Is Chicago's new layer of police oversight as 'unique' as sponsors say?

·8 min read

Supporters of Chicago's new ordinance giving citizens more input on how the city's police perform their duties have touted it as historic and far-reaching.

Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who represents the 35th ward and was one of the main sponsors of the Empowering Communities for Public Safety Ordinance approved by the City Council last week, said the new panel will be able to recommend that the police chief be fired and help select the candidates from whom the mayor would choose to fill the role if and when it were vacant.

The ordinance passed 36-13. It calls for the creation of a seven-member Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability that would comprise people nominated by three-member councils in each of Chicago's 22 police districts. It follows years of protests over law enforcement misconduct.

"So the number of powers that the civilian commission has, the democratic process through which the civilian commission will be selected and governed is really unique," Ramirez-Rosa said in an interview. "And from all of the different systems that we've seen for civilian oversight, based upon our analysis, we do believe it is the farthest reaching."

Chicago is the latest in a string of cities to add a civilian oversight board for police in recent years. Though such bodies have existed for decades, their numbers spiked following the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police. Both brought about calls for police accountability and led to increased scrutiny on law enforcement officers, their training and their tactics.

More than 160 municipalities have created some kind of oversight board, according to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

In its simplest form, a civilian oversight board is intended to be a check on police departments and a tool for building community trust.

But the boards have often been criticized for lacking teeth, many have only limited access to records and no authority to punish officers for wrongdoing. Chicago officials believe they have remedied that problem by electing members from a wide range of neighborhoods and giving them the power to make and approve policies for the police department.

Jillian Aldebron is not convinced.

"I don't see how this new ordinance is going to change anything," said Aldebron, a researcher who has been tracking the impact of civilian review boards on police accountability nationwide for the past few years. "It is not unique in the country."

As part of a project she has been working on that is funded by the National Institute of Justice, she has focused on 30 jurisdictions, including Chicago.

"Chicago has multiple layers of external oversight already, even before you had this new ordinance passed," she said. "So it kind of boggles the mind that with all those levels of external oversight, external just meaning external to the police force, you still don't get a satisfactory outcome."

Aldebron resigned from the Baltimore Police Civilian Review Board last year over what she describes as the panel's lack of independence.

Baltimore has one of the country's least powerful civilian review boards, she said.

"What happened in Baltimore was that the city administration essentially captured the civilian review board, in direct violation of the statute," said Aldebron, who represented the southeast district in Baltimore. "But nobody particularly cared about it."

When she resigned from the board, Aldebron said the city's Office of Equity and Civil Rights routinely withheld completed investigations from its members, including at least 28 that expired because they had not been adjudicated within a year as required by the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights.

Despite claims that Chicago's new commission is far-reaching, Aldebron said that there are other jurisdictions that are much stronger, such as Oakland, California. "Oakland is really the most powerful in the country," she said. "And it is absolutely unique."

Oakland's police commission has direct authority over the police chief, Aldebron said, adding that "it has the final say on police department policy, training and officer discipline" and it is independent of the mayor and city council.

"You can't get more powerful than that," she said.

Ramirez-Rosa acknowledged that there are other cities with civilian commissions. What is critical about what Chicago has done, he said, is the extent of responsibilities, duties and powers that the civilian commission will have.

The three representatives who will be elected in each of the city's 22 police districts will play a role in providing oversight and will also nominate people to serve on a seven-member citywide commission. The commission must have members from the south, west and north sides, as well as two members ages 18 to 24.

That seven-member citywide commission will be required to have attorneys who have represented people from marginalized communities and who are experienced in civil rights, Ramirez-Rosa said. It will also comprise people with community organizing experience and people who have had negative encounters with police. The Community Commission will have the power to make and approve policy for the Chicago Police Department, the police board and the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, an independent agency that handles investigations involving Chicago police. The Community Commission will have the power to appoint, supervise and fire the head of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.

"So really what this civil commission will ensure is that those that have been most marginalized, those that have been most directly impacted by broken policing, will really have the voice and the ability to direct policing," Ramirez-Rosa said.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot declined a request for an interview.

Frank Chapman, field secretary for the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, which helped draft the ordinance, said oversight boards and review boards typically lack serious power.

He believes this new layer is unprecedented.

"Nothing like this here has taken place with respect to the African American community since Black reconstruction after the Civil War," he said.

Chapman and Ramirez-Rosa said the killing of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager who was shot 16 times in 2014 by a white police officer, galvanized a push for more police oversight. The officer, Jason Van Dyke, was sentenced to six years, nine months in prison. The push was further bolstered by the death of Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old fatally shot by a Chicago police officer in March. Toledo is one of the youngest people killed by the police in Illinois in years.

Chapman said the ordinance gives people in the community, particularly those who have been abused by decades of police violence and corruption, "a voice in saying how they're going to be policed and who's going to police them."

"So this is what distinguishes us from all the other oversight boards, review boards, et cetera," he said.

Sharon Fairley, who led one of Chicago's citizen oversight agencies from 2015 to 2017, said the "whole point of civilian oversight" is "about having a mechanism in place that represents the community viewpoints so people have bigger trust and believe in the legitimacy of policing at large."

The three-member councils in the Empowering Communities for Public Safety Ordinance are different and new, she said.

"There are very few civilian structures out there that provide oversight of police that are elected," said Fairley, a law professor at the University of Chicago Law School.

She has closely tracked civilian oversight in the 100 largest U.S. cities in recent years.

"Among those, I could only find one other example where you have people who are elected to do this work and that was in Detroit, where it's kind of a combination appointed and a combination elected board," she said.

While she is optimistic about this ordinance, Fairley said it will not solve all problems with accountability. It could turn out to be a very good thing or it could encounter complications like it has in Oakland, where the city's police commission acted on its power to fire the superintendent.

"Now there's a bunch of litigation going on," she said. "So things can be very complicated."

In addition to power, these groups need resources to be effective, she said.

"Putting this commission on top of everything, it's going to be helpful," she said. "But is it going to solve all the problems with the accountability system? No. Because until accountability becomes a core value within the department itself, accountability is still going to suffer."

Fairley said there is no model that every oversight group should follow and existing boards across the country vary in scope and responsibility.

"There are characteristics of boards that make them more successful," she said. "These are things like independence — having subpoena power, having sufficient resources, having the power to engage outside counsel, being able to conduct completely independent investigations rather than relying on investigations conducted by the police department, having good leadership, having neutrality."

Aldebron believes oversight agencies are ineffective and are "a distraction from the problem."

"I've really come to believe after four years of working on this, that it's just kind of a red herring," she said. "First of all, just using the term civilian, that's already saying something about what a police department is. It's like a military institution."

She believes resources would be better used reimagining how to change the concept of policing.

"It's kind of like if you had a house with a rotted foundation, you could keep propping it up somehow and putting in more supports," Aldebron said. "But ultimately, it's got a rotten foundation."

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