Protests continue in Rockford since the death of George Floyd. Officeholders and activists are looking for pathways to improve police and community relations.
“I feel great. I think I've never been more optimistic about the work that the City's doing to build relationships,” said Rockford’s Mayor Tom McNamara. “Improve our community and the quality of life of our citizens.”
Since a peaceful protest turned violent on May 30th, the mayor agreed to hold a series of listening sessions with the community. So far there have been about two dozen; each focused on a different theme like community engagement, accountability, transparency and investment.
Tyris Jones Shooting Hits Home
But after months of local protests against police brutality, five shots fired by a Rockford police officer nearly claimed the life of Tyris Jones last month. Some protesters aren’t as optimistic as elected officials. Aija Penix is a Rockford activist and is skeptical of City priorities.
“When George Floyd was killed, the City had a lot to say. When Jacob Blake was shot, the City had a lot to say.” Penix continued, “When Tyris Jones was shot, the City kind of shut its mouth.”
Mayor McNamara’s office is implementing a multi-step approach to repairing the rift between parts of the community and law enforcement. He said, “Body cameras are a natural evolution of the work our City has been doing to increase transparency and accountability because when I got into office, we had about 20 to 25 police vehicles outfitted with dash cams.”
He said now every single police vehicle has a dash camera. The next step is to equip every officer with a body-worn camera.
The Rockford City Council recently approved a Department of Justice grant towards fully outfitting the police department with these cameras. The grant is for upwards of $150,000, which is slated to pay for part of the program’s cost.
McNamara also signed onto former President Barack Obama’s Mayoral pledge to review the police department’s use of force policies. He tasked the Community Relations Committee with the job. Members recently finalized their use of force policy review and sent over their recommendations earlier this month. McNamara said that Chief Daniel O’Shea is currently reviewing the document.
“He literally just got it. So I would say none have been 100% implemented, that'd be impossible. He's been engaged in the entire process,” McNamara continued. “ And I would say, a whole host of their recommendations will be approved and put into place.”
Co-Responder Program Launches
There are also changes being made in de-escalating situations before they turn violent.
The City, in partnership with the Winnebago Sheriff’s Office and behavioral health provider Rosecrance just launched a new co-responder program that's aimed at better addressing emergency calls related to mental and behavioral health. The pilot program will run three months and all costs will be shared by the participating organizations. The mayor said there still isn’t a clear picture of how much the City would be contributing, or how much the overall cost of the program would run.
Penix said the program is a step in the right direction. But, she’s worried that the pilot program doesn’t actually address the root issues of mental health emergencies in Rockford.
“People are unhealthy because they cannot afford care. People aren’t already healthy and unable to deal with their mental health issues because they don't have access to resources,” Penix said.
McNamara said other changes will build on existing programs.
“We're also increasing trainings for our police department and all employees,” he continued. “That includes 40 hours of community police training, de-escalation training, cultural awareness, training, implicit bias training, and mental health training.”
McNamara also points to the Resident Officer Community Keeper initiative, also known as ROCK. It’s a program where officers live in a home located in a disadvantaged community rent, utilities and amenities free. It’s also front-and-center in the process of reimagining law enforcement. There are currently two houses occupied, and the City Council approved a third earlier this year. A third house is expected to be operational before the end of the year.
A records request for all costs associated with upkeep of the houses show the total cost of both ROCK houses was over $250,000 dollars last year.
The ROCK house program hasn’t been a hit with everyone. Penix said that like the co-responder pilot program, she worries that the program misses the point.
“I feel like it's a gross oversight to ignore the fact that the person that is being paid almost six figures a year or six figures a year, including benefits to be living scot-free when the person next to them is struggling,” Penix said.
Citizen Accountability Model
The mayor said that in terms of police accountability the City is also looking into forming a citizens review board. In 2017, Chicago formed its Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) to independently investigate instances of police misconduct like excessive use of force and officer involved shootings.
Andrea Kersten is the Chief of Investigative Operation at COPA, and she said the COPA model is definitely replicable in other cities.
“I think that really integrating and making meaningful the authority of whatever version of civilian oversight is right for a particular city just requires a lot of political will and it requires appropriate resources,” Kersten continued. “And it requires the people of that community speaking out about what it is that they want.”
Kersten said that what makes COPA distinct from other civilian oversight offices around the country is that it conducts its own investigations entirely separate from the police department, instead of reviewing an investigation already completed and submitted by that police department
For Penix, the idea of police policing other police doesn’t sit right with her. Penix said she’s “1,000% for community oversight.”
McNamara said the brainstorming isn’t over.
“We can have constructive dialogue and do what I hope we all want, which is make our community a more inclusive and welcoming place for all people who call home,” he said.
The full dollar figure of all the police department’s new trainings, programs, and gear remains unclear. What is clear to Penix and many of the activists still making their presence known outside of City Hall is that the protests aren’t ending anytime soon.
- Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project which is a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms.