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Aldermen Probe Languishing Police Oversight Plans As Lightfoot’s ‘Alternative’ Proposal Lies In Wait

Unlike the community commission outlined by GAPA, whose members would be paid $12,000 annually, CPAC’s members would serve full time and draw the same nearly $118,000 salaries earned by aldermen.

Police block activists from marching toward the Dan Ryan Expressway as they initially planned on August 15, 2020. Instead, the anti-police brutality march made its way through the Bronzeville neighborhood.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CITY HALL — A pair of coalitions pitching dueling plans for civilian-run police oversight councils faced a grilling from aldermen Tuesday on which proposal holds up better under legal and practical scrutiny, even as neither is likely to get a vote in its current form.

By the end of the more than four-hour hearing of the City Council Committee on Public Safety, aldermen had voiced a broad preference for a proposal by the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA), whose proposed ordinance appeared on the verge of passing before Mayor Lori Lightfoot put a brick on it earlier this year.

Leaders of GAPA and the authors of a competing proposal for a Chicago Police Accountability Council, which would put power directly in the hands of an elected oversight agency, both submitted updated versions of their proposals on Tuesday aimed at addressing critiques aired by aldermen.

Still, any council action on civilian police oversight is likely to remain in limbo at least until next month, when Lightfoot is expected to introduce an “alternative” plan that incorporates elements of GAPA while centering more oversight powers in her own office.

The remaining negotiations and an ultimate vote — all occurring simultaneously with one of the most painful and contentious annual budgeting periods in the city’s history — will determine whether the mayor can knock out a major campaign promise whose fulfillment her critics and allies both say is long overdue.

A spokesperson for Lightfoot wrote in a statement Tuesday that the mayor “has been clear that implementing civilian oversight over the Chicago Police Department is an essential component for building greater transparency, accountability and trust between our law enforcement and the residents they serve.”

“As part of that effort, the City is drafting an ordinance to establish a civilian oversight body that is committed to making our neighborhoods safer by not only increasing accountability but also ensuring community members have a voice at every level — from local police districts to leadership across our public safety agencies,” the statement continued. “We expect to introduce the legislation in the near future.”

GAPA sponsors push for vote despite Lightfoot opposition

Creating a “civilian police investigative agency” was one of the headline recommendations of the Police Accountability Task Force convened by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2015 amid fallout from the police killing of teenager Laquan McDonald. The task force was chaired by Lightfoot, who at the time was president of the Chicago Police Board.

Lightfoot wrote in her 2019 mayoral campaign platform that she supports “many of GAPA’s recommendations,” which the group has been developing since 2016.

The GAPA ordinance would create a nine-member Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, whose members would be empowered to set police department policies, launch investigations, compel data from the department and recommend police budgets to the City Council.

The ordinance would also set up a three-member “district council” in each of the city’s 22 police districts who would be elected by residents of each district. One member of each council would join a “nominating committee” charged with putting forward candidates to join the citywide community commission. The nominating committee would submit two names for each district seat and the mayor would nominate her choice between them, leading to a confirmation vote by the City Council.

The citywide community commission would have similarly indirect authority to choose the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, as well as the chief administrator of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) and members of the Chicago Police Board. The commission would select three finalists for each position, leaving it to the mayor to make a final choice.

GAPA coordinator Desmon Yancy told aldermen on Thursday that the “two-tiered” system of grassroots district councils and a citywide community commission would provide the “right piece and the missing piece” to strengthen the city’s existing public safety system without replacing it.

“It’s the right piece because it adds front-end accountability … through policymaking and annual goal-setting, and back-end accountability through oversight of COPA and the police board,” Yancy said. “And it’s the missing piece, because it creates a meaningful and powerful role for the community in public safety decision-making.”

Several aldermen who support the competing CPAC proposal challenged Yancy over GAPA’s hybrid democratic model that would leave some power with the mayor and City Council. Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) called the setup “a little clunky,” and Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) said the “distance between people and policymaking” could make it “harder to have community control.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) went further, calling the elected district councils a “ruse so you can say the people have some power, when at the end of the day it really is just the mayor who’s picking people.”

However, Lightfoot took the opposite view of GAPA’s plan, insisting it be changed to give her more power over setting police policy.

