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Lightfoot’s Campaign Promise On Police Oversight Comes Tantalizingly Close, 16 Months After Last Deal Fell Apart

The plan would empower the civilian commission to draft and mandate police department policy. The mayor would be able to reject the commission’s policymaking decisions, but the City Council could then override her veto.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at a press conference after the City Council meeting on June 25, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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Aldermen over the weekend appeared within striking distance of a deal with Mayor Lori Lightfoot on a blueprint to establish civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department, an agreement that has eluded the parties for more than a year. 

Negotiations were still underway as of Sunday evening. If the camps hammer out an agreement by Tuesday, an ordinance could clear the City Council on Wednesday, dispensing with the thorny issue before the council’s August recess. If they fall short, it wouldn’t be the first time a compromise made it inches from the finish line before falling apart.  

On March 6, 2020, Lightfoot’s staff was preparing to roll out a major policy victory, culminating from months of negotiations over how to design a civilian board that could oversee policy and leadership of the Chicago Police Department.  

The mayor’s communications team was exchanging kudos for a round of positive press suggesting a deal was at hand. The Sun-Times quoted Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA) coordinator Desmon Yancysaying he was “very excited” to have struck an agreement with the city on a plan that would “transform public safety and policing across Chicago.”   

It was a welcome dose of good news for the mayor’s team on the same day a teacher’s aide at Vaughn Occupational High School tested positive for the novel coronavirus, marking one of the city’s first documented cases.  

But by Monday, the deal had collapsed. 

RELATED: Years in the making, showdown set over civilian oversight of CPD   

Adam Gross, an attorney and lead negotiator with GAPA,  got a call from Lightfoot’s office on March 9 alerting him to some tweaks attorneys in the city’s Department of Law made to the ordinance, including a clause saying the mayor would get “final determination” over policy decisions if the civilian commission hit a stalemate with the police department.  

Gross sent an alarmed email to Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Susan Lee, the mayor’s lead negotiator on police oversight, saying his group never agreed that “the Commission needs to move forward with whatever the Mayor says.” The email was one of thousands of internal messages unearthed by a hack of the Jones Day law firm in April.  

“You added final late last week and never said that’s what it means,” Gross wrote. “That’s changing something huge for GAPA, based on one word, at the eleventh hour, without explanation,” Gross added. 

 “I asked to add final because I thought that is what we agreed on,” Lee replied, adding that it would only apply to rare cases when the commission and department were locked in stalemate.  

But Gross dug in, saying the “GAPA groups have now discussed the issue and affirmed that this principle is foundational and will not move forward without it.”  

New compromise in the offing 

The disagreement was never resolved. But 16 months later, Lightfoot and aldermen behind the grassroots Empowering Communities for Public Safety ordinance — a successor to GAPA — could be on the verge of striking a compromise that would allow them to finally fulfill the mayor’s 100-day campaign promise.  

The City Council Committee on Public Safety is scheduled to reconvene at 5 p.m. Tuesday to vote on the compromise ordinance, which Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6) said he and Ald. Harry Osterman (48) would spend the weekend negotiating with Lightfoot’s office.   

RELATEDPotential ‘compromise’ on civilian oversight of CPD brewing as committee set to meet Friday  

Sawyer told aldermen during the Friday public safety committee meeting that he and Osterman met with representatives from the mayor’s office, who earlier in the week shared the draft of a potential compromise ordinance that’s “about 80-85 percent” complete.  

“We are working tirelessly in getting this done, and I believe we are extremely close,” Sawyer told his colleagues on Friday. He added that “we believe [the draft] gets us almost there,” but both sides needed the weekend “to get this nailed down to have something to present” on Tuesday. 

Lightfoot wrote in a written statement on Friday that “recently, there has been significant progress made between relevant stakeholders and I look forward to continuing the conversation over the weekend in an effort to reach consensus on a path forward.” 

The mayor said she is “firmly committed to passing a comprehensive, effective, and workable form of civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department and its relevant accountability agencies.” 

The 27-page draft — circulated among aldermen and obtained by The Daily Line on Friday — would empower the civilian commission to draft and mandate police department policy. The mayor would be able to reject the commission’s policymaking decisions, but the City Council could then override her veto by a two-thirds vote. 

