Public deserves to see Mayor Emanuel’s police oversight proposal

Chicago Police Board President Lori Lighfoot speaks at a public hearing about replacing the Independent Police Review Authority at Little Village High School on August 11, 2016, hosted by aldermen George Cardenas, Ricardo Muñoz, Ariel Reboyras, and Patrick Daley Thompson.

Photo by Stacey Rupolo

Chicago Police Board President Lori Lighfoot speaks at a public hearing about replacing the Independent Police Review Authority at Little Village High School on August 11, 2016, hosted by aldermen George Cardenas, Ricardo Muñoz, Ariel Reboyras, and Patrick Daley Thompson.

Despite all Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s talk of transparency, despite all the admonitions that police reform be shaped through an open process, a series of City Council hearings closed without any public look at legislation the mayor is crafting behind closed doors.

Mayor Emanuel, we need to see your ordinance.

There’s simply no other way for the half-dozen hearings held in recent weeks to be viewed as little more than a sideshow. Police accountability and oversight is too important an issue in this city for decisions to be made, and an ordinance written, without robust public debate and transparency. Without it, the mayor is putting the credibility of any new accountability structure at risk.

During Wednesday’s hearing—the last in the council’s series—Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward, asked Sharon Fairley, chief administrator of the Independent Police Review Authority, to provide specific language reflecting the many recommendations she had for a new system. Fairley said she would.

Waguespack later pointed out that it was clear she had not been asked to do so by the administration.

Draft legislation has already been written by the mayor’s office but has not been shared with the council, Waguespack said. The mayor plans to call a vote on the measure at the September 14 council meeting.

Though it’s not uncommon for proposals from the mayor to be shared at the last minute, aldermen have asked—with no success—that the mayor share his proposal early, given the importance of the issue.

Ald. Ricardo Munoz, 22nd Ward, who’s led the hearings held by a joint budget and public safety committee, told me neither he nor Ald. Ariel E. Reboyras, 30th Ward, chair of the public safety committee, had seen any language.

No time for real community input

The council’s Progressive Caucus sent a letter to Emanuel on Wednesday requesting that he share the language of the draft ordinance with council members by the end of the week.

“Without sufficient time to review the mayor’s proposals, we will likely be unable to vote to pass it, given the urgent need to pass a carefully considered, comprehensive ordinance to address this matter,” the 11 council members wrote.

If Emanuel waits to release the ordinance next week, “that does not give adequate time for the community to absorb what he’s proposing and comment on it,” said Paul Strauss of the Chicago Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

There was a good deal of substance to the discussion at Wednesday’s hearing, and it merits the attention of the junior solons on the fifth floor of City Hall. Lori Lightfoot, president of the Police Board, reviewed the recommendations of the Police Accountability Task Force, which she chaired, and Adam Gross of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest discussed the proposal for an inspector general for public safety.

Questioned about the cost of police reform, Lightfoot noted that the city spends about $20 million a year on routine legal settlements for misconduct cases, and suggested that roughly half that amount could be invested in expanding accountability systems, improving training, reviving community policing, and other initiatives. (Note: An analysis by The Chicago Reporter found that the city paid out $54 million to settle lawsuits resulting from police misconduct in 2014, and $210 million between 2012 and 2015.)

Fairley described improvements in investigative practices, despite staffing problems as IPRA faces dissolution – to the point that “we are starting to drop below critical mass.” She praised the “devotion” and “skill” of IPRA staff.

Fairley also had a range of suggestions for ensuring the independence of the agency that will replace IPRA, including a dedicated budget, an information technology system that is separate from the police department, and the ability to retain outside counsel without going through the city’s corporation counsel.

Asked about the method of selecting the administrator of the new agency, Fairley backed appointment by the mayor with approval of the City Council, if there is a “transparent vetting process.”  She said the agency should have an “independent hiring program” like the inspector general; currently, supervisory staff hires have to be approved by the mayor’s office.

Fairley opposed banning former Chicago Police Department personnel from serving as investigators in the new agency and sparred with Ald. Leslie Hairston, 5th Ward, over the issue.

The hearing also offered the first substantial debate over the proposal for an elected Civilian Police Accountability Council to replace IPRA and the Police Board.  Ald. John Arena, 45th Ward, and Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th Ward, both praised the “intent” of the proposal but questioned its feasibility.  Arena was concerned about the year or more it would take to hold elections and set up an entirely new system.  Sawyer said he thought the mayor, and not CPAC, should be able to appoint the police superintendent, a key member of his cabinet.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward, said he’s “committed to working to figure out the compromises” that may be necessary, “but one thing that is non-negotiable is the intent, which is true democratic control over the police.”

If nothing else, this hearing and those that preceded it set a high bar for Emanuel’s ordinance – including open discussion and real community engagement.