Jamie Kalven and Sharon Fairley in conversation Wednesday night Credit: Maya Dukmasova

The vibe at Hyde Park’s Experimental Station Wednesday night was much more intimate than the typical police accountability “discussions” with city officials that have become so common since the release of the Laquan McDonald video in November 2015. Some 100 people, seated and standing, packed the event hosted by the Invisible Institute, which featured a conversation between journalist and institute founder Jamie Kalven and the head of the Independent Police Review Authority, Sharon Fairley. Fairley is now tasked with leading the metamorphosis of IPRA into a new agency, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, or COPA.

The two sat on a small riser just a few feet from the skeptical, expectant faces of the audience crowding around them.

“We’re not coming to present—we’re coming to engage,” Kalven announced to open the event. And, after asking a series of pointed and challenging questions about how exactly IPRA will be any different than COPA—none of which Fairley answered in more than general terms—Kalven quickly opened the floor to the audience. The hope, he said later, had been to give people a chance to hold Fairley’s “feet to the fire,” and to push her to get into the details of how COPA would be more effective at investigating police officers’ misconduct than its beleaguered predecessor, or IPRA’s equally beleaguered predecessor, the Office of Professional Standards.

Over the course of the next hour and a half, it seemed that little “engagement” was actually happening. A steady stream of aggrieved community members came up to the microphone, sometimes to recount tales of personal experiences with police brutality, sometimes to ask questions far beyond Fairley’s purview, and sometimes, it seemed, just to vent general frustrations.

“Is it now acceptable for police to shoot people in the back?” an elderly white woman asked regarding CPD’s proposed revisions to the use-of-force policy.

“How can the community believe in the process and structure of the police department when you see the young man get shot 16 times and then they turn around and try to tell you you didn’t see what you saw?” asked Kublai Toure, director of Amer-I-Can Illinois, a group that works with at-risk youth.

“How can we trust this moral deviant to reform the police?” demanded Eric Russell, referring to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Russell is president of Tree of Life Justice League of Illinois and a spokesman for the families of Bettie Jones and Jose Nieves, who were shot by police officers in December 2015 and this past January, respectively.

“We shouldn’t have this meeting nowhere in Hyde Park never again,” declared Mark Clements, who was 16 years old when he was tortured and sexually assaulted by Chicago police detectives in 1981. “We shouldn’t have this meeting nowhere in downtown. We need to take this to West Englewood, where the shootings occur right in the middle of the street.”

Arewa Karen Winters, the great-aunt of Pierre Loury, a 16-year-old boy shot and killed by CPD officers last April, asked that Fairley release the video of his shooting, as the family has been requesting for months.

“How could we proceed when you’re acting and serving in a public capacity and you’re illegitimate because you have failed at IPRA?” a young black man asked. “If I was the owner of a losing franchise they would get rid of me, they wouldn’t promote me. How can we consider anything that you do as the head of COPA as legitimate?”

Fairley attempted to respond to every speaker, but many answers came off as tone-deaf or irrelevant. She often spoke in legalistic and general terms that sounded at stark odds with the impassioned, personal appeals made by the attendees. She told Winters, who had asked perhaps the most IPRA-specific question of the evening, that she too would like to see the video of Loury’s shooting released, “but we cannot legally do it right now. I think that they’re working on it, but I would suggest that you talk to your attorney.”

Throughout the evening Kalven periodically interjected to repackage audience questions in a way that made them relevant to Fairley’s job and gave her something she was in a position to answer. He also at times participated in answering them. But by the end of the event the chasm between the citizens and the bureaucrat seemed unbridgeable.

“I didn’t hear really any concrete ‘This is what we’re doing to address the problem, this is what we want to do to address the problems that have historically been ignored’—I didn’t hear any of that,” said Tanya Watkins, an organizer with Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, after the event. “I also took away that the city is not necessarily willing to engage with the most marginalized folks. There is a real fear of organized black and brown folks, especially folks who have been brutalized by police, to really sit and engage with them and allow them to design what police accountability actually looks like.”

Asked for her takeaway, Fairley seemed to speak earnestly: “I became a lawyer to do public service. It has been an honor and privilege to be in this role. It’s not easy—it’s really complicated” she said. “All I can do is to bring my best skills to bear, my best experience and knowledge to bear, to do the piece that I’m in control of, and try to influence the rest of it to the extent that I can.”

For his part, Kalven emerged with optimism. Throughout the evening he repeatedly insisted on the unprecedented opportunity Chicagoans now have to change policing in the city, and how unbelievable it seems to him that the city is soliciting and seems open to public input on the process. But he too recognized the apparent disconnect between the public and Fairley, the distance between people’s questions and comments and what she was able to say in response.

“There’s a whole set of very pointed questions that could have been put to Sharon Fairley tonight that are in her purview,” he said. “A lot of what was said doesn’t really hold her accountable. Sometimes the most passionate expressions of horror at the underlying conditions don’t actually hold anybody accountable.”

Nevertheless, he called the event a public education effort, one that represents a new direction in the Invisible Institute’s work. Kalven thinks     the present moment in Chicago is akin to the moment when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa and a mass mobilization of citizens negotiated for change with a “decrepit state.” And he sees journalists in a position to actively contribute.

“As journalists, we necessarily do damage to the legitimacy of institutions, that’s an inevitable outcome of our work,” he said. “I know of a lot of journalists who think of their effectiveness as having trophies: ‘I contributed to a police superintendent getting fired, or a second in command being fired’—that’s not a metric for me. And I think it’s kinda creepy to think that that’s what your work is about.”

Instead, he’s asking what the Invisible Institute’s work can help build, not just destroy. Wednesday’s event, he said, was a first attempt at an answer. He hopes that when they host another, the people who were there this week will be able to use this experience to their advantage.

For Tanya Watkins the evening seemed to serve that purpose, despite its apparent futility. “We have to listen to what they’re saying,” she said referring to officials like Fairley. “We have to be willing to analyze exactly their position in order to even counter it.”