 16 times by a white police officer last year, and his death and the city’s tight grip on the dashcam video are renewing questions about whether there are systemic problems in the city’s police department.

For his part, Burke says he doesn’t see any.

“There is no institutional problem in the Chicago Police Department,” Burke said. “I personally think it’s the best trained, most effective, most honest big city police department in the nation.”

Burke said there would always be police officers who make mistakes, but he doesn’t think there’s a pattern of discriminatory policing.

Burke’s colleague Alderman Walter Burnett, Jr. does not share that opinion.

Burnett says when Burke was an officer, he probably didn’t experience the challenges that minority officers face.

“If you talk to African American police officers and some Hispanic police officers, they see blatant racism amongst themselves. There’s racism in the police department, there’s biases in the police department,” Burnett said.

Burnett is concerned that some Chicago police officers feel comfortable expressing hate.

“You can’t help folks and hate folks at the same time,” he said. “It just don’t, it’s like you can’t serve two gods, it just don’t mix.”

Like Burnett, many think there are systemic problems.

This week Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Sen. Dick Durbin, Gov. Bruce Rauner and even presidential candidate Hillary Clinton all came out and said they want the department of justice to conduct a wide-ranging investigation of the Chicago Police Department.

On Wednesday Mayor Rahm Emanuel said such an investigation would be “misguided” because the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office are already investigating the McDonald case.

But Thursday he said he wanted to clarify his comments.

“Look, I own any of the confusion, and I want to be clear,” he said. “I welcome the engagement of the Justice Department. We have a long road ahead of us as a city and I welcome people from many views to help us do exactly what we need to do.”

Meanwhile, in another reporter gaggle at the opening Google’s new Chicago office in the West Loop, Gov. Rauner said the Laquan McDonald video brought him to tears.

“That video is shocking, terrifying,” Rauner said. “I cried for the young man brutally shot. I cried for the thousands of police officers who are honest and hard workin’, put themselves in harm’s way to preserve and protect us, and whose reputation gets damaged by the behavior of a few bad people. I cry for the violence that is tearing apart so many of our communities.”

Attorney General Lisa Madigan was one of the first elected officials to request the federal government investigate Chicago police. In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch sent on Tuesday, Madigan said there’s been a pattern of allegations of Chicago police misconduct besides the killing of Laquan McDonald.

“We can use this terrible situation around Laquan McDonald as an opportunity to not just request an investigation but to really make sure that there is systemic change and reform that can rebuild the trust and the credibility of the police department, particularly in communities of color,” Lisa Madigan said.

Lauren Chooljian covers Chicago politics for WBEZ. Follow her @laurenchooljian.

Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.

 

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