Community oversight or control? Coalitions meet on competing police accountability proposals

Both the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability and the Civilian Police Accountability Council campaigns want to maximize the community’s role in selecting public safety leaders.

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Photo by Max Herman

Brenda Leyva, a student at Roosevelt High School, chants as she leads a rally outside the District 17 Chicago Police Department station during a Black Lives Matter protest in Albany Park on June 11, 2020.

With the new upsurge in outrage around police brutality, pressure is increasing on the mayor and City Council to enact the long-stalled proposal for a community oversight board for the Chicago Police Department.

That’s especially true with thousands of Chicagoans in the streets in recent weeks demanding community control of police in the form of an elected Civilian Police Accountability Council.

“We believe Chicago is capable of making a radical change,” said CPAC spokesman Frank Chapman of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. “Right now the people in our communities have no say over who polices them and how they are policed.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot appears to have lost the initiative on this issue — particularly since March, when she withdrew her support from a competing ordinance, which was negotiated with the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability, angering members of that coalition.

The ball is now in the court of the City Council’s progressive caucus, which has brought together CPAC and GAPA to try to iron out policy differences and potential legal barriers.

“The mayor weakened the ordinance [first proposed by GAPA] so much that [the group’s] members could no longer support it,” said Desmon Yancy, GAPA coordinator. Instead “we are talking with CPAC” about an alternative way forward.

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In negotiations with the mayor’s office earlier this year, GAPA had already agreed to pull a provision laying out an extensive process for City Council review if the new oversight commission voted “no confidence” in the police superintendent — despite the fact that Lightfoot’s own mayoral campaign pointed to a commission with “the power to hire and fire the police superintendent” and other agency heads.

That came after a civilian commission in Oakland summarily dismissed that city’s police chief — though GAPA’s proposal had far greater due process protections. And it came as Lightfoot was recruiting a new police superintendent, which could well have been a factor.

But the bridge too far for GAPA was Lightfoot’s last-minute insistence that the mayor have the final say in disputes over policy differences, coalition members say.

In the negotiated ordinance, the mayor had a central but not decisive role when the commission and the police department disagreed over proposed policy changes.

GAPA was adamant that the civilian commission have the final say in those situations. Its consulting experts said that similar commissions in other cities had found that implementing new policies requires police department buy-in, and so they nearly always work through disagreements. But they said that having the final say gave the commissions much stronger bargaining positions. They couldn’t just be blown off.

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“The issue it seems to me is the mayor’s unwillingness to support a community voice in decisions over policy,” said Yancy. “If the community is not involved in decision-making, this is going to be seen as lip service.”

But while the GAPA ordinance was being negotiated, CPAC’s proposal has gone through major revisions. Chapman characterizes the changes as “cosmetic,” but they are in fact fairly extensive.

One change was reducing the number of elected CPAC members from 22 — one for each police district — to 11. Concerns remain about whether huge, potentially expensive elections would result in a progressive and representative council, whether CPAC districts would allow for one-person, one-vote, and whether tight restrictions on who could run would meet constitutional standards protecting voters’ right to choose their representatives. CPAC also calls for voting to coincide with local school council elections — notoriously low-turnout affairs — rather than the November general election day favored by the GAPA ordinance.

More significantly, the original vision for the police accountability system has been entirely revised. In its first version, CPAC completely replaced the  Civilian Office of Police Accountability and the Police Board, and the new agency would conduct its own investigations into police misconduct and render its own decisions on disciplining and firing officers.

In a second version filed in the City Council last October, COPA and the Police Board would remain but CPAC would have the power to hire and fire the COPA administrator (subject to City Council approval) and to name Police Board members. And in an odd duplicative provision, CPAC would also direct its own investigative force — about 130 strong — empowered to look into “all allegations of police department misconduct not investigated by COPA.” But COPA would also run its own investigators, who now number about 60, not counting specialized investigators. The newest version — still being tweaked and not yet introduced — removes CPAC’s own investigative corps.

There’s a good bit of confusion about this, with one news analysis recently stating that CPAC “would essentially replace COPA.”

The two proposals, it would seem, are in the process of converging. Both GAPA’s commission and CPAC would now function mainly to give oversight to CPD and the existing accountability system. The difference is that CPAC members would be directly elected, and they would exercise their hiring and policy-making powers directly. (A recommendation by CPAC to fire the superintendent would require approval by the City Council.)

 Legal constraints and political considerations


GAPA’s proposal is fairly intricate. It starts with three-member councils in each police district, directly elected in November elections. They would work on community policing initiatives, develop restorative justice programs, and hold regular meetings to provide a forum for residents to address concerns about policing in the district.

Each district council would also select one member to serve on a nominating committee for the citywide commission, which would name two candidates for each commission seat, subject to approval by the mayor and the City Council. If the mayor rejected the candidates, she’d have to give a written explanation — and then select from two new candidates selected by the nominating committee.

The bottom line is that no one would be named to the commission who hadn’t been proposed by elected district council members. Commission members could be removed for cause by a two-thirds vote of the City Council.

Similarly, in selecting the police superintendent, COPA chief, and police board, the mayor would have the choice of candidates selected through a search process by the oversight commission — but couldn’t name anyone who hadn’t been vetted and approved by the commission in a series of community hearings.

GAPA proponents argue this provides a high degree of community control in selecting public safety leaders, but also satisfies the requirements of the Illinois constitution and state law. “We felt it was the most effective way to make fundamental changes to the system within existing state law,” said Yancy.

According to GAPA, under state law governing commissions and new elected bodies, enacting their ordinance would require a two-thirds council vote and mayoral approval. They say that under the state constitution, statutes, and court rulings, enacting an independent, elected authority such as CPAC would require either a change in state law or a referendum of Chicago voters — essentially the same as what was required to establish local school councils, or to create an elected school board.

They say they looked at those options and decided that, given the extreme difficulty of passing criminal justice reform measures in Springfield and the daunting challenges involved in passing a referendum, their work-around was the best approach at giving meaningful representation to Chicago residents.

CPAC proponents maintain that since the City Council originally gave the mayor the power to appoint the police superintendent, it could also decide to give that authority to a new executive agency. The council’s progressive caucus is now analyzing these legal arguments.

Whoever is right, passing an ordinance in City Council will not be a cakewalk. Chapman said CPAC also anticipates needing 34 votes, two-thirds of the council, to override an expected mayoral veto. Currently GAPA’s proposal has broader support among aldermen, but it probably wouldn’t get through without backing from aldermen aligned with CPAC.

For Chapman, it’s a matter of political will. “It’s going to take the people to get this done,” he said. “The politicians aren’t going to give us anything we don’t force them to give us.” It could take a sustained campaign, he said — “if we’ve got to get people kicked out of office, that’s what we’ve got to do” — but the impetus is stronger now, with thousands of people in the streets. “Things tend to speed up when there’s a rebellion,” he said.

Yancy wants action now. “We’re still as a coalition working to get something done — and sooner rather than later,” he said.