Police block activists from marching toward the Dan Ryan Expressway as they initially planned on August 15, 2020. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — The future of policing in Chicago could be dramatically altered as competing civilian oversight proposals are scheduled for a committee vote Friday.

But it’s unclear if either measure has enough support to go to the full City Council, which would need to approve the proposals for them to be enacted.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned on the promise of transforming the Police Department by establishing a civilian-led commission to oversee police within her first 100 days, but she has yet to deliver.

For more than a year, Lightfoot negotiated with a coalition of aldermen and police reformers known as the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability, or GAPA. But the talks broke down when the mayor refused to relinquish ultimate control over police policy and the hiring and firing of the police superintendent. She officially withdrew her support from that proposal in the fall, saying, “We’re moving on from GAPA.”

That decision ultimately led GAPA supporters to forge a compromise with supporters of a more robust oversight proposal, the Civilian Police Accountability Council, or CPAC, the two parties announced in March.

The compromise proposal — known as Empowering Communities for Public Safety, or ECPS — was introduced into the Committee on Public Safety in May.

Lightfoot released her own, rival oversight proposal May 24. That set the stage for both proposals to go before the committee at 10 a.m. Friday — but it’s not clear that either has enough votes to be approved by the committee.

“We’ll find out at the committee, but I think we’ve done a really good job lobbying our colleagues to get to the point that we can be successful,” said Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), a supporter of the ECPS proposal.

Lightfoot’s plan would create a commission that is resigned to a largely advisory role. While the seven-member board would have the right to provide policy recommendations and recommend nominees when the superintendent job is vacant, Lightfoot and successive mayors would continue to have final say on both matters.

The plan would shift the job of conducting a search for potential superintendent nominees from the Police Board to the newly created commission. Similarly, the commission would recommend nominees for the Police Board and the leader of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.

The commission would also recommend the budget for the department, pending City Council approval.

If approved by the full City Council, the ECPS proposal calls for elections in each of the city’s 22 police districts to create district councils. The district councils would play a role in nominating members to a seven-member citywide commission that would be appointed by the mayor with City Council approval. 

The seven-member commission would have the power to hire or fire the head of COPA and provide nominees to the mayor for the top cop position and the Police Board. The commission would also have the final say on police policy decisions.

The plan would also allow voters to decide whether to give the civilian-led board even more power with a 2022 binding referendum. If approved by Chicago voters, the commission would be emboldened to hire and fire the superintendent, set the department’s budget and negotiate contracts with the police unions.

The seven-member commission would be replaced by an 11-member commission if the referendum was approved by a majority vote. Nine of the members would be directly elected, and two members, who must be from marginalized communities, would be appointed by the 22 district councils.

“Mayoral control hasn’t worked,” said ECPS co-sponsor Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th). “Passage of ECPS will empower our communities to have a real say over policing policy and the top brass tasked with implementing those policies. In short, ECPS would ensure democratic community control over the police.”

To advance out of committee to the full City Council, either proposal needs to win a majority of aldermen present when the 19-member committee votes Friday. Rarely used parliamentary maneuvers could also force a vote on the council floor next week with the backing of a majority of the full Council.

Ramirez-Rosa and Vasquez filed two Rule 41 notifications with the Office of the City Clerk, stating their intent to call the original GAPA and CPAC proposals for a vote on the City Council next week. The maneuvering is likely an attempt to prevent Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), head of the public safety committee, from not calling ECPS for a vote Friday.

A day before the vote, the Mayor’s Office and supporters of ECPS were searching for committee votes, those familiar with the conversations said.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), who members of the ECPS coalition considered a potential swing vote on the committee, announced she would not support either proposal in a newsletter to her ward residents. Smith, who initially supported GAPA, said both proposals are problematic. Specifically she challenged holding a referendum vote that would dramatically alter the ECPS proposal just a year after passing it.

“This is no different than if the Founding Fathers had agreed, after writing the U.S. Constitution, that there would be a guaranteed vote one year later about whether we should bring back the king,” Smith wrote.

Lightfoot’s proposal has only received public support from one alderman — but it’s the one who controls the vote process Friday: Taliaferro, a former police sergeant.

“We know our unity ordinance has significantly more support than the mayor’s ordinance, but we also know we’re attempting to do something that hasn’t occurred in this City Council in decades: pass a transformational ordinance over the objections of a sitting mayor,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

City Council’s Progressive Reform Caucus, Black Caucus, Latino Caucus and the newly created Democratic Socialist Caucus have endorsed the ECPS proposal, but it may not be enough to advance the ordinance out of the Committee on Public Safety.

The Black Caucus, which sits eight of the 19 members on the committee, could decide the fate of either ordinance, but it’s unlikely its members will vote as a block. Ald. Rod Sawyer (6th) is a lead sponsor of ECPS, but Taliaferro has lined up behind Lighfoot’s plan.

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) sits on the committee and said he’s likely to vote for ECPS, but he wants to see if there are any last-minute changes to the proposal. Lopez is an outspoken critic of Lightfoot and a staunch supporter of the Police Department.

Creating a civilian oversight board would create a transparent oversight process “where if mistakes by officers happen, they can be reviewed and assessed, without fear or second guessing by the public,” Lopez said. 

Lopez has taken that pitch to unofficial “law and order” members of the City Council who are most unlikely to support the oversight proposals and sit on the committee. 

If Lightfoot has the votes lined up to support her proposal, she’s not showing her hand. The Mayor’s Office refused an interview request for this story and did not provide a list of City Council or community supporters of Lightfoot’s proposal when asked. But her press team did respond to critics of the proposal.

“Chicago needs civilian police oversight, and the Mayor’s Community Safety Commission proposal delivers on that promise,” the statement read. “The Community Safety Commission plan draws from the most effective and workable aspects of the GAPA, CPAC, and the ECPS proposals and aims to meet the broader shared mandate of creating true civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department.

“The Mayor’s Community Safety Commission proposal will create a historic civilian oversight body that will empower the public to hold their law enforcement system accountable, while ensuring that the public can continue to hold City Hall responsible for police reform and oversight.”

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