Austin residents kept out a of top cop’s “listening tour” meeting

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Chicago’s top cop was in Austin last week as part of his citywide “listening tour.” But unless you were one of the select few pre-picked for the event, you weren’t getting in.

Mars Hill Baptist Church, 5916 W. Lake St., hosted Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and about 15 other high-ranking police officers, for the the dialogue with around 30 Austin residents.

The July 15 gathering, dubbed a “community meeting,” was the second-to-last stop on McCarthy’s tour of all 22 Chicago police districts. Multiple stories, similar to these from and the Austin Weekly News, reported the media have been kept out of all of the events.

In fact, members of the media, including AustinTalks, and some community groups attempted to gain entry to the Austin meeting, only to be turned away at the door.

Rev. Clarence E. Stowers Jr. of Mars Hill did not return multiple requests for comments on how people were chosen to attend the community meeting.

One person who did make the list — Larry Williams, a State Farm insurance representative whose office is next to Mars Hill — said the meeting featured a lot of candid dialogue, mostly dealing with issues of respect between police and the community.

However, because there were “not a lot of outsiders” present — Williams said about half of the crowd were Mars Hill Church members and other neighborhood pastors — McCarthy missed an opportunity to hear more diverse opinions.

“Overall, I think it would’ve been better served if there was more youth involved,” Williams said.

That sentiment was echoed by 29th Ward Ald. Chris Taliaferro, who was not invited to the event and said he “sincerely disagrees” with the pre-selection process used by the host venues and the Chicago Police Department.

“One of the things you have to ask (about the lack of people invited to the event) is: ‘Is the community being represented?’” said Taliaferro, who worked as a sergeant for the Chicago Police Department before being elected to the city council earlier this year.

He said in the future, he would like to see meetings between the police and community members open to all members of the public.

“That way you know that the community has had an opportunity to have their voices heard, so that they can become part of the solution,” Taliaferro said. “But when you leave certain people out, or leave anyone out of the process, you lose valuable assets to solving the problems we’re facing in Austin.”

The Austin meeting came on the heels of controversial comments McCarthy made about the death of 7-year-old Amari Brown earlier this month. Those comments, coupled with a lack of more diverse voices in the listening tour meetings, have some wondering about McCarthy’s intentions.

“I don’t know how the superintendent expects to be taken seriously,” said Rev. Ira Acree of Greater St. John Bible Church, who was also left off the guest list for the Austin meeting.

Acree said if he had been invited, he would’ve told McCarthy, “don’t be afraid of the heat” because, “people need an opportunity to have a sounding board.”

Representatives from the Chicago Police Department did not return multiple attempts for comment.

Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project, also questioned McCarthy’s motives, calling the listening tour “disingenuous.”

Siska said the selective process used for the meetings amounted to the police department deciding who is worthy of listening to and who is not, and that McCarthy “talks about transparency and accountability but doesn’t lead by example.”

“I think (the Chicago Police Department) should become 100 percent completely transparent,” Siska said.

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