A police officer reflected in a window
A police officer and demonstrators are reflected on a window during march for justice in honor of George Floyd, Saturday, June 6, 2020, in Chicago. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

After Decades Of Police Corruption, Can Chicago Finally Reform Its Force?

A police officer and demonstrators are reflected on a window during march for justice in honor of George Floyd, Saturday, June 6, 2020, in Chicago. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press
A police officer reflected in a window
A police officer and demonstrators are reflected on a window during march for justice in honor of George Floyd, Saturday, June 6, 2020, in Chicago. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

After Decades Of Police Corruption, Can Chicago Finally Reform Its Force?

A police officer and demonstrators are reflected on a window during march for justice in honor of George Floyd, Saturday, June 6, 2020, in Chicago. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press
WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Following decades of scandals, delays, big-money misconduct settlements — and even murder — Chicago finds itself facing an all-too-familiar question: Does the city finally have the will to make big changes to the way it polices residents?

The movement to reform the Chicago Police Department is once again a top political priority after days of protests and looting in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. The national convulsions over racial injustice and policing have spawned calls for a variety of changes here — from siphoning money away from CPD and into social and community-based programs, to removing cops from public schools, to abolishing the department altogether.

But the city’s history is littered with examples of stymied or slow-moving police reform efforts.

Most recently, it was the dashcam footage of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald’s death — played across local and national media on Thanksgiving weekend in 2015 — that reignited efforts for police reform. A year earlier, McDonald, who was black, had been shot 16 times by white CPD officer Jason Van Dyke, who was later sentenced to nearly seven years in prison for the murder.

Even then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel made a public apology and acknowledged a “code of silence” existed within the Chicago Police Department to cover for misbehaving cops. And the City Council quickly settled the McDonald family’s lawsuit after a contentious citywide election, agreeing to pay out $5 million less than a year after McDonald’s death. Most police-involved death settlements take years to investigate and litigate.

Back then, reformers thought the teen’s murder was the turning point necessary to enact change at the police department. But bureaucracy and politics got in the way. This time, the city has an ex-federal prosecutor for a mayor who campaigned on her reputation as the head of a police oversight board.

But Chicago’s been going through the same pattern of “scandal, reform, repeat” for at least 60 years, said Sharon Fairley, the former head of the city agency that investigates allegations of police misconduct.

The city’s policing history is fraught with high-profile scandals: There was the “police riot” against protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention; the decades of cops overseen by former Commander Jon Burge and his “Midnight Crew” that tortured mostly black criminal suspects; and a long list of multimillion dollar payouts to the families of people who were killed by police.

Fairley, who is now a University of Chicago law professor, said she believes those decades of failed reforms have brought the city and the country to the current moment.

“We have a scandal. We enact reforms, and then we wait. And then it happens again. And there’s another scandal. And then we enact reforms, and then we sort of get complacent again,” Fairley said.

“What we’re seeing today is that there is just a demand for fundamental change that I think and hope is going to create the opportunity for us all to design a … system that can last and not have to be rebuilt or changed or added to every time there’s an incident,” she said.

But reform isn’t easy in Chicago.

And when it comes to reforming the police department, in particular, the number of overlapping proposals can be dizzying. Here’s a look at some of the most recent efforts to change the Chicago Police Department — and why none of them have yet been fully realized.

The City Council’s role

Following McDonald’s murder, one of the biggest changes activists pushed for was a more robust civilian oversight system for the CPD. It’s also proved to be one of the most controversial and politically challenging.

In the City Council, there are two competing police reform plans attempting to address the lack of civilian involvement in how police misconduct is handled and how policy is drafted.

One is called CPAC, or the Civilian Police Accountability Council. The other is called GAPA, or the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability.

CPAC was first introduced in 2016 by then-freshman Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa, 35th Ward. At the time he was the only democratic socialist on the council, and he introduced the legislation without the blessing of the mayor, who usually played a leading role in crafting major citywide policies.

While the original CPAC plan was rejected by the City Council, it became a rallying cry at city-run public hearings across the city. The underpinnings of the CPAC legislation have been around since the 1970s. That’s how long the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression has been fighting this issue.

CPAC is the most drastic police reform plan ever to be introduced to the full City Council. The original version would have dismantled several existing agencies in charge of police accountability and replaced them with a publicly-elected board of arbiters.

Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa
Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward, attends City Council Meeting on June 12, 2019. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

The newer version keeps some of the existing structures in place but puts the elected board at the helm of the investigative process. Instead of having one person elected from each of the city’s 22 police districts, as originally drafted, it would be one person from two contiguous districts.

The elected board would have the authority to select the person in charge of the department tasked with investigating cops, hire and fire the police superintendent and make the final call on police rules. Right now, the mayor appoints the heads of all those agencies with City Council approval.

Those elected would get full-time pay of $100,000 — the “same base salary as Aldermen,” according to the draft ordinance. Having former policing experience or a familial relationship with a police officer would make someone ineligible to serve in the oversight role.

Now Ramirez-Rosa says his CPAC plan is gaining serious legs. The ordinance has been rewritten, with help by Craig Futterman, an expert in policing at the University of Chicago, to address previous legal concerns.

Futterman said he is a strong advocate of CPAC, and he complained that the alternative being pushed by the mayor’s office, GAPA, “has been watered down dramatically” by Lightfoot.

