Mark Clements of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression addresses a City Council committee hearing on police accountability reform. Clements, a victim of police torture under former Cmdr. Jon Burge, said he wanted to see all aldermen resign since some of Burge’s victims remain imprisoned. Credit: Photo by Stacey Rupolo

The Chicago City Council held hearings on police reform this week at Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s behest, and most of the people who testified criticized the proceedings.

“These hearings are a farce,” said Michael Elliot, the first person to take the stand at the joint meeting of the council’s Budget and Public Safety committees.  Evans, who identified himself as a victim of police violence, represented a group calling for an elected Civilian Police Accountability Council.

The committee hearings are “wholly inadequate for engaging the community,” said Paul Strauss of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law.  “A much deeper, more thorough process of engagement is required.”

It’s “not proper” to hold hearings with such limited notice, at such an inconvenient time and location, “without an agenda and without a real effort to have subject -matter experts testify,” Strauss said.

Several times during the hearing, Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th, chair of the Budget Committee, called out names of “subject-matter experts” who apparently had been invited, but none were present.

Chicago Urban League President Shari Runner said concerned organizations had only learned of the hearing two days in advance – on the July 4 holiday.

The Lawyers’ Committee and the Urban League were among several civil rights groups backing a coalition of 15 community organizations that announced it was launching “a comprehensive, community-driven public engagement initiative” with large and small meetings across the city to discuss proposals to improve police accountability.

“You can’t restore trust just by writing an ordinance,” said Erica Rangel of Enlace Chicago. “You have to engage directly and authentically with the communities where trust has been broken.”

The coalition called on aldermen to postpone action on replacing the Independent Police Review Authority, the agency responsible for investigating the most egregious complaints against police officers, until a thorough public discussion could unfold.  But they also called on the council to move quickly to pass the FAIR COPS Ordinance establishing an auditor for the Police Department within the Chicago Inspector General’s office.

Meanwhile the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and its allies, including young black activist groups, continued its push for CPAC, an elected body that would replace IPRA and the Police Board and would hire the police superintendent and approve the department’s budget.

“If you’re not talking about community control of the police, you’re wasting our time,” Elliot told the committee.

The hearing was called, Austin said, after “the mayor asked us to engage our colleagues and the community” to develop an ordinance incorporating three recommendations of the Police Accountability Task Force: replacing IPRA with a new investigative agency, and creating an Inspector General for Public Safety and a Community Safety Oversight Board.

It’s been a bumpy road with many zigs and zags for Emanuel since the issue of police accountability exploded with the court-ordered release of the video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting last year.  After appointing the task force, he first opposed and then embraced a Justice Department investigation of the Police Department.

When the task force issued its recommendations, Emanuel said he would hold off action until the Justice Department could weigh in. When that position met criticism, he announced he would introduce a comprehensive police reform ordinance at the City Council’s June meeting.

That approach drew fire from Lori Lightfoot, Police Board president and task force chair.  “One of the critical next steps should have been a broad outreach to a range of groups, individuals, community leaders and activists to invite the best ideas for filling in the details” of the task force recommendations, she said in early June. “That has not happened.”

(Indeed, the task force report had said that in order to ensure “legitimacy” for the new board, the “precise powers and makeup” of a new accountability system “should be developed with broad public input.”)

After Lightfoot’s intervention, Ald. Ariel Reboyras, 30th, announced hearings would be held and so reforms could be rolled out at this month’s meeting.

But after Wednesday’s hearing, Lightfoot spoke out again.  “If they were serious about these hearings, they would have a very specific agenda of questions they were seeking to answer at each hearing” and would “call upon people from the community and subject-matter experts” to address specific questions, she told the Chicago Sun-Times.  “None of that has been done.”

This isn’t the first public engagement fiasco for the Emanuel administration.  In his second year in office, as the mayor sought to close scores of schools, Chicago Public Schools first sought to hold highly choreographed meetings for parents of schools on the closing list, but parents immediately rebelled.  Then a long, exhausting series of community meetings was held, with many parents, students and staff pleading for their schools.  When the final decision came, many felt their input had been ignored.

Emanuel’s first approach to police reform seems to have been legislative business as usual, in which the mayor’s office drafts an ordinance and then tags aldermanic sponsors.  It doesn’t look like it’s going to work out that way.

Austin said the hearings were called to allow people to “vent.”  But what they need to do is focus discussion on the key issues for a new accountability system, which include ensuring its independence, guaranteeing sufficient resources and establishing strong transparency requirements.

Emanuel is presented with two challenges here: Can Chicago make real progress on police reform, and can the city facilitate a real, open, democratic debate on the issue?  Both cases require that Emanuel overcome his penchant for maintaining control.

Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.

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