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On Wednesday Rev. Marshall Hatch presided over the funeral for 18-year-old Aaron Harrison Jr., who was killed by police August 6 after he either ran and got shot in the back or pointed a gun at officers, depending on who's telling the story.
The police department says it's investigating the incident. In the meantime, Hatch said in an interview this afternoon, the North Lawndale and Austin neighborhoods on the west side are a "powder keg" of anger and frustration toward the police.
"I don't know that I've seen it quite as tense as it is now, with as much mistrust of the police," said Hatch, 49, a lifelong west sider. "I don't think the people on the west side are waiting for leaders to tell them to do anything. This is really coming from the bottom up. I think it's a very volatile situation--and that's not a threat. It's just an accurate assessment. We need to take very seriously just how tense and volatile this situation is. People are fed up. I'm very concerned about our ability to keep a lid on things."
Harrison's shooting is just the latest high-profile incident to turn emotions "raw," said Hatch, an ally of Jesse Jackson's who unsuccessfully challenged 29th Ward alderman Isaac Carothers in 2003. The main problem, he argued, is that residents of the high-crime area want and need additional beat police officers who invest the time to get to know their communities. Instead, the police department has dispatched cops from its roving Special Operations Section who swoop in for short periods of time and show little understanding of the neighborhoods. West siders derisively refer to SOS officers as "jump-out boys."
"It is in the interest of regular beat cops to have good relations with the community, because they need their help to solve crimes," Hatch said. "These other guys come in and abuse people. There is a qualitative difference between police being part of the fabric of the community, working to weed out the people who are corrupt but also working with kids who are salvageable--that's what policing is really about, not just locking everybody up."
As the link above details, four Special Operations officers dominate the city's list of cops accused repeatedly of misconduct. The Daley administration provided copies of the list to aldermen earlier this summer when the City Council was considering whether to give Mayor Daley direct oversight of the Office of Professional Standards, the agency responsible for investigating misconduct allegations. After pressing for a few amendments, aldermen passed the proposal, though critics like Hatch say it's inadequate because it doesn't create an independent citizen review of police misconduct cases.
As it is, Hatch said, SOS officers make the community feel like police are "an occupying force." And the situation is even worse right now because the department is being led by an interim superintendent.
"We have very weak leadership at the top of the a police department with major problems," he said. "The mayor really needs to take responsibility."
A mayoral spokeswoman told the Sun-Times yesterday that the mayor's reform of OPS shows he's serious about holding abusive officers to account. And this afternoon Vance Henry, executive director of the city's community policing program, known as CAPS, told me police officials have met with west-side clergy and residents to hear their concerns and keep them abreast of the Aaron Harrison investigation.
"We plan to keep following up and holding additional meetings," Henry said. "We're addressing a range of concerns, and we continue to monitor the situation."
But he played down Hatch's warnings about rage boiling over in the community. "I live within walking distance of where that incident took place, and I grew up on the west side--I'm not just the director of CAPS. I've lived in the community for 42 years," Henry said. "I can tell you that we enjoy a great working relationship with the community. A lion's share of the residents there are working with us every day.
"I think the [Harrison] incident raised people's concerns, and rightly so, which is why the police moved very swiftly to investigate it and very swiftly to meet with people in the community."