The Chicago City Council voted last week to establish civilian oversight of the city’s police department and police accountability agencies. The move followed years of protests against police misconduct and multiple rounds of negotiations between the mayor’s office, city council members, and community groups.
The final result is a two-tiered plan creating a Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, whose seven members will be appointed by the mayor for interim terms by Jan. 1, 2022, as well as district councils to be elected by residents of each of Chicago’s 22 police districts the following year. The commission will have the power to draft and approve policy for the Chicago Police Department and nominate candidates for superintendent and other key positions within the city’s policing infrastructure.
On the eve of the vote, members of the council’s public safety committee debated the impact of enhanced civilian oversight.
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Ald. Sophia King (4th Ward) a supporter of the ordinance, said it would help “mend [the] history” of police misconduct and mistrust between police and communities — mistrust that a 2017 Department of Justice report found stemmed from police officers’ systemic neglect and abusive behavior in Black and brown neighborhoods. Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st Ward), whose Northwest Side ward is home to many police officers, claimed that adding new layers of oversight would discourage potential recruits from joining the police force.
The ordinance, which passed last Wednesday by a 36-13 vote, resulted from a compromise between two separate plans. The first, introduced by Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward) in 2016, would have empowered city residents to directly elect a Civilian Police Accountability Council, known as CPAC. In 2018, a community coalition known as the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability, or GAPA, partnered with Ald. Harry Osterman (48th Ward) and Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th Ward) to introduce a separate ordinance establishing a civilian oversight board with more limited powers. When the CPAC and GAPA ordinances languished in committee, their sponsors combined them into one bill in March.
The commission is also the latest in a long line of Chicago agencies established to address the police department’s failure to reign in abuses as serious as police torture. In 2017, the city established the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, or COPA, amid fallout over the 2014 police killing of Laquan McDonald, which spurred an investigation into the police department that found a pattern of biased policing, unreasonable force, and failures to hold cops accountable for misconduct. COPA replaced the Independent Police Review Authority, which had previously replaced the Office of Professional Standards in 2007.
At the July 20 public safety committee meeting, Frank Chapman, the field secretary and education director of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, praised the civilian police oversight ordinance but vowed to continue pushing for improvements to the city’s police accountability systems.
“This is not the end-all and be-all, but this is a very important, historic step forward,” said Chapman, whose organization was a member of the coalition backing the commission proposal.
Ramirez-Rosa echoed Chapman’s sentiments.
“I think this is the strongest ordinance that we could pass at this time,” he said. “It’s the strongest ordinance in the country, and it really sets us up to even continue to push the policy in the right direction.”
Injustice Watch reviewed the new ordinance and the changes that it will bring to Chicago policing, which fall into four major categories.
When it comes time for the mayor and city council to decide on the CPD’s budget for the following year, the commission won’t have any direct authority. However, the ordinance calls for the commission to “review and recommend changes to the proposed department budget appropriation,” recommend ways to ensure that police resources aren’t used “inappropriately,” and provide “preventative, proactive, community-based, and evidence-based solutions to violence.”
Hiring and firing
Under the new ordinance, the mayor’s office will, for the first time, cede some control over hiring and firing top police administrators. The mayor currently appoints the Chicago Police Board, which oversees police discipline and hires superintendents based on its recommendation.
Now, the commission will take over the first steps of that process, picking candidates and submitting them to the mayor — who can, in turn, appoint one or reject them all and send the commission back to the drawing board. The commission can appoint COPA’s chief administrator on its own, although all three positions are subject to the city council’s final approval.
The ordinance also grants the commission the right to take a vote of no confidence in a superintendent, chief administrator, or police board member, though their removal ultimately requires a two-thirds vote by the city council, as well as, in the case of the superintendent and police board members, action by the mayor.
“These are very unique powers that really don’t exist anywhere else in the country,” Ramirez-Rosa said in an interview with Injustice Watch.
In 2023, Chicagoans will elect their first district councils, comprised of three residents from each of the city’s 22 policing districts. Those elected will have the power to nominate candidates for appointment to the commission. The councils will also be tasked with seeking input from residents, advising the commission on police policy, and developing restorative justice and community policing programs tailored to the needs of their districts.
“It’s going to be critical that those district councils, once they’re set up, keep their fingers on the pulse of the communities that they’re elected to serve, so that they’re really hearing beat by beat, block by block what are the challenges that folks are facing from a public safety standpoint,” said Ald. Matt Martin (47th Ward).
The ordinance allows the commission to approve any new or revised policing policies — whether from the department, COPA, or the Chicago Police Board. There are a few exceptions. If the commission fails to vote or provide comments on a policy within 60 days, for example, the relevant agency can go ahead and implement it. In addition, agencies can put a temporary policy in place without first securing the commission’s approval if “circumstances demand” that a policy be immediately created or changed.
The commission can also request or write its own policies for each of the three agencies that it helps oversee. The mayor’s office, however, gets a final veto, which can only be overridden by a two-thirds majority vote in the city council.
John Catanzara, president of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #7, spoke in opposition to the ordinance Tuesday night, complaining that the city already has enough layers of police oversight, and that giving civilians more power to influence policy “is absolutely absurd and dangerous and reckless.”
“I heard many of you talking about how you respect the police, … and now here some of you are entertaining the possibility of making the job harder,” the police union president told the council members.
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th Ward) one of the ordinance’s sponsors, praised the ordinance for offering a fresh approach to help repair a broken system of policing.
“In my two decades having sat on this council, we have seen [everything] from Jon Burge[’s] torture, and murders, to Laquan McDonald and Adam Toledo. We have to know that what we’re doing, our approach, is not and has not been working,” Hairston said. “I’m so glad to see we have come together from all roads, coming to one point where we can agree and even agree to disagree, but we have come up with … a formula that I believe works for the citizens of Chicago, works for the city, and will do something different to try to deal with how we engage with the police and how the police engage with us.”