Chicago’s City Council on Wednesday is poised to approve a long-awaited overhaul of the way civilians regulate the city’s police department, following years of intense debate.
By a vote of 12 to 8, aldermen the Public Safety Committee advanced an ordinance Tuesday evening that will provide real civilian oversight of the CPD, giving publicly elected delegates a say in department leadership and policy for the first time.
It’s a major milestone in a years-long effort by aldermen and reformers who have been trying to create an oversight system that gives civilians a meaningful role in determining how their communities are policed.
Pending full City Council approval Wednesday, the ordinance will make Chicago one of only a handful of cities to implement this kind of oversight.
“We look at this as a balanced approach that would put us in the forefront when it comes to oversight in the country,” said Ald. Harry Osterman, 48th Ward, a co-sponsor who had worked through the weekend with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration to get the compromise ordinance ready for Tuesday’s vote. “This is a piece of the safety puzzle that is desperately needed in Chicago and has bee n needed for many, many years.“
Those who voted in favor said it was a long time coming after years of reluctantly approving multi-million dollar settlements against police officers, high profile police shootings and a Department of Justice investigation that found the city’s existing systems of accountability are broken and lack community buy-in.
“We’re here today because of a tragic incident that happened. Something that should have never happened,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward, as he tried to fight back tears recalling the police killing of Laquan McDonald in 2014, and more recently, Adam Toledo. Ahead of the vote, Rosa urged his colleagues to vote in favor, saying, “It’s balanced. It has all of the elements experts on civilian oversight say we need to do.”
But this meeting was not about changing hearts and minds. As the debate carried on, it was clear that several aldermen on the committee, many of them former police officers, viewed this plan as an attack on the police department.
They said it was just another layer of police oversight in an already-convoluted system that includes city agencies, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and a federal consent decree enforced by an independent monitor. They said addressing crime and public safety should take precedence over reform.
“We are in a war,” said Ald. Anthony Napolitano, 41st Ward, a former firefighter turned police officer. Another former officer, Ald. Derrick Curtis, 18th Ward, said if the issue had come up a few months later, he would have voted in favor, but now, “the city is out of control.”
“Right now I feel that the city is out of control and we need to grab control of it before civilian oversight,” Curtis said.
The 12 aldermen who voted in favor of the ordinance were: Roderick Sawyer, 6th Ward; Gregory Mitchell, 7th Ward; Ray Lopez, 15th Ward; Michael Scott, Jr., 24th Ward; Jason Ervin, 28th Ward; Chris Taliaferro, 29th Ward; Emma Mitts, 37th Ward; Michele Smith, 43rd Ward; Tom Tunney, 44th Ward; Matt Martin, 47th Ward; Harry Osterman, 48th Ward; and Debra Silverstein, 50th Ward.
The eight aldermen who voted against it were: Patrick Daley Thompson, 11th Ward; Derrick Curtis, 18th Ward; Ariel Reboyras, 30th Ward; Nick Sposato, 38th Ward; Samantha Nugent, 39th Ward; Anthony Napolitano, 41st ward; and James Gardiner, 45th Ward.
John Catanzara, president of the police union, called the ordinance “reckless” and said if anyone needs more oversight it’s the City Council, especially now that there are three sitting members under federal indictment.
11th Ward Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson – himself under indictment – argued this new oversight board would make it harder for police officers to do their job and would only create uncertainty among the rank and file.
“Who do the police answer to?” he asked. “Is this to the mayor? Is it to the police board? Is it [the Civilian Office of Police Accountability]? Is it to the public safety inspector general? Is it to this commission? Is it to the district council?”
The final language of the ordinance hadn’t been made public until Monday, after a weekend of negotiations between the mayor and aldermanic sponsors of a competing oversight plan. It’s the ordinance is the product of several compromises over the years, dating back to 2016, following the public outcry of the police murder of Laquan McDonald.
It was Mayor Lori Lightfoot, then president of the city’s police board, who first made the recommendation to create a system for civilian oversight, which she detailed in a report commissioned by her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel.
Having sat through community meetings across the city as part of Emanuel’s Police Accountability Task Force, Lightfoot and her team suggested imposing more civilian oversight of police would be the only way to build real trust between the department and the residents it serves.
But in the years that followed, aldermen and reformers could not agree on what form civilian oversight should take.
One camp wanted to completely dismantle the existing system and replace it with an elected board that would have the authority to hire and fire the police superintendent and investigate police officers.
The other group wanted to create a new oversight board that would work within the city’s existing oversight structure.
Neither plan succeeded under Emanuel. And both remained stuck in legislative limbo under Lightfoot, despite promises she had made during her 2019 campaign.
It wasn’t until earlier this summer that the two groups combined forces and created a new coalition called Empowering Communities for Public Safety. It was this group that the Lightfoot Administration ultimately struck a deal with over the weekend, which led to the ordinance that was the subject of Tuesday night’s meeting.
Since the start, there have been several points of contention that made a compromise seem unrealistic: How much power should this oversight board hold? What role should play within the existing system of police accountability? How do you maximize its independence from City Hall?
The ordinance would create a two-tiered system of oversight. There would be both a seven-member commission and 22 district councils, one for each police district. Council members would be elected by voters.
The commission will play a key role in hiring future police superintendents and will have unilateral power to hire and fire the head of the city agency that investigates allegations of police misconduct. It would also have the authority to draft, review and approve new policies, and it would be authorized to start the process of removing a superintendent by adopting a resolution of no confidence.
The commission also would have the power to force a meeting with the superintendent and chief administrator, as well as the head of the Police Board and the public safety inspector general, a position created within the inspector general’s office to track and audit the Police Department.
Members of the inaugural commission will be selected by aldermen.
Future commissioners will be selected by a committee made up of the elected delegates from the 22 district councils. The first election for these district councils would run simultaneously with the 2023 citywide election. The process would be the same as for any elected seat. In order to get on the ballot, a candidate would file signatures with the Chicago Board of Elections.