Not long after I was named superintendent of the Chicago Police Department in 1998, we experienced a pair of controversial, highly publicized and tragic police-involved shootings of young African Americans. Black Chicagoans were outraged, and they weren’t alone. The police department came under withering criticism — some of it very emotional — and inside headquarters and City Hall we just knew the phone would soon be ringing with a call from the U.S. Department of Justice telling us to gear up for a consent decree.
Well, it didn’t come. And it didn’t come because we got out of headquarters and into the communities. I launched a first-ever series of Culture Diversity Forums because, bottom line, we needed to hear from all of the city’s diverse communities. We need to listen to the community. We knew going in that we needed to be more sensitive and more transparent but we also knew we needed to create a meeting process that was collaborative and that ensured the community members who participated felt engaged and heard. We took those needs seriously. I personally attended all of these meetings, and I ordered my entire command staff to attend as well. We asked Police Executive Research Forum Executive Director Chuck Wexler to moderate. We also ordered mid-level commanders to the meetings, and of course we had patrol officers there. Beyond the police, we invited activists, civil rights organizations, school leaders, clergy from all of the city’s religious communities, federal law enforcement officials, individuals – anyone who would come and join us at the table for conversations that weren’t always friendly. We met for 90 minutes at a stretch and reconvened every five weeks or so, and after several months we were really talking. Not just at each other but with one another. About cop perceptions of citizens and citizen perceptions of cops and, most importantly, how to alter those perceptions and change those relationships. And in the end, those conversations drove substantive reforms inside the department that altered our new recruit training and our in-service training around use of force and other critically important issues in building, maintaining and expanding relations between cops and the communities they work in. Those conversations made the change. They made an enormous difference. I walked away from that experience with some of the most profound lessons of my professional career. First among them: You’ve got to reach everybody. The people, the media, the cops, the voters, the mayors, the aggrieved, the impassioned and, especially, the hard-to-reach. You’ve got to make police department change a community experience and a community exercise, and you do that through strong leadership that’s focused on shared goals. Looking out across the country today – at cities where consent decrees are in force, where they are threatened, or simply where changes are needed in correcting department procedures or community relationships – I ask my fellow chiefs to consider their own roles in that process. Are you opening doors to the outside world? Are you inviting people in and giving them a place at the table? Are you listening? And are you acting on what you hear?