Chicago mayor unveils civilian police oversight plan, retains power for hiring, firing superintendents
A committee will now consider both the mayor's plan and one that would potentially give an elected board much more power over police personnel, policy and budget
By John Byrne
CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday unveiled her long-awaited plan for civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department, saying “the buck stops with me” in an ordinance that would keep authority for hiring and firing the superintendent and other key Police Department decisions with the mayor.
That sets up a showdown in the City Council between Lightfoot’s proposal and one that would potentially give an elected board much more power over police personnel, policy and budget. Lightfoot’s proposal does not go as far as what she supported during her run for mayor when it comes to the civilian oversight panel setting department policy or taking steps to fire superintendents.
During the next month, members of the council Public Safety Committee that tilts heavily toward mayoral supporters will have hearings on the two ordinances, and likely send one or the other to the full council for an up-or-down vote in late June.
It’s the endgame in a long and winding process for Lightfoot, who pledged to deliver a police oversight plan within her first 100 days in office before reaching an impasse with activists over how much say the civilian board would have.
Those talks broke down in 2020, and the mayor has been trying to craft her own ordinance since then.
The one she delivered Monday is weaker than what Lightfoot backed as a mayoral candidate, when she voiced support for a proposal by the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability that would give an elected civilian board power to enact Police Department policy. But in many ways, her proposal mirrors the one from GAPA.
The mayor’s plan would create a temporary oversight board, which she would pick.
Elected three-person panels in each of the city’s 22 police districts would then nominate people to the seven-person commission, but the mayor would have final say on its makeup.
The police superintendent would be chosen via a process “not unlike what’s being used now,” Lightfoot said, with the commission presenting three candidates to the mayor, who ultimately would get to pick a finalist for aldermen to consider.
The mayor also would select the heads of the Police Board and the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, she said.
The seven-person board would be able to vote on a resolution of no-confidence in the superintendent, but wouldn’t have power to remove the top cop. Under the GAPA plan Lightfoot supported as a candidate, the commission would have had power to take steps to fire superintendents but could be overruled by the City Council, as well as set police department policies.
Asked Monday how her plan provides the kind of citizen oversight power many activists seek and which the competing grassroots ordinance could provide, Lightfoot reiterated her belief that “the buck stops with me” on safety decisions, so the mayor should have ultimate authority.
“Public safety, I think, is one of the most critical responsibilities of any mayor,” she said.
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On Friday, the City Council Public Safety Committee took testimony but no vote on the compromise grassroots proposal.
The version designed by the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and GAPA calls for Chicagoans to vote on a referendum to create a 11-member civilian board — with nine elected members and two members appointed by the board itself — that would have authority to hire and fire the police superintendent. It also would be able to submit the Police Department budget and negotiate contracts with the Fraternal Order of Police.
Three of the nine elected commissioners would come from the North Side, three from the South Side and three from the West Side.
If the referendum failed, three elected community board members in each police district would have the authority to nominate seven board members who would have less regulatory authority over the department, much like the commission Lightfoot envisions.
The compromise grassroots proposal has garnered support from the City Council’s Black, Latino and Progressive caucuses. Those endorsements came before Lightfoot unveiled her own plan, however.
The mayor’s administration will now begin cajoling, arm-twisting and negotiating slight changes in their measure to try to shore up aldermanic support before the yearslong process of negotiating these ordinances reaches the Public Safety Committee.
GAPA began its work in 2016 after Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s hand-picked Police Accountability Task Force, chaired by Lightfoot before her election, recommended the creation of an oversight board.
GAPA spent months holding community meetings and hammering out their plan.
The Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR), meanwhile, had been working since 2012 on oversight of the department in the wake of long-standing community outcry over police abuse, including the fatal shooting of Rekia Boyd by an off-duty officer.
Both ordinances were introduced to the council, leading to months of testimony and intense public campaigning for both ideas.
A main difference between the two, for example, was the hiring of the superintendent. CAARPR gave that power to the commission, while GAPA charged the commission with selecting finalists and allowing the mayor to make the pick.
Then, in September of last year, the mayor stated she planned to introduce her own ordinance.
In February, the two coalitions, which had been far apart on critical issues, announced they’d reached agreement and issued a joint statement criticizing the mayor for what they considered unnecessary delays.
In March they released their joint plan, the Empowering Communities for Public Safety, or ECPS.
“We are largely undivided when it comes to this question of police accountability,” Frank Chapman, field representative for the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, said about the groups reaching agreement.
“We may differ over tactics and the extent of the power that we believe we have over the police, but we are united on the issue and the issue is that police in Chicago who commit crimes … must be held accountable. We are united over the concept of public safety only being something that can happen when the community is a decisive participant. Other than that, public safety is a farce designed to fail.”
The ECPS ordinance, which was introduced last week at the Public Safety Committee, says the commission’s purpose is to increase public safety by making sure citizens have more say and police are held more accountable. It puts an emphasis on a public health approach to policing and also states that building trust with the department is a key priority.
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