Demand for community control of police oversight isn’t going away

Rev. Samuel Paul and other members of the Community Renewal Society disrupt City Council before their vote on the Civilian Office of Police Accountability on October 5, 2016.

Photo by Max Herman

Rev. Samuel Paul and other members of the Community Renewal Society disrupt City Council before their vote on the Civilian Office of Police Accountability on October 5, 2016.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has attained his ordinance creating two new police accountability agencies, but whether the new system has more credibility than the old one remains to be seen.

It wasn’t a promising start, with the ordinance enacted over the shouts of protesters, and many community groups objecting.  “The demands of the community are not being met,” said Karl Brinson, president of the West Side NAACP.

Corporation Counsel Steve Patton argued the ordinance was the result of nine public hearings, but by far most people testifying in favor of a specific proposal backed an elected Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC).

Emanuel’s ordinance passed Wednesday by a comfortable margin – including the votes of Progressive Caucus aldermen who a day earlier had demanded consideration of a competing, far stronger ordinance.

Much will depend on the performance of the new Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) and deputy inspector general for public safety. Already there’s been some progress, including much quicker release of videos in controversial incidents, and more recommendations of discipline for abusive cops.

That’s the result of public awareness and protest in the wake of the release last November (after 14 months) of video of Laquan McDonald’s killing. Continued public pressure will be crucial in improving police accountability.

Also crucial will be the selection process for the head of COPA, a decision deferred until hearings can be held on creation of a community oversight board.  The mayor’s Police Accountability Task Force recommended that the community board select COPA’s administrator, a demand that community and civil rights groups have echoed.  The mayor is likely to try to maintain control over that selection, however.

Looming in the background is the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation into excessive force and racial bias in the Chicago Police Department, which will result in a consent decree sometime in the future.  I’m told DOJ wants to make the Chicago settlement a national model for police reform.

Despite calls for a more open process, Emanuel’s ordinance was drafted behind closed doors.  Reform advocates who met with the mayor’s office about the bill were told not to discuss details publicly.  Community organizers complained that they had only days – or hours – to consider the final version.

Over the last decade or more, every ordinance pushed through the City Council in response to community demands has been spearheaded by a single, very focused coalition.  This time there was a range of groups and factions, sometimes with competing agendas.

Early on, the Community Renewal Society (parent organization of The Chicago Reporter) proposed that a police auditor would be better situated to pursue systemic reforms. At the insistence of Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson, this responsibility was moved inside his office, with the loss of some transparency.  The police auditor idea was later combined into a proposed ordinance that also would have established a civilian investigator and a community oversight board, with much stronger budget and transparency protections. But a different coalition of community organizations demanded that another set of hearings be held to shape the community board. Emanuel agreed to defer that step – and the alternative ordinance was ignored.

Sharon Fairley, chief administrator of the Independent Police Review Authority, lobbied for the ability to hire former CPD members, a provision strongly opposed by many reform advocates.

But first on the scene – long before the current upsurge of interest – was a broad coalition organized by the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, a venerable organization with roots in the 1970s campaign to free activist Angela Davis. The Alliance began four years ago building support for CPAC, an elected council to run and investigate the police department.

The base of that coalition is survivors and relatives of victims of police abuse, joined by a range of small grass-roots police accountability groups and later by youth associated with the Black Lives Matter movement.  They won support from major unions including SEIU and the Chicago Teachers Union, whose House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly to endorse CPAC.

The demand for community control of police goes back at least a generation, but it has never attracted this level of support – nor has it ever been embodied in a proposal in a legislative body, as it was here after Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa introduced it.

But CPAC failed to win the support of many community groups and reform advocates. Many feared manipulation of elections by the Chicago Machine. Some feared that the proposal’s structure – with individual CPAC members, each representing a police district, conducting investigations in their districts – could lead to very different accountability practices in different parts of the city, with little in the way of checks and balances.

“Elections aren’t necessarily a bad way to do it,” commented political scientist Dick Simpson, a former reform alderman.  But he thought CPAC’s structure seemed “a little cumbersome.”  “Maybe we should elect the Police Board, the way school boards are elected,” he said.

The demand for community control isn’t going away – though we might benefit from a broader discussion of how exactly to accomplish it – and it will be back if the new accountability structure falls short.

Ultimately, though, our police officers function within the context of our society’s economic and social injustices, and as long as African-Americans and other people of color are denied full equality and economic integration, police will be tasked with keeping a lid on disadvantaged communities. That’s a national problem, and it calls for a radical refocusing of our country’s priorities.  Ending the War on Drugs would help too.

The city has a role to play, however – and it’s worth noting that the $8 million “neighborhood opportunity fund” that Mayor Emanuel touted in his speech on violence amounts to a fraction of the amount of a single TIF subsidy to wealthy developers.

We could use better priorities in Chicago too.