A seven-member civilian board would have the power to fire Chicago’s police superintendent and set department policy under a far-reaching proposal by some of Chicago’s leading community organizations that quickly drew criticism from police.
The long-awaited report from the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability calls for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to also retain the ability to fire a superintendent. But extending that authority to a civilian commission would be a dramatic change in a city where City Hall has long held tight controls over what happens at police headquarters.
Under the proposal, the superintendent and command staff would continue to run day-to-day operations, but the commission would have final say on policy decisions.
The mayor’s office had no immediate comment, but police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, at a recruitment event Saturday at the police academy, sharply criticized the proposal, saying no one from the alliance met with him or his staff over the last year and a half of its work.
“We’re in the middle of a serious crime fight, and we’re finally making real progress, so I don’t know how you can turn over crime strategy and every policing decision to some group of people who have absolutely no law enforcement experience,” Johnson told reporters. “The two most important things to me are the safety of the people of this city and the necessary reforms we are making to strengthen trust.
“I would have been happy to share my thoughts with this group, but in the entire 18 months they were gathering input, they never bothered to meet with me or with anyone at CPD,” he said.
Some 13 community groups, including longtime grass-roots and neighborhood organizations from all over the city, began their work in 2016 after the Mayor’s Police Accountability Task Force recommended that the city create a community oversight board.
The proposal calls for the creation of a Commission for Public Safety and Accountability to guide leadership, direction and policy on policing in Chicago. Its oversight would extend beyond the Police Department to the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which investigates police misconduct allegations, and the Chicago Police Board, which decides discipline.
It also calls for councils to be set up in each of the city’s 22 police districts that would serve as the “eyes and ears” of the commission and also select its members.
Police reform has been a critical issue in Chicago since November 2015 when Emanuel was forced by a judge’s order to release video of white Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald, a black teen, 16 times. The footage sparked sustained street protests rooted in decades of complaints about police brutality and misconduct, particularly among African-Americans. Then-police Superintendent Garry McCarthy was fired, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez lost re-election, and Van Dyke became the first Chicago cop in decades to be indicted for first-degree murder for a fatal on-duty shooting; he awaits trial.
The group’s report and recommended ordinance are the result of some 100 community meetings and research into cities across the country that have already turned to civilian oversight, said Adam Gross, director of justice reform at Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, a public policy institute that advised the organizers.
Gross said Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, and Harry Osterman, 48th, have signed on to sponsor the ordinance and that members of the alliance have met with 22 aldermen. The group hopes the ordinance will be introduced at a City Council meeting later this month.
The draft ordinance poses a political conundrum for the City Council and Emanuel, who is seeking a third term next year. There has been a sustained and vocal outcry from numerous activists and civil rights attorneys for department reform, many of them buoyed by a U.S. Department of Justice finding in 2016 that the Police Department engaged in decades of civil rights abuses in minority neighborhoods.
But the idea is likely to be met with intense scrutiny and debate considering the massive changes proposed. Many rank-and-file police officers are likely to bridle at the idea of a new layer of outside oversight by civilians.
“It’s a fairly big transition from the history of policing in Chicago,” said Lori Lightfoot, who heads the Chicago Police Board and also chaired a special city task force that issued a report calling for civilian oversight. “Many cities have some kind of a city body that has oversight. It is just never something that has been done (here).
“That is a big change, and, as drafted, it is intended to take a lot of control out of the hands of the mayor. That is a major departure. … I view this as a milestone in a very important community discussion that will continue after the ordinance is introduced.”
The Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing rank-and-file officers, issued a statement by email that called the proposed changes “ludicrous.”
“The political leaders of the city should stop building their political power on the backs of police officers who risk their lives every day and instead provide money for enough officers and equipment to allow them to protect the public,” the statement said.
The reports’ authors say they are prepared for pushback and welcome debate. They also see some value in the coming election cycle.
“The best time to push a hard issue like this is in the window before an election,” Gross said. “Because it’s harder for people to run away from issues.”
