Chicago PD in the Hot Seat

Chicago Police Department Public Relations

The Chicago Police Department is still reeling after a task force announced findings that included “decades” of systematic discrimination among law enforcement. Now, officials at the city are faced with a must-decide scenario. “Doing Nothing” is really not an option at this point. Especially since that’s been the tactic used before … and it’s described in the current document.

According to the Associated Press, Chicago Alderman Anthony Beale said: “Either we act now and do the right thing, or the Department of Justice is going to mandate that we turn and do the right thing.”

Beale was talking both about the 190-page document as well as a current review of Chicago police practices being conducted by the feds.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried to grab the narrative and maintain control. Nearly a year ago, Chicago’s top elected official formed a task force to study racism in the PD. The report detailed an environment where racist officers have been able to duck behind rules and procedures and a place where brutality was swept under the rug.

The report also suggested reforms up to and including increasing body cameras and making complaints in officers’ jackets visible to the public. But that’s likely to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Emanuel’s task force didn’t account for the Justice Department probe after teenager Laquan McDonald was killed by police. McDonald was black, the cop who shot him 16 times was white. The community responded as many have in recent years. Civil unrest and threats of increased unrest should “justice” not be done.

The problem, of course, is how each side defines justice. In public relations, language – the use and definitions of specific words – is key. In this case, the cops and the community are using the same words to mean different things. Cops want to feel justified in using force to protect themselves and their fellow officers. Community members want to feel they can trust police to treat them fairly, not as convicted crooks before they are even suspected of a crime.

Now, since the release of the report, all that rage and frustration is focused on What Happens Next. If the department doesn’t make changes the community feels are legitimate and sweeping, officials and residents can expect to see unrest similar to what happened in Ferguson, Missouri. Since that well-televised uprising, the risk of that level of public social uprising remains a constant concern.

But, broken down to its finest components, this is really a problem of communication. The PD and the community are talking at or past each other. If you want to relate, you can’t do that. You need to connect. Messages must land and narratives must work toward recognition, if not reconciliation.

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