Lightfoot has long supported GAPA and the process for drafting it by crowdsourcing ideas for how to make the department better. Some of the recommendations mirror similar suggestions she made in 2016 as head of the city’s Police Accountability Task Force. Lightfoot said passing the GAPA ordinance was one of her policy goals within her first hundred days. That didn’t happen.

Dozens of reformers and community organizations spent two years collecting community input to draft GAPA. It keeps many of the existing systems of discipline in place while adding more opportunities for civilian input. Ramirez-Rosa would often say that GAPA is to CPAC what Obamacare is to universal healthcare.

Futterman largely agrees: “Under GAPA, at the end of the day, all power continues to reside, or even more power continues to reside, in the mayor’s office as opposed to with the community.”

The police union’s stake

One consistent roadblock to overhauling the Chicago Police Department has been the city’s police union — the largest bargaining unit of city employees on the City Hall payroll. The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, known as the FOP, represents all rank-and-file Chicago police officers — about 12,000 members — and negotiating the union’s contract with the city is one of the most expensive balancing acts an administration and the City Council can undertake. That contract expired in 2017.

Much of the reforms debated in the City Council, as they relate to disciplining officers and allowing anonymous citizen complaints, will fall short without union support. The FOP contract includes a provision banning anonymous complaints. And in recent years, Chicago’s police union has elected leaders that have taken harder and harder lines against such reforms.

A police officer stands near protesters
A Chicago police officer stands near protesters in Lincoln Park during demonstrations over the police killing of George Floyd. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

The union’s new president, John Catanzara, has been vocal for years that amending the disciplinary section of the contract is non-negotiable.

“We’re not going to give anything up on discipline, I can tell you here,” Catanzara told WBEZ’s Reset on Thursday.

“I don’t know of another city agency that has the levels of oversight and punishment possibilities that the CPD members face,” he said. “We have more scrutiny than anybody else in this city. And yet people are still saying there’s not enough. We’re convenient when they need to use us for something. But the second someone needs to be thrown under the bus, we’re the first, or the first suspects, in line.”

Catanzara said he was open to some improvements to police training. But he rejected other suggested changes. Catanzara said that many of his members agree that police should not be stationed in Chicago’s public schools. Many activists have called for their removal, though Lightfoot has refused.

Catanzara also said this week he was “the first to admit” officers needed to do a better job “having conversations” with people in the community. But he almost immediately put the onus on Chicagoans who live in areas that suffer from high levels of violence. He said residents need to “speak up” and show they support officers and are against crime.

“I think the silent majority needs to speak out,” Catanzara said. “And, if they do and officers see a different version of people who actually support the police, their vision of certain neighborhoods in this city might change and not be so jaded.

“My point is everybody needs to pull this rope. If we’re going to change the dynamic going forward, it’s not just the police department. You’re not going to lay this on the backs of the members of the CPD and [the FOP],” he said.

The courts

Finally, there’s federal oversight.

Chicago is operating under a consent decree — a legal agreement outlining a police reform plan that’s enforced by a federal judge. It followed a Department of Justice investigation into the police department after the court-ordered release of the dashcam video showing McDonald’s murder in 2014.

The Justice Department found that CPD had a pattern of racist, abusive and unconstitutional policing. Investigators detailed how police officers regularly failed to report weapon usage and used unreasonable force against children, how unnecessary foot pursuits turned deadly, and how the existing systems of accountability protected officers over complainants.

The federal report ultimately led to the consent decree, which a judge signed on January 31, 2019. Though most consent decrees are led by the DOJ, Chicago’s was the product of a lawsuit against the city filed by then-Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Madigan, a Democrat, filed the lawsuit after it became clear that Republican President Donald Trump’s administration would not pursue action against the city.

The coronavirus pandemic has delayed regular reporting by the independent monitor overseeing the consent decree. But the most recent status report issued at the end of 2019 painted a bleak picture for the department.

It concluded the city had achieved at least preliminary compliance with only 15 of 52 consent decree requirements in the first reporting period. More recently, the federal monitor announced it would be leading an investigation into the department’s handling of the protests following George Floyd’s killing.

Who decides?

Ensuring the city complies with the consent decree is the biggest priority, said Public Safety Chairman Chris Taliaferro, the 29th Ward alderman and a former police sergeant.

Taliaferro decides what gets brought up for a vote on his committee. He doesn’t have any immediate plans to hold a hearing on either CPAC or GAPA until aldermen can get a better understanding of how far the city is behind in meeting federal benchmarks outlined in the court agreement. Taliaffero said his first order of business is to hold a hearing on the city’s lack of progress on the consent decree.

Public Safety Chairman Chris Taliaferro, the 29th Ward alderman and a former police sergeant, said ensuring the city complies with the consent decree is his biggest priority. Bill Healy / WBEZ

Whatever path reforms take will be costly. For 2019, the first year of the consent decree, the city put $25.7 million towards police reform, including $12.9 million for new personnel costs.

Mayor Lightfoot has said she is serious about reform, though she doesn’t support calls to defund the police. Since the 2019 election, she has made safer neighborhoods a priority, and that includes keeping the police budget at existing levels.

“I don’t think we can survive as a city without making these critical investments,” she said Thursday.

Meanwhile, Fairley, the former police oversight leader, called the move to defund the Chicago Police Department a “double-edged sword.”

“Police reform has an expense to it,” she said. “So when we create oversight and there’s an expense to that, there’s an expense to enhanced training.”

Claudia Morell is a city political reporter for WBEZ. Patrick Smith is a criminal justice reporter for WBEZ.