Samuel Walker, a national policing expert, said a groundswell of support for public oversight in policing has grown as more and more troubling police shootings and incidents of abuse against people of color have been caught on video. There is a growing acceptance, he said, that those historically charged with guiding and monitoring police — city councils and mayors — have failed.
“We are in the midst of a significant period of change,” said Walker, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska who twice came to Chicago to meet with the alliance. “We need to bridge our gap, our racial divide and (create) the process where people from neighborhoods that are almost entirely African-American and Hispanic will have representation.”
Under the proposal, three community members would be elected every two years to councils set up in each of the city’s 22 police districts. These “district councils” would focus on improving relations between police in the neighborhoods and also take on the critical role of selecting commissioners for four-year terms on the overarching civilian board.
Commission applicants would be required to live in Chicago and hold extensive work experience in fields including law, public policy, mental health, social work, law enforcement and community organizing. The proposal also mentions seeking advocates who have worked on behalf of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and those with disabilities. At least two members must be lawyers with at least 10 years experience of practicing civil rights or criminal law.
The commission would be charged with helping name a superintendent by selecting three finalists for the mayor to consider. This task is currently left to the city’s Police Board, a mayor-appointed panel, though Emanuel bypassed that process in selecting Eddie Johnson as the current superintendent.
While the mayor would retain the ability to fire the superintendent, the commission would also gain the authority to remove the superintendent “for cause,” according to the proposal. The decision requires 30 days’ advance notice to the superintendent and allows for an appeal to the City Council, which could overturn the decision by a two-thirds vote.
The power to remove the superintendent, the report said, would be “narrow.”
“That is defined to include reasons like incompetence, neglect of duty, or misconduct that could impeach or undermine public confidence in the Superintendent,” the report said.
While the proposal gives the commission no authority to review individual disciplinary decisions by COPA, it would have the power to hire and fire the head of that police oversight agency as well as the head of and members of the Police Board. Those hiring decisions would be subject to City Council confirmation.
The proposal calls for a $2.8 million budget to pay for a 15-member staff, including an executive director and policy analysts. Commission and district council members would be paid stipends.
The group relied on Los Angeles’ Board of Police Commissioners as a guide in its design for the proposed Chicago commission. The Los Angeles commission functions as a board of directors, setting policy and hiring the police chief. In one key difference, however, the LA commission members are appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council.
Seattle established an advisory community oversight board in 2013 under a consent decree the city reached with the Justice Department following a finding of unconstitutional policing there. The board has 21 members — seven each picked by the mayor, the City Council and the commission itself. Three of those positions are designated for members of the Police Department.
According to the draft ordinance in Chicago, police officers could apply for a spot on the commission only after they had been off the force for at least three years.
Walker, the policing expert, applauded Seattle’s decision to include officers on its board.
“That is an extremely important innovation,” Walker said. “They haven’t had a seat at the table in decades of police reform. … They need to be part of the discussion. They can have a voice in shaping policy.”
What civilian oversight in Chicago could look like has been the subject of intense questions for some time.
A few months after the release of the McDonald video, Emanuel’s handpicked policing task force recommended in a report the formation of a community oversight board that would monitor the Police Department and police disciplinary bodies.
In October 2016, the City Council passed the Emanuel-backed ordinance establishing a better-funded COPA to replace the often-ineffective Independent Police Review Authority. The ordinance also put in place a new deputy inspector general for public safety in the city inspector general’s office.
The ordinance did not, however, include the community oversight board. Emanuel vowed to create the board but deferred to community groups’ requests that they help design it. Those groups have spent nearly two years holding public forums and hammering out their proposal.
And now they are ready to shift the conversation to City Hall.
“We are delivering, and if the mayor and aldermen are true to what they’ve said about wanting that community process to develop, we should be getting public hearings on this ordinance,” said Luis Carrizales, associate director of city and county policing for the Community Renewal Society, which works to eliminate race and class barriers and is part of the alliance. “If they have other ideas about what might work better, those should be included in that public debate.”
Chicago Tribune’s Dan Hinkel contributed.
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