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Chicago Appoints Civilian Police Oversight Board As A Major Step Towards Reform
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Chicago Appoints Civilian Police Oversight Board As A Major Step Towards Reform

Chicago passed an ordinance on Wednesday that establishes an elected board of residents to oversee the city's police department, a major step toward law enforcement accountability that community organizers have long advocated for.

The City Council approved the oversight with a vote of 36-13, just a few votes more than the two-thirds majority required by Mayor Lori Lightfoot for this specific ordinance. The proposal was created by the Empowering Communities for Public Safety coalition, which is comprised of several grassroots organizations.

“There’s a saying in Chicago: Chicago ain’t ready for reform. Well, today Chicago is,” said Alderman Leslie A. Hairston, who first proposed the ordinance in 2016. “And you’ve seen that in what we’ve introduced today and what we’ve passed today.... We have something that was put together by all of the people who include the people.”

The Chicago City Council just passed #ECPSNow, the nation's strongest and most progressive civilian oversight ordinance, unlike anything else in the country. The people won this change in the streets, at the doors, and through relentless grassroots organizing. pic.twitter.com/f5xAXLfmvi — Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (@CDRosa) July 21, 2021

Beginning Jan. 1, the City Council will be able to appoint three-member commissions in each of Chicago's 22 police districts, as well as a seven-member commission to oversee the city. A separate council made up of residents who aren't citizens will advise the commission on issues affecting the city's immigrant and undocumented communities.

Opponents of the new civilian commission expressed concern that it would complicate the police department's efforts to stem a wave of violent crime while making little difference in reforming the department itself, while supporters have hailed it as a genuine effort to build trust in the police as the department is frequently accused of misconduct.

Before the vote, Democratic Alderman Jason Ervin told the council, "We need to return our department back to a community-facing organization." "Kids in my neighborhood's first interaction with police should not be on the hood of a car; it should be in a community setting," Ervin said.

The ordinance passed on Wednesday gives the civilian board the final say on policy regarding Chicago police and associated accountability agencies. Civilians elected to the commission can recommend candidates to the mayor for police superintendent and the Chicago Police Board, and the commission can also hire the head of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), which is the city's accountability agency.

If the oversight board votes with a two-thirds majority, it can pass a resolution of no confidence in the superintendent, the head of COPA, and any member of the police board, which could result in action by the City Council.

A Justice Department investigation conducted in 2017 after a white Chicago police officer killed Laquan McDonald, a Black 17-year-old, found that the city's officers repeatedly violate the constitutional rights of Black and Latino residents and are rarely held accountable for their actions, resulting in a court order requiring the police department to implement reforms.

The group of grassroots organizations, ECPS, introduced an earlier version of the civilian oversight proposal that Lightfoot supported during her campaign for mayor and promised to pass in her first 100 days in office; the City Council had planned to pass that version early last year, but Lightfoot changed her mind at the last minute and opposed it because she wanted the final say on policy.

From September 2020 to last week, the mayor repeatedly stated that she would be unable to keep Chicago safe if a potential civilian board had more than advisory powers to her. Negotiations over the weekend resulted in Wednesday's proposal.

Though the ordinance passed on Wednesday gives the board authority over police-related policy, Lightfoot has the authority to veto board members' decisions, which the City Council can override with a two-thirds majority.

“Today’s news is a testament to the organizers on the ground who have been fighting tirelessly for years to bring true justice and accountability to CPD; I’m grateful for their work that brought this issue to the forefront and led us to this moment,” said gun violence activist Kina Collins, who is running for Congress to represent the city’s south and west sides.

“At the same time, today’s reform is just the beginning of the change we need,” she added. “If we truly want a safer Chicago, we need to invest in health care, education, child care, and good-paying jobs – investments that have been shown to help stop violence before it starts. I’m ready to fight alongside activists and organizers for the transformative change our communities deserve.”

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