City Council debates options for community police oversight

By Beth Stewart
Medill Reports

The Chicago City Council’s first 2020 Public Safety Committee hearing on community police oversight  brought together a panel of experts from Omaha, L.A., New York University and the University of Chicago to offer the latest research and and best practices for police accountability.

However, with less than two days’ notice for the January 23 hearing, many Chicago activists and organizers showed up to remind the committee that other experts were also in the room – everyday Chicagoans affected by police violence.

Recommendations focused on an elected body that oversees police.
Over the next month, the council will be debating and voting on one of two recommended ordinances to create such a body.

In 2018 the city spent more than $113 million on cases related to police misconduct, including $16 million paid to the family of Bettie Jones, shot and killed by Officer Robert Rialmo in December 2015. It is no secret that community and police relations are more than strained.

The lack of trust, many activists in attendance explained, dates back to the 1969 police killing of Chicago civil rights leader and Black Panther leader  Fred Hampton during a raid. The tenure of former Police Commander Jon Burge from 1971 to 1991, who was accused of torture but never prosecuted added to the deep mistrust. The 2014 shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, since convicted on murder, brought relations to a breaking point.

Eighth Ward Ald. Michelle Harris reminded the council to keep this history in mind. “We are here today because the Chicago Police Department has been racist toward people of color,” she said to a round of applause from the public.

The Chicago Police Department is under a consent decree issued by a federal judge to implement comprehensive reforms, particularly focused on improving community policing, accountability, training, and use of force.

Under the current system of police oversight, the superintendent, the inspector general, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and the police board, are all mayoral appointments. COPA, which handles investigations into police misconduct, has the authority to make recommendations to the police board and mayor’s office, but no authority to fire or discipline officers.

“The system is broken,” said Tamer Abouzeid of Streeterville. Abouzeid is an investigator for COPA, however today he is speaking as a member of the community. “It only seems fair in a democracy, that the people dictate how policing should function, not the other way around,” he said.

“What’s been missing is a governing police body that’s elected by the people,” said Ald. Chris Taliaferro (D-29th), chair of the Public Safety Committee.

Over the next months, the council will be debating and voting on one of two potential  ordinances recommended by organizers that will create an elected body. The Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA) ordinance and the Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC). Both significantly improve public participation and oversight of the police by establishing an elected body of community members from each police district.

The community group 40th United and 40th Ward Ald. Andre Vasquez are hosting a “Civics 101” class about police accountability to discuss the two proposed ordinances Sunday at noon at 2406 Bryn Mawr Ave.

CPAC would be a fully independent body that would have complete control of the police department from hiring and firing power, to conducting investigations and trainings, enforcing discipline, and negotiating contracts.

The GAPA ordinance would give the elected body oversight of these areas to make recommendations to the mayor and superintendent’s office for final say. Prior to her election, Lightfoot expressed support for the GAPA ordinance in her role as police board president.

“This really is a historic moment to get things right, to work to put an end to our legacy of unchecked abuse that has caused so much pain to so many people” declared panelist Craig Futterman, Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Chicago who has worked closely with the Mayor on the Police Accountability Task Force and supports CPAC.

Organizers hope to see legislation passed quickly so that the community-based council, whichever iteration, can be in place to assist in the hiring of the new chief of police.

Photo at top: A City Council Public Safety Committee panel recommended  nationwide best practices for improving community oversight of police. (Beth Stewart/MEDILL)