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Chicago Police Chief Eddie Johnson, Sheriff Tom Dart, Fr. Pfleger Talk Justice, Reducing Crime by Healing Communities at NLU Event


Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, from left, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson and Rev. Michael Pfleger pose for a photo after greeting each other at the National Louis University panel (photo credit: James Richards IV)

By Pam DeFiglio

More jobs and fewer guns. More parenting classes and less blaming. More restorative justice and less fear and misunderstanding.

Chicagoans need to work on these and similar issues to heal the city, agreed Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and Rev. Michael Pfleger when they appeared on a “Restoring and Healing Communities: A Time for Peace” event panel at National Louis University Feb. 28. The event, which attracted hundreds, was part of the Applied Behavioral Sciences lecture series.

In their compelling presentations and the passionate audience discussion afterwards, the three speakers agreed that policing can somewhat reduce crime and jail programs can somewhat help inmates.  But more help is needed to end the vicious cycle frequently found in the city’s high-crime neighborhoods: limited parenting skills, bare-bones schools, lack of jobs, easy access to drugs, criminal convictions and the barrier to getting hired that  criminal backgrounds create. 

“The goal for us is not to incarcerate more people, it’s to make it so people won’t want to pick up a gun,” said Johnson, who is a little more than 10 months into the job of leading Chicago police. He said his two top goals were reducing violence and rebuilding public trust in the wake of the November 2015 Laquan McDonald shooting and a Department of Justice report that criticized some of the Chicago Police Department’s decades-long practices.

Peace circles with West Side teens open officers’ eyes

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson tells the National Louis University audience how he created peace circles with police recruits and West Side teens.

The day after his appointment as superintendent last April, Johnson paired new police recruits with West Side high school students in peace circles, which are a restorative justice technique that empowers people to speak what is on their hearts. The new officers all said they learned something about what these students went through on a daily basis, Johnson said, and started to pick apart stereotypes.

“They (the recruits and the West Side teens) are coming from different cultures, and when you don’t know something, you tend to fear it,” Johnson commented. His next challenge, he said, was to get all 13,000 police department employees through such programs.

Nation’s largest mental health hospital is…

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said the county jail is the largest mental health hospital in the nation.

Sheriff Dart, whose office runs Cook County jail and the mostly-suburban sheriff’s police unit, started off by describing the criminal justice system as hopelessly dysfunctional.

“For some people it worked, because they never came in contact with it,” Dart said. “But entire segments of the population came into contact with it all the time, in ways which can best be described as…thoughtless,” he said.

Due to the fact government closed mental health hospitals years ago, Dart said Cook County Jail is now the largest, or possibly second largest, mental health hospital in the nation.

“It’s the sad reality that many people have undiagnosed mental health issues, and they’re finally being diagnosed when they’re in jail,” he commented.

Most sheriffs throughout the nation don’t see the point of putting inmates in a mental health program, since they don’t know how long the inmates will be incarcerated. However, Dart said he met two Cook County Jail inmates who have been waiting 10 years each for their trials, and another who had waited nine years. He questioned why the judicial system couldn’t move those cases along more efficiently.

After peace circles, violent offenders reduce fights

NLU President Nivine Megahed, Ph.D., greets Rev. Pfleger, left, and Scott Smith, NLU board chairman. Megahed welcomed the crowd of 300, saying NLU highly values its diverse student body and champions access to education.

Dart has used peace circles in the jail, and he also instituted a program called SAVE (Sheriff’s Anti-Violence Effort) which puts 250 youths from the city’s most violent zip codes into a living unit and provides them anger management training, parenting skills and other resources. Over a year’s time, relatively few fights—14, to be exact– have broken out among them, indicating the program’s effectiveness.

“These people do want to change their lives. There are no opportunities,” he commented. “Restorative justice is the route to go to restore people back to their communities.

“There is reason for hope—we’re getting some results now. But this will not be easy and it will not be quick.”

Peace doesn’t just happen

Rev. Michael Pfleger talks about dire conditions in the neighborhood of his South Side parish, St. Sabina, as Tom Dart listens.

