Editorial: The complications the new Elgin police task force must overcome
Community and government leaders in Elgin have moved assertively this year to try to find a clear direction for the use of police resources in the city. An experience at the outset of one of their key initiatives already is showing just how complicated and fraught the mission is.
Among approaches Elgin has undertaken since the 2018 death of Decynthia Clements at the hands of Elgin police and the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis is an 18-member task force charged with, among other things, studying accountability issues for police, identifying best practices for managing the department and building trust between police and the community. The commission held its first two meetings this month and immediately ran into a situation that provided an object lesson on the difficulty of finding resolution on difficult social controversies. At the same time, it tested the group's focus and self-discipline.
The challenge came in the form of an anonymous memo from someone who claimed to be a 45-year-old female Black professional. The writer was concerned about a Facebook post by an Elgin police officer who is about to return to duty from medical leave and wants to show "how cops should truly be and not this political crap."
The complainant's fear, and one readily embraced at first by some committee members, was that the post was an example of a police culture resistant to change. But a deeper investigation by Police Chief Ana Lalley found that, to the contrary, the officer's expression was intended to frame police work in the light of the kind of community engagement that many reformers advocate.
In a way, it is fortunate that this experience came so close to the launch of the task force's work. For it illustrates issues at the core of any mission to redefine police work -- or, for that matter, take on any controversial subject: Any ultimate solution must consider all facts and fully understand their context. That takes time, and it behooves fact-finders to withhold judgments until the job is complete.
Committee member the Rev. Walter Blalark correctly warned that the panel needs to be prepared "to face the things that need to change."
Then, he added, "There may be some things that we are going to hear that may be uncomfortable. Not everything is going to be positive."
He's right again, of course. But neither is everything the committee examines going to be negative. And members won't be able to evaluate either result until they have deeply studied all aspects of the issues they take on.
If they're going to be successful in the long run, their work must be based on clear-eyed evaluations that may contradict impressions, good or bad, that individual members have about police operations.
At the same time, it's important that the group not let itself become distracted by events that may tangentially relate to its objectives but don't help further them.
If we've found anything about controversial political and social issues lately, it's that in general, we are not good about addressing them constructively and without emotion.
The Elgin police task force has determined that its first focus will be on issues of accountability, followed by several other specific topics related to police objectives and community relations. It is due to produce a report and recommendations by next summer. That may seem like ample time to identify the source of problems and develop some solutions, but this episode demonstrates the kind of complications that can both distort its reasoning and obstruct the effort to produce meaningful change.