Finance committee chair and Lightfoot ally Ald. Scott Waguespack (32) endorsed that model on Thursday, telling The Daily Line that empowering the mayor with a check by the council reflects “the same thing that can happen now on other ordinances.”  

The Empowering Communities for Public Safety proposal itself is the result of a compromise between the previously competing GAPA and Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) ordinances. The two coalitions introduced their combined proposal in March, and Lightfoot introduced her counterproposal in May, eight months after announcing she was breaking off negotiations with the GAPA group. 

Among the sharpest differences between Lightfoot’s proposal and the Empowering Communities for Public Safety ordinance was a discrepancy over who would have final say on police department policy, with the mayor long arguing it should rest in her office while grassroots activists and ECPS sponsors have insisted the civilian-led commission should have final say. 

If approved by the public safety committee on Tuesday, the compromise ordinance would go to the full City Council for a vote Wednesday morning.  

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15) expressed his “frustration” on Friday that aldermen will discuss “probably the most significant” civilian oversight plan in the city’s history at 5 p.m. the day before it goes to City Council, saying it “seems ridiculous…that is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” 

Both Lopez and Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38) voted “no” on the motion to recess the meeting and reconvene Tuesday evening. 

Multiple speakers expressed frustration during the meeting’s public comment period that an oversight ordinance had not yet been passed, and Sawyer said sponsors of the ECPS ordinance are “wanting to do this before we adjourn for the summer. We want this done by Wednesday at the full City Council meeting.” 

GAPA emails among those hacked, published in April   

A review by The Daily Line of 475 hacked internal emails, supplemented by interviews with multiple members of the GAPA coalition and former officials in Lightfoot’s administration, offer a rare glimpse at the grinding process by which civilian police oversight went from a lofty campaign promise to an ordinance on the brink of passage to a political dead end, leaving the issue open for more than a year.   

The open government group Distributed Denial of Secrets published the more than four gigabits of emails on April 19 after identifying them among a cache that had been stolen from the law firm Jones Day and shared by unknown hackers. Lightfoot has declined to comment on any of the emails, saying she does not want to “credit them as a credible news source” and warning that the emails may have been fabricated.   

The Daily Line shared all GAPA-related emails with their senders or recipients in an effort to verify their legitimacy. None doubted the credibility of the emails.   

The original GAPA ordinance grew out of the Police Accountability Task Force convened by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2016. The task force was chaired by Lightfoot, then the president of the Chicago Police Board, and Lightfoot supported the police oversight plan through her 2019 mayoral run.   

Sawyer and Ald. Harry Osterman(48) introduced a version of the ordinance (SO2019-4132) on June 12, 2019. The plan envisioned a three-member District Area Council elected for each of the city’s 22 police districts, whose members would help appoint members of a citywide police oversight commission. The District Area Councils and citywide commission largely remained the same in the most recent iteration of the Empowering Communities for Public Safety ordinance.

During the first months of Lightfoot’s administration, her staff kept a weekly progress calendar to track promises the new mayor had committed to dispatching during her first 100 days — including establishing police oversight. Lee attended regular negotiation sessions accompanied by Lightfoot’s chief of staff Maurice Classenor Chicago Police Departmentchief of staff Robert Boik. On the other side of the table were up to a dozen GAPA negotiators, typically with Gross at the center.

The summer of 2019 brought to the forefront legal questions over the District Area Council elections and uncertainty over whether the City Council would need a supermajority vote to add new election infrastructure. The legal thicket pushed back negotiations by months, and by mid-summer it became clear the administration would not hit its 100-day deadline.   

But by February 2020, the two parties had come to a tentative agreement. In a Feb. 21 email, Gross sketched out a nine-part bulleted list, drawing up a timeline of negotiating procedures between the police department and the civilian commission over new department policies.

“If the Commission likes what gets drafted, they’re done. The Commission can vote on the policy,” one point reads. “If the Commission doesn’t like it, then they continue to have to have good faith negotiations until they work it out.”   

