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Protesters And City Policing: 2016 Brings Room To Improve Relations


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is away. I'm Linda Wertheimer. The country witnessed another year of widespread protests, many of them sparked by the deaths of young people of color in encounters with police. Now activists in cities are gearing up for their next steps in 2016. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Baltimore, Minneapolis, Madison, Wisc., those are just a few of the cities where protesters marched this year, chanting black lives matter and the names of the deceased. One of the latest additions, Laquan McDonald, a Chicago teenager who died last year during an encounter with police.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #1: (Chanting) Sixteen shots and a cover up.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #1: (Chanting) Sixteen shots and a cover up.

CORLEY: A squad car video the city released shows a police officer shooting McDonald repeatedly as he lay on the ground. Protesters have marched for days, sometimes disrupting traffic and blocking stores. Jasson Perez, the national co-chair for the Black Youth Project 100, says protesters will continue to march until there is tangible change.

JASSON PEREZ: I think that's really the only way we can move the conversation to one of accountability, what it takes to actually build out a better Chicago, particularly as it relates to safety and security of our neighborhoods.

CORLEY: The wail of a police siren climbs up a skyscraper and into a conference room where Lori Lightfoot, the head of Chicago's police board sits. Lightfoot is also the chair of a newly formed task force on police accountability

LORI LIGHTFOOT: Chicagoans are not shy. They've been reaching out to us in lots of different ways to talk to us about their concerns.

CORLEY: And with videos of police encounters sparking widespread protests, Lightfoot says the task force will work to determine how to balance the demand for public information without compromising an investigation.

LIGHTFOOT: For example, Seattle releases a video within hours of a police-involved shooting happening. There are others like the shooting that happened in Minneapolis or what's happened in Cincinnati where the prosecutors there took possession of the evidence and said we're not releasing until the criminal prosecution is over.

CORLEY: The effort to be transparent is a balancing act as cities work to build trust between police and communities and to avoid demonstrations. Chuck Wexler, the head of the Police Executive Research Forum, studies policing issues. He says it works better for police if they don't wear riot gear at protests and many departments make arrest as a last option, even when demonstrators block traffic.

CHUCK WEXLER: So you've got, you know, two groups, one exercising their First Amendment rights but they're doing so in a way that's inconveniencing other people - those kind of occasions really are very difficult for the police to navigate.

CORLEY: But Katelyn Johnson, the executive director of the advocacy group Action Now in Chicago, says protesters don't need to apologize

KATELYN JOHNSON: People who are victims of injustice have been inconvenienced in much more intense ways. And so minor inconveniences, as what you're going to be a little late to work, is very little in comparison to people actually dying.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Chanting) Dontre Hamilton.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #2: (Chanting) Dontre Hamilton.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #3: (Chanting) Dontre Hamilton.

CORLEY: For months there have been protests in Milwaukee both large and small over the death of Dontre Hamilton, a black man shot 14 times by a white police officer during an altercation last year. The U.S. Justice Department recently announced it will investigate Milwaukee police. The DOJ's Ron Davis says it's more of an assessment of what the department can change voluntarily unlike other DOJ investigations where a federal judge enforces a consent decree.


RON DAVIS: There are 16,000 police departments in the United States. The civil litigation process known as pattern and practice cannot be employed in 16,000 police departments. We cannot sue our way into police reform.

CORLEY: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett says the collaborative process is a crucial step for the city.


TOM BARRETT: In order to have effective policing in this community, it has to be a two-way street and it can't be a two-way street that is achieved through coercion.

CORLEY: But Maria Hamilton says the police officer who killed her son was fired but never charged and there should be nothing voluntary about police department changes.


MARIA HAMILTON: We are dying here. And they continuously keep covering up. They keep - continuously keep finding elaborate excuses and ways not to give our community the justice that we need.

CORLEY: Where city officials, protesters and even the Department of Justice seem to agree is that resolving the strained relationships is a process that won't come easy. Cheryl Corley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.