Oversight of Chicago police handed to new civilian commission after years of public pressure

By Mark Guarino

July 21, 2021 at 3:19 p.m. EDT

CHICAGO — The Chicago Police Department will be overseen soon by a commission of publicly elected community members, a development that strips city hall of the power it has wielded for decades over the scandal-prone department.

The ordinance creating the commission was overwhelmingly approved Wednesday by the City Council. Advocates of police reform and accountability call it historic.

“We literally have crossed rivers of blood over 50 years to get to this point,” said Frank Chapman of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. “For the first time in history, people of our community will have a decisive say on police policymaking.”

His organization and nearly 100 others formed a coalition this year to craft the ordinance with several council members. Desmon Yancy, director at the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago, called the outcome “the most transformative police oversight legislation in this country.”

Community groups’ push for police accountability here is as old as the churn of controversies that have plagued the department since the 1970s, starting with revelations that officers had tortured and coerced more than 100 people into false confessions. To date, the city has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in legal fees to defend officers and in victim settlements.

The turning point for change came in 2014 after the police shooting of Black teenager Laquan McDonald. The case led to the police superintendent’s firing and the election defeat of the Cook County state’s attorney.

The department remains under a court-mandated federal consent decree that requires comprehensive changes to how it handles training, use of force, accountability and relations with the community. But advocates say change has moved at a glacial pace.

The new Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability is considered a more direct pathway to regain public trust.

“We have come up with a formula that will do something different with how we engage with police and how police engage with us,” said Alderman Leslie Hairston, one of the ordinance’s sponsors.

The commission will consist of seven community members elected to four-year terms beginning in 2023. Two must be practicing lawyers, while others should have backgrounds in areas such as civil rights, mental health and social work. Each will receive a $12,000 stipend.

Jeff Levine, an attorney for the city, said the commission will be involved in the hiring and any firing of the police superintendent, members of the police board and the chief administrator of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which oversees complaints of misconduct. The group will also develop restorative-justice programs.

The commission’s annual cost of $3.5 million will be covered by the police department’s budget, Levine said.

Civilian oversight of the police and public schools was a central issue for now-Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) during her campaign two years ago, and it was among the recommendations of a task force on police accountability that she co-chaired after the McDonald shooting. Once in office, however, she hesitated to fully pursue them. She faced mounting criticism from community groups, which claimed she was betraying the liberal platform she ran on.

Lightfoot supported the ordinance. Before the council’s vote Wednesday, she said city leaders need to “break through the noise and rhetoric” and explain to rank-and-file officers how the commission will ultimately strengthen their role on the street.

“Legitimacy is key to the work that our police do,” she said. “If the community does not trust them because they are not legitimate to them, they will not be effective in their core mission, which is serving and protecting every resident of this city.”

Art Lurigio, a criminologist at Loyola University Chicago, described the measure as “the most serious and successful effort to date in Chicago to build in a mechanism for civilians to oversee the police superintendent and to challenge his incumbency.”

Mayors have always had an “iron grip” over the city’s police superintendents, largely for political currency and optics, he said. “At the moment of a crisis, it signals: ‘I’m the mayor. I’m in charge. I’m doing something about political corruption and violence.’ ”

In 2015, a week after a court ordered the city to release video that showed an officer killing McDonald without provocation, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) fired police superintendent Garry McCarthy.

The ordinance, which passed 36 to 13, still gives a mayor the ultimate power to remove the superintendent, but there will now be a process that involves a commission hearing, the individual’s official response and a council vote. Ayesha Bell Hardaway, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland who specializes in policing, says the most critical element is the provision requiring the mayor to explain his or her decision in writing.

“That is far different from the commission model that we’ve seen develop over decades,” Bell Hardaway said. “The transparency in the decision-making of the mayor is significant. That’s not a small step.”

Often, she added, civilian oversight boards lack real authority. “What I like about what Chicago has done is that they created a space for the community, through an elected process, to have a strong say-so in the policymaking,” she said.

Loudly criticizing the new oversight panel are Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, which represents the force of about 12,000 officers, and its City Council allies.

On Tuesday, union president John Catanzara Jr. told council members that the consent decree already heavily regulates the department and suggested that enabling community members will ultimately soften policing at a time of social unrest.

“Turning around control to a lot of squeaky wheels who turned this city into anarchy last summer . . . is absolutely absurd and dangerous and reckless,” he said. “This finger-pointing needs to stop. The police are not the problem. You’re going to turn over the keys to the criminals and give them a welcome mat to city hall and the police department.”

Share this story on your favorite platform: