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What’s CPAC? Here’s What You Need To Know About A Local Push For Civilian Oversight Of Police

Aldermen say recent calls for increased police accountability have made the passage of the CPAC ordinance more pressing.

Police officers block the entrance to the Metropolitan Correctional Center federal prison as activists gather outside during a protest to bring attention to the May 25 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 29, 2020. The protest remained relatively peaceful until late into the evening.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Aldermen say it seems more likely than ever that Chicago could soon have civilian oversight over its Police Department.

Activists have led sit-ins, marches and phone campaigns to demand less funding for and major reforms to the Police Department. One proposal calls for the creation of an elected council to oversee the Police Department. The body, known as the Civilian Police Accountability Council or CPAC, has seen a resurgence of support in recent weeks.

Plans to create CPAC have been around for years — but its advocates on City Council said the recent push for more police accountability could finally help it become a reality soon.

Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st), a supporter of the Civilian Police Accountability Council, said an ordinance that would create the council is closer to passing due to political pressure from constituents who want police accountability.

“We’re very much getting closer to the number of votes that makes this ordinance a reality,” he said. “That means now is not the moment to let up.”

What you need to know about the Civilian Police Accountability Council:

What Is CPAC?

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) introduced the first CPAC plan in 2016. It was rejected in 2018 by City Council, but a new version he put forth in October would create an elected board with one member from every two police districts.

The board would have the power to appoint the police superintendent, create rules and regulations for the Police Department and appoint members of the Police Board to hear disciplinary cases. CPAC — which would essentially replace the Civilian Office of Police Accountability — would also oversee the chief administrator of that office and would have the power to approve contracts with police unions.

Members of CPAC would be elected to four-year terms. They would need a minimum of two years of work experience with “civil rights, activist and organizing groups” that protect the rights of people who have faced police brutality, according to the legislation. People who have worked to protect minorities, LGBTQ people, immigrants, Muslim communities, people with mental illness and people who are homeless would also be considered.

People who have been employed in or have family members in law enforcement, worked in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, and/or have any connections with an entity of city government would not be eligible to run for a CPAC seat. CPAC members would be paid the same base salary as aldermen.

“It’s designed really to ensure that CPAC is made up of people from the communities who’ve been most impacted by police abuse, so that CPAC is truly a community representative board,” said Craig B. Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor.

Futterman founded the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the university and helped address legal concerns around CPAC when it was first proposed.

Futterman said CPAC is unique from current mechanisms of police accountability such as COPA because it prioritizes community members, gives them real power and is fully independent from the Police Department and City Hall. He said the “missing ingredient” from current police oversight bodies is “direct community oversight.”

“It is about having real power as opposed to just faux community engagement like, ‘Oh, we’ll establish another community group and can offer advice,’ say whatever it wants to do, but, actually, not have any power to have real influence and power and control over fundamental police policy and its oversight agencies,” he said.

What’s The Status Of CPAC?

The ordinance is in the Committee of Public Safety with 19 sponsors from City Council. The committee would need to have a hearing on the measure and the ordinance would need to be voted on by City Council to be approved or rejected.

Some aldermen said recent calls for police accountability have made the passage of this ordinance more pressing as more Chicago residents are demanding action from their elected representatives.

“I know that this is the moral and the righteous choice for our city,” La Spata said. “I believe if there is a moment when it’s going to happen, it is this moment.”

La Spata said CPAC’s fate is in the hands of the Public Safety Committee, but he has hope engagement with Chicago residents and continued protests will lead to City Council approving the ordinance.

“The support that I’ve been seeing from some of my colleagues makes me more hopeful than ever,” La Spata said.

But CPAC has faced many roadblocks since it was first proposed. It’s not supported by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and the Chicago Police union has pushed back against calls for reform.

Chicago also operates under a consent decree, which enforces federal oversight for police reform. The chair of the Public Safety Committee, Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), told WBEZ this month complying with the consent decree is his top priority.

Taliaferro told WBEZ he has not scheduled a hearing on CPAC to give aldermen time to assess the federal requirements the city needs to fulfill.

What’s Mayor Lightfoot’s Stance?

Lightfoot supports civilian oversight over the Police Department because it is “an essential component” for regaining trust among Chicago residents with the department, a spokesperson from the Mayor’s Office said in a statement Tuesday.

But the mayor is publicly against CPAC. Lightfoot said in a call with reporters Wednesday there are a “number of things that are highly concerning” about the ordinance.

In its statement, the Mayor’s Office instead cited the partnership the office has with the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability, a coalition of community organizations to improve police practices and create “one citywide, civilian-led oversight body.”

Unlike CPAC, the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability plan — called GAPA — would maintain many of the same structures within the Police Department, though it would provide more areas for civilian input.

“We continue to work with aldermen, GAPA members and residents to receive sufficient input and helpful feedback regarding the latest draft of the legislation, and we look forward to passing a measure at City Council as soon as possible,” the Mayor’s Office said in its statement.

Lightfoot has supported GAPA since she was the chair of the Police Accountability Task Force, a group that released a report in 2016 detailing necessary areas of reform for Chicago police in the wake of the shooting of Laquan McDonald two years prior. 

The collaboration between GAPA leaders and Lightfoot has not been without challenges. GAPA leaders and the mayor recently disagreed about who would have the final say for police policy. Lightfoot’s proposal establishes her as the final decision-maker for policy disagreements, but GAPA representatives prefer the civilian oversight board to overrule that power.

And the GAPA plan has been criticized by some who say it doesn’t go far enough.

Futterman said the GAPA body would ultimately be accountable to the mayor rather than to the people and communities.

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) said he supports CPAC above other legislative measures for police accountability because constituents are demanding ordinances with “teeth.” Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) said CPAC puts Chicago residents “more in control,” whereas GAPA does not have as much accountability as she would like to see.

Still, Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) said he signed on to CPAC and GAPA as he is hoping to get some form of police reform passed.

“I think both groups should be working together and figuring out a way that we can get police accountability passed,” Rodriguez said. “I think we need to bring people together, create maximum unity, in order to get a good piece of legislation passed.”

What’s The Future Of CPAC?

Dick Simpson, a University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor and former alderman, said he thinks aldermen and the mayor will reach a compromise for police reform as more people call for greater accountability and transparency.

“I think what will happen is the proponents of the ordinance — both the grassroots supporters and the aldermen who support it — and the Mayor’s Office will have to find a compromise which perhaps shifts some funds from the Police Department to economic and social development in the minority communities, and at the same time, give us more civilian authority over the police then the police board has been able to exercise,” Simpson said.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said he supports some form of agreement between GAPA and CPAC. He said GAPA supporters were getting ready to introduce legislation before the coronavirus pandemic stalled the process.

Waguespack said the Progressive Caucus is currently working on a legal comparison of GAPA and CPAC. He said there are concerns CPAC may break current state or federal laws, pointing to provisions that ban police officers or relatives of officers from joining the council and strip authority from the city’s legislative and executive bodies.

Futterman said in an email the legislation aims to create a “community-based body that is independent from law enforcement” and having any connections to law enforcement may lead to conflicts of interest. He said the courts “apply a balancing test” between the interests of the council and the individual, which makes the provision a “pretty cut and dried application” of the law.

Taylor said people are working now to pass CPAC to overhaul the Police Department’s accountability system.

“Just know that there are some folks around the city working on legislation that gets us to where we want to be,” she said. “I can tell you that.”

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