Aldermen Advance Plan for Elected Board to Oversee Chicago Police, Setting Up Final Vote

Supporters of the Empowering Communities for Public Safety plan call for more police accountability during a rally April 21, 2021. (Heather Cherone / WTTW News)Supporters of the Empowering Communities for Public Safety plan call for more police accountability during a rally April 21, 2021. (Heather Cherone / WTTW News)

UPDATE: City Council Approves Elected Board to Oversee Chicago Police with 36-13 Vote

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A proposal to create an elected board of Chicago residents to oversee the Chicago Police Department cleared a key city panel late Tuesday after a fierce debate between alderpeople over how to restore trust in the officers amid a torrent of violent crime and repeated allegations of misconduct by officers.

The 12-8 vote of the Chicago City Council’s Public Safety Committee, which came after more than two hours of debate, sets up a final vote at the full City Council meeting scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday and puts Chicago on the brink of enacting the most far-reaching police reform ordinance in the country.

The eight aldermen who voted against the proposal were Alds. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th Ward), Derrick Curtis (18th Ward), Ariel Reboyras (30th Ward), Nicholas Sposato (38th Ward), Samantha Nugent (39th Ward), Anthony Napolitano (41st Ward), Jim Gardiner (45th Ward) and Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward).

Four of those aldermen represent the Far Northwest Side, where many police officers live and violent crime is rare.

The proposal — backed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot — must win at least 34 of the 50 votes on the City Council to set elections to create three-member councils in each of Chicago’s 22 police districts, while an appointed seven-member commission, confirmed by the City Council, would oversee the city.

Lightfoot took to Twitter to urge members of the committee to advance the plan, which has been in the works since 2016, and to push back against John Catanzara, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, which represents most rank-and-file officers.

Catanzara, who faces charges of misconduct that could prompt the Chicago Police Board to fire him, told aldermen there was no need to increase oversight of the Chicago Police Department. 

After the vote, Lightfoot called the vote "a big, historic step."

"Is Chicago ready for reform?" Lightfoot asked. "We need 34 yes votes for change."

A Department of Justice investigation completed in 2017 in the wake of the police murder of 16-year-old Laquan McDonald found that Chicago police officers routinely violated the constitutional rights of Black and Latino Chicagoans and were rarely held accountable for misconduct.

That probe led to a federal court order that requires the Chicago Police Department to implement reforms over the direction of a federal judge.

“Oversight is not a bad thing if you have nothing to hide from,” said Ald. Jason Ervin (28th Ward), the chair of the Black Caucus.

Ervin said that it was clear to him that opponents of the proposal never felt what it was like to be forced onto the hood of a cop car while being searched.

Several aldermen who voted against the proposal to create an elected board to oversee the police department agreed with Catanzara that additional oversight was unnecessary, while others — including Napolitano, a former police officer — said it would only complicate efforts to reduce crime.

Crime is down slightly this summer compared to summer 2020, when the city experienced a significant increase in crime and violence despite restrictions designed to stop the spread of COVID-19. However, shootings are up approximately 60% over summer 2019, and murders are up nearly 50% from two years ago — the last summer before the pandemic.

“We’re dropping the ball,” Napolitano said.

The debate revealed a clear split between aldermen concerned about crime in Chicago. While some objected to creating an elected board because of concerns about rising crime, others said increased police oversight would actually reduce crime by restoring the community’s trust in the beleaguered department.

After years of debate, the proposal is poised for a final vote less than a week after Lightfoot agreed to back the ordinance crafted by the Empowering Communities for Public Safety coalition, a group of community organizations who had been lobbying for the board for years.

The crucial sticking point in negotiations between Lightfoot and the coalition of community organizations centered on the question of who would have the final say on policy for the Chicago Police Department.

The measure set for a vote Wednesday would give the board the final say on policy for the CPD — but would also give the mayor a veto that could be overridden by a two-thirds vote of the City Council.

The new board would recommend candidates for police superintendent and the Police Board to the mayor.

In addition, the elected board would have the power to hire the head of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, known as COPA, which is the agency charged with probing police misconduct, according to the proposal set for a vote.

In addition, the proposal would allow the elected oversight board to pass a resolution of no confidence in the superintendent, COPA head and any member of the Chicago Police Board with a two-thirds vote. That could trigger City Council action.

A council made up of non-citizens would advise the commission on issues impacting Chicago’s immigrant and undocumented community, according to the proposed ordinance.

For 16 months, Lightfoot vehemently opposed all of those provisions, repeatedly saying that ceding that kind of authority would make it impossible for the mayor to keep Chicago safe. Her proposal would have given the board’s elected members only the authority to advise the mayor, but that drew only nominal support from City Council members.

The City Council was poised to pass a previous version of the proposal to create an elected board in March 2020, but the conflict over whether the mayor or the board would set policy for the Chicago Police Department doomed the plan crafted by the Grassroots Association for Police Accountability, known as GAPA.

Even though Lightfoot backed that plan during her 2019 campaign for mayor and vowed to pass it during her first 100 days in office, she demanded that the mayor have the final say on policy just before a vote of the City Council, sending the push to legislative limbo that ended Tuesday night.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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