Editorial: Many Chicagoans don’t trust police. Civilian oversight will help.

·3 min read

Last year, the independent monitor overseeing the Chicago Police Department’s implementation of court-mandated reforms carried out a survey among Chicagoans to gauge, among other things, how much they trusted police.

Only about half of respondents said they found Chicago police officers to be trustworthy. A top official in the city’s watchdog office characterized the department’s relationship with citizens as being saddled by “an enormous deficit of trust and confidence.”

Trust is the glue between police and community. Without it, citizens are much less likely to come forward with information about people committing crimes in their neighborhood, much less likely to expect any sense of justice and safety from law enforcement.

This week, the city took an important step toward bridging the trust chasm between the Chicago Police Department and the communities it serves. The City Council passed an ordinance that for the first time gives Chicagoans a significant voice in the policies and direction of the department, through the creation of a civilian oversight board.

It’s not a cure-all. The problems plaguing CPD run far too deep for a single entity to transform the department into what it needs to be. But the new law does, as Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th, said this week, give citizens “a real seat at the table … a real voice.”

The new board forms Jan. 1. Mayor Lori Lightfoot will pick seven members for an interim body, and then in February 2023, members will be elected, with three individuals chosen from each of the city’s police districts. The ordinance is the product of compromise reached between Lightfoot and grassroots activists that had long sought broad civilian oversight powers, including authority to fire the police superintendent, set the department’s budget and negotiate police union contracts. Had activists gotten their vision of civilian oversight enacted, virtually all accountability for pivotal police oversight functions would have been wrested from the mayor’s office.

In years past, we argued strongly against that overreaching version of civilian oversight. Mayors “wear the jacket” for solving the city’s biggest, most entrenched problems. That includes dealing with crime and shepherding real, meaningful police reform. If a mayor can’t get the job done, voters get to bounce that person from office when reelection time rolls around.

The law the City Council passed this week gives the civilian board power to approve a nonbinding no-confidence vote on the superintendent. It also gives the board a voice on budget decisions and policy-setting, though the mayor will still be able to veto the commission’s recommendations.

Predictably, police union leadership is howling about the ordinance, calling it “absolutely absurd and dangerously reckless,” adding that it relinquishes authority to “the squeaky wheels who made this city into anarchy last summer.” Wrong. The ordinance doesn’t hand over power to anarchists — it gives voice to neighborhoods — predominantly Black and Hispanic communities — that have suffered through decades of police abuse, and a system that failed to punish those responsible.

It took too long to get to this point. The push for civilian oversight grew following the 2014 police shooting death of Laquan McDonald by a white Chicago police officer, who in 2018 was found guilty of second-degree murder. The aftermath of the George Floyd murder, the chaotic, flawed response by police leadership to the protests and looting that ensued, only underscored the need to give the community a much stronger role in police oversight.

The new board won’t patch every crack in the way CPD operates and is managed. A continued commitment to implementing the consent decree — the federally mandated slate of reforms that overhaul training supervision and accountability at the department — will be crucial to building stronger, lasting trust between police and the people they serve.

Civilian oversight, however, will help pave a path toward that trust.

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