The City Council passed a major overhaul of Chicago Police Department oversight at its July 21 meeting, creating three-member elected councils for every police district and a seven-member commission — nominated by the councils, appointed by the mayor and approved by alderpeople — to oversee the entire department.
The development comes after the Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) and Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA) coalitions came together in March to propose a compromise ordinance on police oversight. Lightfoot proposed her own ordinance that month, but the united coalition, mayor and some alderpeople announced in July they were working on one piece of legislation to pass through council.
On July 21, it did, with 36 votes in favor.
The seven-member commission will be made up of Chicagoans, but it will not have any citizenship requirements. It can judge the job performance of the superintendent and Police Board president, recommend that the public safety inspector general conduct research or audits, appoint the COPA chief administrator with the advice and consent of the City Council and fire him or her, and make recommendations on the CPD budget (set by the council).
The commission will also delegate powers and duties to the district councils, which will be elected in the February 2023 primary elections. Candidates who place first, second and third will win and take office in May; voters may vote for up to three candidates.
In her floor speech, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), one of the ordinance's co-sponsors and a longtime advocate of police oversight reform, castigated those who said that Chicago already has too much police oversight.
“Let's just say that it is true,” she said. “If they worked, we wouldn't be here. We would not have to be taking these steps. Existing oversight structures have done very little to advance police accountability in this instance. They were created this way.”
“Even with videos by the community and with body cameras, we have failed to make meaningful progress with transparency and accountability between the police and the people who are most vulnerable," Hairston said.
“If we had been compliant with the Constitution and the laws of the United States and the State of Illinois, we might not be here,” she said. “If our police department had respected the rights of the people of Chicago as deliverer of police services in a manner that respects the rights of the people they serve, the trust between the officers and the communities they serve and the promoting community and officer safety, we would not be here! But we are!”
The council, she said, riffing off the mayor's campaign slogan, is "bringing in the light." Five years after an Obama-era Justice Department report came out with "irrefutable evidence that the truth could not be denied," Hairston said, and council had debated "about the independent monitor, police oversight omnibus, the police oversight board, the independent citizen investigator," no action had been taken.
"Now is the time," Hairston said. "I recognize that this ordinance will not fix every aspect of policing in this city, nor is that its intent. It does, however, address the institutional issues that existing bodies have failed to address."
In an interview, Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) said she had brought CPAC and GAPA together earlier this year to work out their compromise ordinance
"I asked them last year to get together and come up with an ordinance that we could all agree to, and they did the work," she said. "It was not easy, but it was worth it."
Chicago will lead the country in police reform, Taylor said: "The police are not exempt from accountability, and this sends a message in this country that if you commit a crime, you don't get away with it."
Taylor went on to name Rekia Boyd, Ronald “Ronnieman” Johnson, Adam Toledo and Laquan McDonald — all people of color killed by the CPD — whom she said have now not died in vain.
In a statement, Ald. Sophia King (4th) said the agreement the council passed is in all Chicagoans’ best interest. “Empowering the community to engage in oversight of our police has the power to not only revolutionize but also galvanize our police force in Chicago,” she said.
At her post-meeting news conference, Lightfoot recalled her chairing the Police Accountability Taskforce in the aftermath of McDonald's murder.
"We were intentional in not dictating in that report the form and substance of that oversight. We thought it was incredibly important for us as a city to engage in further, more robust engagement as residents around this concept of civilian oversight," she said. "We stand here today because I think all the folks who had an interest in this topic understood the beauty of compromise … moving forward and making progress on behalf of our residents."
The mayor said the district councils could work to solve problems as well as "throw a flag if there's something that's going wrong in a particular police district or a neighborhood that isn't getting solved to the satisfaction of the community." She noted that this already happens at Chicago Alternative Police Strategy meetings, but she said that for the first time, there will be "a formal infrastructure to hold everybody accountable, including police in local districts, but also to organize local community members."
Regarding the historic nature of the day's vote, Lightfoot recalled U.S. Rep. Ralph Metcalfe's 1974 demand for police reform in Chicago and Mayor Richard J. Daley's creation of the CPD Office of Professional Standards.
"A million years later," Lightfoot said, she led that office, "but there have been flashpoints throughout our history, way even before 1974, when communities of color have felt and highlighted instances in which individuals, neighborhoods or groups have been abused by the police department, or felt like the police department had unchecked power, or that nobody was responding."
As Police Board president, Lightfoot recalled hearing people detailing their anger and trauma at meetings.
"Rarely did we see folks from the North Side or other parts of the city that are viewed as 'safe' come and talk about their experiences with the police," she said. "There have been so many things in my mind that have led to this moment."
GAPA coordinator Desmon Yancy, who lives in South Shore, said the police murder and coverup of McDonald was that which put Chicago on the trajectory towards the ordinance's passage.
"Many people were surprised to see this brazen and senseless behavior from the Chicago Police Department, but for many in this city, this was just a reminder of the need for something different, something substantive to prevent this from happening again," he said. "The roots of this ordinance has never been anti-police. It's always been about making sure that all residents of all communities feel safe — building trust and making communities feel safe for every one of us."
In remarks after the meeting, Hairston pointed to the importance of police-community communication in solving cases.
"I talk to my commanders every day," she said. "Every time there's an incident, 'Yeah, they were shot, they're one step before death, and they're not talking.' And everybody in the community is talking. They're talking in the barbershops, they're talking in the nail salons, they're talking in the beauty shops — but they're not talking to the police. And so I think this will help facilitate a better working relationship, and that's what we're supposed to be doing."
Hairston said advisory powers given to the district councils have been kept ill-defined at this stage by design.
"You want them to have the ability and the capacity to say what they need or what they feel that they need," she said. "I have a lot of confidence in the public and in the communities I represent, we've got people from all walks of life that bring lots of information and talent to be regular meetings and commissions. I think we have to allow them as they create this to say this is what we need and this is what we don't need."