Pfleger, the pastor of St. Sabina Catholic Church on Chicago’s South side and a well-known activist for social justice, started by saying he has known Johnson and Dart for years, and couldn’t think of anyone better to lead in their roles.

He characterized restorative justice as an absolute necessity and a moral necessity, calling for peace circles not just in jails but also in the larger community, the city and the country.

“Peace doesn’t just come about, it has to be created,” he said.

He cited many factors that contribute to the brokenness of high-poverty communities like the St. Sabina neighborhood: frequent lack of family structure for children, frequent lack of necessities like food on the table, overwhelming lack of jobs, unwillingness of businesses to come into the community because its residents lack money to spend, a chronic lack of resources and a dispiritedness that grows each time another mom and pop store on 79th Street gets boarded up.

The 15 Chicago communities with the highest crime rates also have the highest unemployment rates and the most underfunded schools, he emphasized.

Six months of job-seeking, and finally…

Wytress Richardson, Ph.D., of National Louis University’s Applied Behavioral Sciences program, from left, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart; Rev. Michael Pfleger; Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson; Mary Kelly, faculty in NLU’s ABS program; NLU President Nivine Megahed, Ph.D.; Judah Viola, Ph.D., dean of NLU’s College of Professional Studies and Advancement, and Scott Smith, NLU board chair, posed for a photo.

One man came out of jail, spent six months looking for a job and finally got called back for a second interview with an employer. Instead of awarding him the job, however, the employer berated him for the poor choices which had landed him in jail, grinding down the man’s hopes for employment.

“We cut off their legs and tell them to walk,” Pfleger intoned.

“We have to give opportunities to these brothers and sisters and then love them and support them as they try to do better.”

Heartbreaking question

During the evening’s question and answer period, one question came from a woman in the audience named Millie, who said her daughter had been killed by a stray bullet. What could the police department do to arrest and convict the perpetrator so the family could have closure, she asked.

Superintendent Johnson acknowledged the department has to do more to solve crimes, and that it is adding 300 detectives this year to work on the heavy caseloads.

The surprising thing inmates requested

Mary Kelly, faculty in the ABS program, introduced the panel and provided background on the effectiveness of restorative justice. One youth who told friends he intended to retaliate for a killing participated in a peace circle and then chose not to commit the murder, she said. Kelly is pictured with Rev. Pfleger.

Another questioner, who said she came from a long line of law enforcement officers, asked what could be done about parenting problems, as the root of violence is often at home.

Sheriff Dart surprised the crowd by saying that in his rehabilitation program with jail inmates, the number one thing inmates requested was parenting classes.

“They grew up in a home without adequate parenting,” he explained, adding that these particular inmates had committed violent crimes, and that the number of them who had suffered abuse or neglect as children was off the charts.

How police experience trauma

An audience member who said he worked with trauma cases at the Mercy Home for Girls asked Johnson how the police department assesses trauma within its staff.

Policing has been such a macho profession that officers understood they weren’t supposed to show emotion, Johnson explained—so much so that when an officer was involved in a shooting, he was given three days off, then told to get back on the job.

The police department has gotten more enlightened, so that it now sends the entire group of officers involved to the Employee Assistance Program for counseling, he said. In addition, CPD has its officers see a mental health professional every six months.

What can universities do?

To a question about what universities and students can do to help, Dart responded “research.”

He called on universities to do research on the jail population, saying the criminal justice system is one of the least studied institutions, and that establishing data could help sway state legislators to provide more assistance.

Johnson’s answer went in a different direction. He said he had set up a meeting with 30 high schoolers who had committed violent crimes, and asked what got them back on track. Each said it was someone—not usually someone In their homes, but from outside—who reached out to them and showed they cared. Often, these were mentors.

“If you care about this city, we all have the obligation to be mentors,” he declared.

Father Pfleger went even further, saying, “Every citizen ought to be an activist. In Chicago, we need a whole city campaign—from every church, mosque, synagogue, organization, and the police and fire departments. I don’t understand why we don’t have a conflict resolution program in every school.”