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Chicago Police Department Getting First-Ever Civilian-Led Oversight Commission

The civilian commission is a compromise between police reform advocates and Mayor Lori Lightfoot after a two-year standoff.

The Chicago Police Department District 16 in Jefferson Park on July 8, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Chicago residents will get more oversight and control over the Police Department after a City Council vote Wednesday, though some key powers will remain with the mayor’s office.

Council members voted 36-13 to approve an ordinance creating a seven-member oversight commission charged with drafting and proposing police department policy. The ordinance is a compromise between Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the grassroots Empowering Communities for Public Safety coalition. 

Alds. Brian Hopkins (2nd); Anthony Beale (9th); Patrick Daley Thompson (11th); Marty Quinn (13th); Ed Burke (14th); ; Matthew O’Shea (19th); Silvana Tabares (23rd); Ariel Reboyras (30th); Nick Sposato (38th); Samantha Nugent (39th); Anthony Napolitano (41st); Brendan Reilly (42nd); Jim Gardiner (45th) opposed the ordinance.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) was not present for Wednesday’s meeting.

Wednesday’s vote ends a two-year-long stalemate as Lightfoot opposed previous moves to establish such a commission, despite a campaign pledge to do so in her first 100 days of office. 

Despite the long battle and last-minute compromise, proponents of the measure lauded the commission on Wednesday as “transformative” and said it would begin to rebuild trust between Chicago residents and the Police Department.

Ahead of the vote, Lightfoot said the oversight commission “would not solve all problems,” but “legitimacy is key to the work that our police do.”

“If the communities do not trust (officers) because they’re not legitimate to them, they will not be effective in their most core mission, which is serving and protecting every single resident of the city,” she said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Chicago Police officers scuffle with Chicagoans as they disperse from Logan Square on Apr. 16, 2021, after protesting the fatal police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Little Village.

Under the ordinance, three-member councils would be elected for each of the city’s 22 police districts. Those councils would convene local meetings and be charged with oversight and improving the level of trust between the community and the department. They would also be responsible for nominating candidates for the citywide commission, to be appointed by the mayor.

The seven-member commission can nominate three people when the police superintendent job is vacant. The mayor could choose one of the three or reject them all. If they are rejected, the commission would start the process over with new nominees until the mayor picks a superintendent nominated by the commission.

The groups also can write new police policies, which the mayor can veto. A two-thirds City Council majority would be required to override the mayor. 

The commission would select the chief administrator of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, subject to City Council approval, and can hold a binding vote of no-confidence for the position.

Ald. Harry Osterman (48th), a lead sponsor of the proposal, said, “for the first time, we bring the community into a civilian oversight role that is desperately needed.”

The Police Department as an “institution…needs to be fixed,” Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) said. In order to better solve crimes, police officers “need communities to have enough trust in them to give them the information to solve crime. That does not happen when you do not have faith in that institution.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) speaks during discussions surrounding the creation of a civilian commission overseeing the Chicago Police Department during a City Council meeting on July 21, 2021.

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said the commission wouldn’t be necessary if the current oversight tools were working.

“The existing oversight structure has done very little to address police accountability,” she said. “We might not be here if our police department had respected the rights of the people of Chicago…built trust between the officers and the communities they served and promoted community and officer safety, we would not be here, but we are.”

Opponents said the commission would add an unnecessary new layer of oversight of the department and could cause some officers to be hesitant to carry out their duties.

“This strong layer of police oversight is going to make every potential, want to be officer, think about going in another direction,” Napolitano said.

Sposato echoed comments Lightfoot previously made when she opposed previous versions of the oversight, saying the commission could be a backdoor way to “defund the police.” But Sposato conceded the votes were there to approve the ordinance and he wouldn’t use any parliamentary tricks to stall the vote.

“You’re going to win,” he said. “I’m going to lose, the police are going to lose and the city is going to lose.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th) speaks during discussions surrounding the creation of a civilian commission overseeing the Chicago Police Department during a City Council meeting on July 21, 2021.

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