Gross added in the sequence that if negotiations became deadlocked, then “after some period of time…the Commission can notify the Mayor.” If the mayor agreed with the commission, it could direct the commission to vote on a policy. If she did not, the commission would “return to the negotiating table and continue to try to build consensus with CPD.”   

“That is my understanding of the proposal as well,” Lee responded five minutes later.      

Yancy wrote back to Lee on Feb. 29 that he was “happy to report” the GAPA coalition had voted that day to “move forward in support” of an ordinance Lee had sent earlier in the week. 

“We look forward to working with you to address these issues and to pass a transformative ordinance on March 18, 2020,” Yancy closed.  

The GAPA negotiators thought they had agreed to a model that would give the commission the final say in policy decisions. But officials in Lightfoot’s administration affirmed, both in the internal emails and in interviews, that they always intended for the mayor to have tie-breaking authority on disagreements between the department and the civilian commission.  

City attorney Scott Spears sent an email on March 6, 2020 to Lee, Lightfoot adviser Michael Milstein and Assistant Corporation Counsel Jeff Levine saying Spears had made “a few minor edits” to the ordinance, including the “Addition of ‘final determination’ to policy-making process when Mayor is involved.” He attached a red-lined version of the ordinance.   

Levine followed up in a March 9 email to Lee and Milstein saying the issue of mayoral control is “the one biggie for me — the commission could thwart or hamper effective CPD functioning though [sic] issuing unhelpful [general orders] or blocking necessary ones.”  

That was the same day Gross pounced on the addition of the word “final,” saying it violated a “foundational” principle of his coalition.  

Lightfoot vs. aldermen on policymaking veto power 

Even if the mayor’s administration had come to an agreement with GAPA in March 2020, there was no guarantee their proposal would have passed out of the public safety committee on March 10, emails show. 

Over two years of negotiations, Lightfoot has publicly and repeatedly backed up her insistence that she should have the final say on matters of police policy developed by a civilian commission.  

“There has to be accountability, but we can’t divorce accountability from not just me as mayor, but any mayor,” Lightfoot said when asked about the legislation in March. “I wear the jacket, as every mayor does, for violence in the city, for crime in the city. And the notion that we are going to outsource that to someone else and have no responsibility, no ability to impact it — I don’t know anybody who thinks that that’s a good idea.”  

Many aldermen disagree. 

Following a round of aldermanic briefings on the ordinance during the week of March 2, Jerel Dawson, deputy director of the mayor’s office of intergovernmental affairs, sent a series of notes to Lee and Milstein reflecting a wide array of concerns aldermen had aired. Among them were a question listed from Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez(33): “Why have Commission if Mayor has ultimate say?”  

Dawson on March 9 sent Lee and Milstein a whip count that marked four public safety committee members as a “yes” on the ordinance, including committee chair Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29). Dawson listed another seven aldermen as “leaning no” or “likely no,” and seven others as “undecided” or “TBD.” 

“Doesn’t look like this is going tomorrow in committee but will keep you posted,” Lee responded. 

Ald. Matt Martin (47), whom Dawson indicated was “leaning no,” told The Daily Line earlier this year that he was prepared to vote against any oversight measure that left the mayor with final authority over police policy.  

“When you look at the failed policies with our various public safety institutions over the years, those have been policies that typically CPD and/or the mayor’s office have had the final say over,” Martin said. “You don’t have to look very far to find examples of how that’s gone wrong…and whoever the mayor has been, if they consistently did an exceptional job of creating new policy and modifying existing policy, I don’t think we’d be in the position we are in today, with the police department subject to a federal consent decree.”  

A week after the proposal stalled in committee on March 10, the city was frozen in pandemic-induced lockdown.  

Emails show Lee and other administration officials made an attempt weeks later to revive talks — but their ordinance never made it back to the public safety committee. Stakeholders acknowledged that talks between city leaders and GAPA were further strained amid the summer 2020 uprisings following the murder of George Floyd.  

Even as the odds waned, officials pointed to the looming 2020 election as a deadline for when the city needed to set in place a commission structure that could be subject to elections.   

“What should we do with GAPA?” Lee wrote in a March 27 email to Classen. “If we don’t do it in April, it won’t get done for three years.”

Lee and Gross declined to comment for this article. 

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