When police take a life, a public-relations machine whirrs into motion. The goal of the subsequent press releases and media interviews is to cast whoever has been killed by a police bullet, car, or baton in an unsympathetic light. She may have been using drugs. He had an aggressive face. She was experiencing a mental health crisis. He had a gun. He ran. He had been arrested before. He was in a gang. Such well-worn lines serve a purpose: to keep the public from seeing the person and their family as victims deserving of rights, care, or mourning.
We faced this machine again last week when Chicago police killed 21-year-old Isidro Valverde. One of us was his alderperson in Chicago’s 33rd Ward and released a statement within hours of his death. In it, as we tried to confirm who had been shot and connect with the family in order to provide support, Valverde was referred to as a “victim” of a shooting.
The backlash was swift. Police-adjacent actors launched a smear campaign against one of us—an alderperson, now up for reelection, who has advocated reallocating excessive police funding to building community-based care systems. Valverde was no victim, they insisted. Police seemed unable to tolerate the idea that he be mourned or that his family be provided support. After all, Valverde had shot at officers, they said, implying that he deserved to die. As sad as this tired performance of self-righteous disregard for human life already was, there was something even more disturbing behind it.
On February 7, Valverde went to a neighborhood bar near his home in the Irving Park neighborhood. He reportedly became intoxicated and stepped outside, where he got into a heated exchange. The security guard at the bar overheard and went to ensure everyone’s safety. Valverde pulled out a gun and pointed it at the security guard, who de-escalated the situation. Valverde put his gun away and agreed to walk away. “And that’s where it ended,” the security guard told a reporter. This is how all such situations would ideally conclude—with a community keeping itself safe through violence interruption and mediation.
But a short time later, police arrived, responding to a call that a man had threatened bar patrons. Valverde was still nearby, and someone pointed him out to the police. Valverde, who had been arrested three times before for charges associated with drugs and fleeing from officers, took off running. The police gave chase. Valverde tripped in an alley. The officers shouted at him to stay down. When he began to try to get up, they shot him multiple times, killing him as he lay on the ground.
The chief of police claimed that Isidro had shot at the two officers chasing him and that they had then returned fire, killing him in self-defense. In a press conference held hours after the shooting, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown stated that from viewing the body-cam footage it could be determined unequivocally that Valverde had shot at the officers.
This, it seems, was a lie. The Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which is responsible for investigating shootings involving police, independently reviewed the footage and found no evidence to corroborate Superintendent Brown’s account. Furthermore, the police decision to run after Valverde appears to violate Chicago’s no-chase law, which went into effect last year after a series of avoidable, police-instigated violent encounters, such as the killings of 13-year-old Adam Toledo and 22-year-old Anthony Alvarez. This law prohibits officers from chasing after people simply because they’ve run away or allegedly committed minor offenses. It was designed to prevent needless violence—like Valverde’s pointless, unnecessary death.
It is well-established that US police, including Chicago’s during Brown’s tenure as superintendent, sometimes falsify reports and disseminate misinformation after injuring or killing people, in attempts to justify their actions and evade scrutiny. It has also been widely suspected that mayors, who oversee police departments and are eager to avoid negative media attention that might harm their personal careers, will participate in strategically distorting, delaying, and burying the truth. We are both advocates for non-police community safety systems and have long decried the harm inflicted on our communities when reactive police and incarceration systems are relied upon as substitutes for preventive support systems. After years of work in this arena, we would not be surprised if Brown deliberately lied about Valverde’s death. We are, after all, in the middle of a heated local election season in which police funding and accountability are major subjects of debate. Furthermore, the incumbent mayor upon whom Brown’s career and legacy depend is falling behind in the polls.
Superintendent Brown and anyone else—including Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has previously been accused of participating in cover-ups of police killings and misconduct—who is found to have been involved in misleading the public about Valverde’s death should be held accountable. This is not the first time that Brown has given what appear to be misleading statements about police violence, and it’s particularly egregious that he continues to do so in the context of a consent decree lagging far behind in its implementation.
This decree was issued after the United States Department of Justice concluded a year-long civil rights investigation of the Chicago Police Department following the murder of Laquan Macdonald by a police officer in 2014. It mandates via court order that the CPD complete a series of reforms to confront over 50 years of repeated failures to act lawfully and to treat Chicago residents equally under the law, regardless of race or class. To date, the CPD under Superintendent Brown and Mayor Lightfoot’s supervision has repeatedly failed to meet the deadlines for reform stipulated by the decree, which, as a result, has been extended by an additional three years. This slow rate of change has persisted despite a ballooning Chicago police budget, which now exceeds $1.94 billion per year.
In this context, we have been joined by colleagues in an open letter calling for Brown’s resignation. But while we believe he is unfit to lead the CPD, his departure alone will do little to reverse the rippling effects of Valverde’s death. By opposing our efforts to care for Valverde’s family in the immediate wake of his killing and by intimidating community members into withholding support, the police machine under Brown didn’t just kill Valverde. It inflicted further trauma upon his family, friends, and neighborhood by rushing to discredit Valverde, isolate his family, and divide his community.
When the police take the life of one of our neighbors, the consequences reverberate throughout communities and across generations. It tears open old wounds for many of us who have lost loved ones to gun violence, had family members abused or intimidated by police, or who struggle to trust our own communities because of the lack of safety that decades of failed police-centric safety policies have left us.
This is why it is so important to be able to respond to traumatic events like Valverde’s death, which joins thousands of recent police shootings, by coming together as a community to mourn, support those most affected, and begin the process of collective repair and organizing for the policy changes we need to build stronger, safer communities. Without that, experiences of loss at the hands of police perpetuate cycles of injury, distrust, poverty, despair, anger, and violence.
Police reforms are overdue, but they cannot heal the harm that police violence has wrought on the families and communities who have suffered from it. To heal our communities, we need to invest in building systems for shared safety based in supportive care that builds trust rather than encourage retribution—that is, non-police safety systems like the community health and justice worker corps one of us outlined in the New England Journal of Medicine last week.
Safe communities are not those that are most policed but rather places where our government treats each resident—and residents, in turn, treat one another—with compassion and care enabled by public infrastructures designed to protect everyone rather than just the privileged few. As Chicago prepares to elect its alderpersons and next mayor, we should be asking how they plan to protect our communities—including when that requires standing up to police.