The ordinance appeared on the verge of passage until March, when Lightfoot pulled her support ordinance because of a dispute over who would get the final say in conflicts between the community commission and Chicago Police Department over police oversight policies. Lightfoot wanted to be the tie-breaking voice, while activists wanted the commission to get the final word.

The impasse has persisted ever since, prompting Lightfoot to announce last month that she is “moving on from GAPA” and plans to introduce an “alternative” proposal later this year.

Related: Lightfoot ‘moving on’ from GAPA police oversight proposal, pledges to introduce ‘alternative’ plan

Although Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) earlier this year supported GAPA’s proposal to keep final authority in the hands of the commission, he has since changed his mind. The chair of the public safety committee on Tuesday reiterated his newfound support for the mayor’s position.

“When those collaborative efforts to reach a consensus” between the department and commission “break down and you’re at an impasse, a third party needs to come in and independently look at it, whether it’s the mayor or this body,” Taliaferro said. “I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think that’s the best approach.”

Yancy and other GAPA leaders blasted Taliaferro’s change in position, organizing a rally outside the alderman’s West Side office earlier this month where they hoisted an oversize pair of flip flops to call attention to his shift in support of the mayor.

Yancy and other members of GAPA hold a rally outside Ald. Chris Taliaferro’s (29) West Side office calling attention to his “flip flop” on a key provision of the ordinance.

Taliaferro and the mayor also faced heat from Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) and Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), the lead sponsors of the GAPA ordinance, who wrote in a joint press release last month that they were “disappointed” Lightfoot was “unwilling to give up control over police reform policy.”

Osterman doubled down on his position on Tuesday.

“The way GAPA was drafted focuses on collaboration and accountability, with the commission and CPD working together,” Osterman said. “If one side of that sees that any negotiation on policy is going to side in their favor, there’s not an incentive to come together and work collaboratively, and that’s why the commission should have the final say.”

Osterman pledged to bring an amended version of the GAPA ordinance up for a vote in the committee.

Aldermen heap criticism on CPAC

The competing CPAC proposal has found less support in the City Council, with 19 aldermanic sponsors and cosponsors to GAPA’s 29 backers.

CPAC would comprise 11 elected members, each representing two police districts, and it would have total authority to appoint the police superintendent, chief administrator of COPA and members of the police board.

The police board would retain power over firing and disciplinary decisions, but CPAC would be the “supreme body” that oversees the rest, according to civil rights attorney Tamer Abouzeid, a chief backer of the CPAC proposal.

“Some people were concerned about taking that power away from the mayor … but any power the mayor has, I believe belongs to the people,” Abouzeid told aldermen on Tuesday. “And the people will be electing councilors directly for that purpose, not for the million and one reasons that they may be voting for mayor.”

Also unlike the community commission outlined by GAPA, whose members would be paid $12,000 annually, CPAC’s members would serve full time and draw the same nearly $118,000 salaries earned by aldermen. Each elected member would choose two deputies, one representing each of the police chiefs in their jurisdiction, who would also earn full-time salaries.

The CPAC ordinance requires the civilian oversight body to receive city funding equaling 1.5 percent of the Chicago Police Department’s budget, or about $20 million.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), who is a cosponsor of the GAPA ordinance, seized on CPAC’s proposed eight-figure budget, saying she had reservations about “the broadness of its power.”

Smith also objected to CPAC’s desire to oversee contract negotiations with the city’s police unions, a power now concentrated in the mayor’s office, and she pressed Abouzeid to defend provisions that prohibit people from running for election to the CPAC unless they have at least two years of experience “representing civil rights, activist, and organizing groups” that focus on protecting marginalized groups.

“Your coalition’s ordinance doesn’t seem to have a place for people who have any background other than being the victim of a negative experience with police,” Smith said.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) objected to CPAC’s districting rules, saying its provision to place more voting power in the hands of more populous police districts could disenfranchise smaller districts that experience more violence.

And Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) said he believes the elected model “wouldn’t be the best way” to involve community members in police decisions, adding that he prefers the GAPA model of electing three-member district councils across the city.

“We want the community to be involved in their district, and I think GAPA has more of an opportunity to have better community-police relationships on a district level,” Tunney said.

The “Lens On Lightfoot” project is a collaboration of seven Chicago newsrooms examining the first year of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration. Partners are the BGA, Block Club Chicago, Chalkbeat Chicago, The Chicago Reporter, The Daily Line, La Raza and The TRiiBE. It is managed by the Institute for Nonprofit News.