There’s no quick fix to what ails the Chicago Police Department. Reform comes in a mix of components that will need both community buy-in and political commitment. One of those components is civilian oversight.
How to craft that oversight, how expansive should its authority be are considerations just as important as the need for oversight itself. The City Council now has one proposal it’s expected to weigh, and should have a second one soon, from Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
The proposal already announced is a plan recently endorsed by the City Council’s Black Caucus, and it’s building up a head of steam. That measure would set up an elected civilian oversight board and ask voters in a binding referendum whether to give that board authority to hire and fire the police superintendent, set the Police Department’s budget and negotiate police union contracts.
Lightfoot said Thursday she would submit her proposal for a civilian oversight board by Monday.
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Chicago has been mulling civilian oversight for several years, following the police shooting death of Laquan McDonald by a white Chicago police officer, who in 2018 was found guilty of second-degree murder. The Black teen’s killing became a tipping point, though the city tolerated for decades a system that hid legitimate complaints against abusive officers and failed to punish them.
The plan backed by the Black Caucus combines elements of proposals from two police reform advocacy groups, the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability and the Civilian Police Accountability Council. It’s easy to see why backers of that proposal feel now is the time to get their plan on the books.
Trust by minority communities in police seems to ebb by the day. The body that investigates police conduct, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, is probing two fatal police shootings of young Latinos that have stunned and divided Chicagoans — the death of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in the Little Village neighborhood March 29 and the death of 22-year-old Anthony Alvarez in Portage Park two days later.
So, what kind of civilian oversight proposal would best serve the city?
The problem with the proposal endorsed by most Black Caucus members is that it leaves the mayor with zero say over pivotal police oversight functions. Not just zero say, but zero accountability for public safety in the nation’s third largest city. Instead, that accountability would be diffused into an 11-member civilian board — nine of them elected and two appointed by the mayor.
Mayors have on their shoulders the task of tackling and solving the city’s biggest problems, no matter how complex or entrenched they are. Their chances of reelection rise and fall on their track record for handling those problems. That includes one of the city’s most pressing, long-standing needs — police reform. Can’t get it done? Stand aside.
Lightfoot’s version of civilian oversight of police should keep within the mayor’s office the authority to hire and fire police superintendents, as well as stewardship over CPD budgets and negotiations with the police union.
She said she “wears the jacket,” as all mayors do, for dealing with crime in Chicago, adding that “... the notion that we’re going to outsource that to someone else and have no responsibility — no ability to impact this — I don’t know anybody who thinks that’s a good idea.”
Add us to the list.
An advisory civilian police oversight board is important to giving Chicagoans a voice in the policies and practices of their Police Department. It’s a pillar of the city’s movement toward police reform. But it should not absolve the mayor of accountability for how well — or how poorly — she performs the task of achieving that reform.
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