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More than 1,000 people pack UIC's mayoral candidate forum focused on improving all Chicago neighborhoods

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A standing-room-only crowd of more than 1,000 people packed the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum on Saturday morning to watch a Chicago mayoral forum focused on doing more to improve all of the city’s 77 neighborhoods.

Prospective voters in the Feb. 26 election waited in long lines outside in the snow to pass through security and hear 12 mayoral candidates discuss jobs, economic development, immigration and policing during a 90-minute forum during which organizers banned candidates from launching any political attacks against one another. And as part of a successful bid to prevent loud outbursts from the capacity crowd, audience members were encouraged to wave green placards when they heard something they liked and red ones when they didn’t.

As a result, the forum was heavy on mini, one-minute policy discussions from the large group of candidates, but broke little new ground as the mayoral contenders largely repeated policy positions they already had released and discussed in other venues. The event was hosted by One Chicago for All Alliance, a group of 30 community organizations, and was moderated by Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington.

There was no discussion of the federal corruption charge against embattled veteran Ald. Edward Burke that dominated the last mayoral forum. And this time, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle attended after backing out of the last event.

The liveliest discussion of the UIC forum centered on improving policing in the city. Candidates were asked whether they backed the pending federal consent decree to reform the Chicago Police Department and what they would do to “restore trust, accountability and fairness” while improving “police effectiveness” since just 17 percent of homicides resulted in an arrest last year.

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas said 80 percent of the consent decree was “common sense,” such as more training and better equipment for officers. He noted that the city has 10,000 students, 90 percent of them minority, in military academies in the city and CPD should be working to recruit officers from those programs to hire “the next generation of cops from the community.” He also slammed Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration for allowing the Police Department to shrink during his tenure.

“Do not underestimate to the degree this Police Department has been degraded, not filling close to 2,000 vacancies, allowing the detective division to be gutted almost in half, going from 1-to-10 to 1-to-30 sergeant ratio,” Vallas said. “That’s accountability you can believe in.”

Moments after Vallas said CPD needed to hire more officers to fill vacancies and bring detectives out of retirement, public policy consultant Amara Enyia was pushing for some of the money in the police budget to be set aside to “build stronger institutions in our neighborhoods first,” including funding block clubs in the city’s neighborhoods hardest hit by violence. And, she said, Chicago students aren’t going to sign up to be cops until the department becomes legitimate in their eyes.

“You cannot build trust where there is no relationship. You cannot build trust where there is no legitimacy. And you certainly can’t recruit anyone into a department that lacks legitimacy,” Enyia said. “Implementing the consent decree is a matter of restoring legitimacy to an institution that has the power to determine life and death in this city. We have to do it.”

Preckwinkle backed the consent decree while saying the city has “deep-seated issues with trust” between minority communities and the police. Unlike the other candidates, she appeared to read from prepared remarks for most of the event.

“As each of my kids got to be a teenager, I sat down with them and had the talk — and it wasn’t about sex, it was about how you deal with police on the street,” Preckwinkle said. “You’re always respectful. You never argue. You keep your hands where they can see them. If they take you to the police station, call me. Every black and brown parent I know has had that conversation with their kids. White parents don’t have those conversations.”

Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley declared the crime challenge “the single biggest issue facing our city” and called for 40 hours of mandatory training for all officers in the first year of the consent decree. State Comptroller Susana Mendoza repeated her childhood story of being afraid of crime in Little Village growing up and said she would implement the consent decree while placing social services in 50 schools in the city’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods.

City Hall veteran Gery Chico again threatened to sue Indiana and Wisconsin over their lax gun laws that he said feed Chicago’s crime, and businessman Willie Wilson repeated his plan to hire four police superintendents who would divide the city in quarters. Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown said she would bring in “law enforcement experts to overhaul CPD in its entirety” while former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot repeated a frequent line about her experience making her best prepared to handle the crime problem without having to “learn on the job.”

Bridgeport attorney John Kozlar repeated a plan to require 60 percent of officers in any police district to live in that district.Former Ald. Bob Fioretti delivered the closest thing to an attack in the forum, taking a not-so-veiled shot at former Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, who was sitting at the other end of the stage.

“We need a professional superintendent. That’s been the problem,” Fioretti said. “That’s always been the problem for the last 20-plus years. We need to make sure we have someone who ensures there is proper training and hiring.”

When it came to his turn, McCarthy didn’t address Fioretti’s slight. Instead, he said the city couldn’t have “a legitimate Police Department under an illegitimate government,” adding that it was time to “do away with the Chicago way.” McCarthy also responded to the staffing criticisms from other candidates by saying the number of officers and the detective division are at the highest they have been in 10 years, proclaiming “that is not the problem.”

The former top cop drew a wave of green placards from the crowd as he addressed the lack of trust between the communities and officers, and called on the department to implement the recommendations of former President Barack Obama’s task force on 21st-century policing that he said worked when he ran the force.

“We need to have a very difficult discussion about race. We have to talk about slavery, black codes, segregation, Jim Crow, redlining. That’s what put us in this position,” said McCarthy, who has described himself as a conservative Democrat. “I love it when people talk about restoring trust, but you can’t restore something you never had.”

That line drew an audible “Oooooo” from the crowd and more green cards of praise from audience members. But McCarthy didn’t mention one key campaign position that wouldn’t have gone over so well: He is opposed to the consent decree.

Twitter @BillRuthhart

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