Chicago Police Reform Still Unsettled

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A seminal experience in Carlil Pittman’s life came when a Chicago police officer pulled him out of class at Gage Park High School making vague accusations he didn’t understand, then began searching the 16-year-old boy, rummaging through his pockets and backpack.

Just as classes were changing the officer took Pittman’s pants down – in front of all his classmates – as part of the continued and fruitless search. A childhood that made him all too familiar with the stop-and-frisk policy turned into a recent incident in which Chicago police officers approached his car, with his four children inside, flashlights shining in Pittman’s face and hands on their weapons after the family had seen “Power Rangers.’’

“That’s why it’s personal for me to see a real police reform and accountability ordinance,’’ said Pittman, 27, co-founder of GoodKidsMadCity, an organizer with the Southwest Organizing Project, and a member of the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability, GAPA. “We need reform that has real teeth and real accountability.’’

That reform would not only be real but a giant, progressive step with supporters calling it the most significant police reform in America if it passes in the City Council. It would be the fruit of a half decade of labor, community input, and involvement from more than 100 groups across the city.

The signature reform would put a community commission made up of citizens in the ultimate position of authority on matters of police policy, hiring and firing, and other matters. Then Chicagoans would vote in a binding referendum – possibly as soon as the March primary in 2022 – on whether to make that community commission a hybrid of elected and appointed seats.

Supporters would like the community commission to win the referendum, but they say the plan still works fine if voters decide it should remain appointed. The referendum, they say, is an opportunity for voters to make it even more democratic, but it’s not a problem if they choose not to.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has opposed a civilian panel having final authority in any such reform, and she broke with the GAPA group last year over the matter, arguing the mayor’s office should have the ultimate authority. She emphatically restated her opposition last week, but supporters of the ordinance are undeterred and say she’s lost credibility on the issue.

“We have seen too many cases of police misconduct that have cost too many people their lives. We have paid hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements for police misconduct,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th. “It was under mayoral control we saw the murder and cover-up of Laquan McDonald. It was under mayoral control we saw the brutalization and cover-up of Anjanette Young.

“Quite simply, mayoral control hasn’t worked.’’

Lightfoot’s office said in a statement to the Chicago Reporter on Thursday that it will introduce her reform and accountability ordinance by the next City Council meeting April 21. That ordinance almost certainly will keep final authority on policy, hiring and firing, and other key issues residing with the mayor’s office.

Lightfoot had been a backer of GAPA until the split last year. GAPA’s efforts started five years ago after the Police Accountability Task Force, set up by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the wake of the killing of Laquan McDonald, recommended a “civilian police investigative agency.’’

Lightfoot, then the president of the Chicago Police Board, led that task force. During her run for mayor Lightfoot’s campaign platform claimed support for “many of GAPA’s recommendations.’’

Now Lightfoot says civilian oversight doesn’t mean final authority by a civilian body.

“The Mayor is continuing to engage in important conversations with aldermen, advocates, and experts around this critical issue and is committed to introducing a workable and comprehensive plan for civilian oversight that will expand and enhance reform and accountability for Chicago’s Police Department,’’ the mayor’s office wrote in its statement.

Recently GAPA and another community group pushing its own ordinance, the Civilian Police Accountability Council, merged their efforts into a new ordinance.

The CPAC ordinance, originally seen as even more sweeping than the GAPA plan, was first introduced by Sixth Ward Alderman Roderick Sawyer in 20016. It faded after failing to pass.

But last year Lightfoot withdrew her support from the GAPA ordinance due to disagreement over final authority, and then George Floyd was killed. As tens of millions of people took to the streets in protest and a police reform wave swept the country, the CPAC ordinance once again gained favor

Fearing that two community ordinances along with a third plan from the mayor would create a deadlock, the groups combined them into one plan earlier this year, now called the Emerging Communities for Public Safety ordinance.

The merged ordinance is going by several names at the moment. It will replace the current GAPA ordinance already submitted to the City Council so a new ordinance does not need to be introduced. Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa called it GAPA-plus since it is based on that group’s ordinance but adds the elected community commission, among other things. Supporters are calling it the “Unity Ordinance.”

“Who gets to decide about police accountability?” asked Alerman. Andre Vasquez, of the 40th Ward, one of the aldermen who backed a compromise. “Is it the groups that have worked for years to develop a people’s ordinance, or is it the mayor?

“The people of Chicago should have concerns about any mayor having final say over the police. There is an inherent conflict of interest.’’

Several backers of civilian oversight cited the Young case as an example of why more drastic change is needed, including Sawyer, who quipped that it’s too bad Mayor Lightfoot doesn’t have the same progressive outlook as candidate Lightfoot did.

Young is the social worker whose home was stormed by police with a no-knock warrant in 2019 based on what turned out to be bad information. Young was forced to stand handcuffed and naked as police searched her home.

“We have had repeated reforms and we keep having the same problems,’’ said Sawyer, echoing a common refrain among supporters of the ordinance – the system is broken and another minor change isn’t enough.

“When the police tell you they can change their version of events and that’s OK … how does that seem OK to anyone?’’ asked Sawyer, referring to a provision that allows officers to review any body camera footage of an incident before writing their report. As a citizen you’re not allowed to do that.

“It’s just not common sense.’’

Chicago’s struggle to realize true police reform is part of a national trend toward greater oversight and accountability of police after a seemingly endless list of Black citizens dying at the hands of police from Eric Garner and Michael Brown to Philando Castile and Breonna Taylor; after a summer of protests that raised awareness to a new level in America, and just as Floyd’s murder trial is getting started in Minneapolis.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed sweeping justice reform legislation in February that ends cash bail by 2023, requires all police to wear body armor by 2025, prohibits chokeholds, and allows anonymous complaints to be filed. How much impact this will have on the Chicago Police Department is yet to be seen and depends partly on a new city ordinance and any new contract the police union reaches with the city.

Chicago is under a state-imposed consent decree that requires the city to make sustainable reforms in the Police Department. The decree was issued in 2017 after the U.S. Department of Justice found the CPD engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional use of force.

Data from the National Conference of State Legislatures shows the introduction of bills related to policing leaped 142 percent to 1,803 in just the first three months of 2021, compared to all of last year.

Of course not all of them are about reform as opponents fight back against the wave. One of the bills in Alabama would beef up penalties for assaults on first responders, criminalize damaging public monuments, establish the crime of “aggravated rioting’’ and make anyone convicted ineligible for public office, and prevent efforts to defund the police by making any official who enables such a policy to be liable to civil suits brought by crime victims.

The U.S. House of Representatives, with the support of President Joe Biden, passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in early March, banning chokeholds and altering qualified immunity for law enforcement. Qualified immunity makes it extremely difficult to sue law enforcement officials unless a plaintiff can prove violation of specific civil rights, a high legal bar.

It also banned no-knock warrants in some situations, requires data collection on police encounters, bans racial and religious profiling, and redirects funding to community-based policing programs.

The New York City Council limited qualified immunity for police in late March as part of a $72 million city package to improve policing.

“Even leading into last summer and the big jump in activism that resulted from the killing of George Floyd, there was a lot of momentum in police reform. This just accelerated it further,’’ said Sharon Fairley, a University of Chicago law professor who was the appointed head of the Independent Police Review Authority in 2015.

Fairley has a website highlighting police reforms in the nation’s 100 largest cities.

“Civilian oversight is becoming a norm. It’s in most of the larger cities in the United States. The George Floyd incident sparked such questioning of the systems that currently exist, people are considering strategies that were previously off the board.’’