For nearly three years, Chicago has been pushing forward, even if it often feels like the city is going backward or side-to-side in a whirlwind of police reform. Now, the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA) has thrown another major proposal into the mix that would create a powerful voice for community input in Chicago policing. It’s also a major piece of the systemic change recommended by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Police Accountability Task Force. And while controversial, the new proposal might bring some stability to a volatile period for Chicago police oversight. The community commission also would add a new cost to the city’s budget and could change the way residents engage with policing in Chicago.

What is the Community Commission?

The proposal for a Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability creates two new bodies. First, the proposal sets up a network of 22 district councils. In each of Chicago’s 22 police districts, residents would elect three representatives to a district council. These councils are meant to directly listen to and represent their community while helping to  build a bridge with the police. As proposed, the district councils do not have any direct say in the policing system.

Secondly, the proposal creates a commission, with a roughly $3 million budget and 15 employees. A selection committee with representatives from across the 22 district councils would appoint seven commissioners to lead this office. The community commission would have significant say in policing and police oversight in the city. It includes:

  • Total control over hiring for the head of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), which investigates police shootings, as well as selection of members to the Chicago Police Board, which hears appeals of disciplinary matters involving police officers.

  • Input into the selection of the superintendent via a screening process similar to the process currently assigned to the police board.

  • Power to fire, for cause, the police superintendent, the head of COPA, and police board members. For the superintendent and head of COPA, termination would require written notice including, “a detailed explanation” of the commission’s justification. Firing recommendations could be overridden by the city council with a two-thirds vote. The superintendent would have 30 days to respond to any termination notice, while the head of COPA would have 10 days. As with most department heads, the mayor would continue to hold power to fire the superintendent for any reason and without notice.

  • Power to set priorities and policy for both the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and the COPA, as well as to conduct annual reviews of the CPD, COPA, and the police board.

  • Authority to compel the attendance of certain officials at public meetings, including the leaders of the CPD, COPA, and the Office of Inspector General.

  • Access to data, reports, and other information, including the ability to issue and enforce subpoenas.

How radical a change is this proposal?

The proposal is a sea change from where Chicago is today. The local law enforcement community has expressed deep concern that too much control is being given to a group that might not understand policing. However, the powers provided to the commission are not that different from the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners. The LA board, “is the head of the Police Department,” according to its website. “The Board sets overall policy while the Chief of Police manages the daily operations of the Department and implements the Board’s policies or policy direction and goals.” One key difference between the LA board and Chicago’s commission, is that the LA commissioners are appointed by the mayor, not by elected district representatives.

Major players on the Chicago City Council have indicated there will need to be some compromises made before the commission is approved. What is important is the commission, as envisioned, creates an avenue for sustained attention and input by public stakeholders with real power. 

The mayor’s Police Accountability Task Force strongly recommended empowering civilians to have more of a say in the police oversight system as part of their review published in 2016, and this plan certainly does that. So, anything that comes out of city council discussions must keep that principle in place if the commission is to have any legitimacy or success. 

As the Tribune Editorial Board said, if you don’t like it, “Let’s see a better solution.”  Yes, a better solution that can still boost the trust of public stakeholders who have lost faith in their police and their elected officials. That’s a significant challenge.

How quickly is this going to happen?

This is going to take work, as you might expect from a major reform of the power structure. Lines were quickly drawn in the week following the release. Although the mayor was noticeably silent, Emanuel ally and chair of the city council’s public safety committee, Ald. Ariel Reboyras, and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson railed against the extent of the authority outlined for the commission. The Fraternal Order of Police called the proposal “ludicrous.” Meanwhile, Police Board President Lori Lightfoot, a chair of the task force, stood with GAPA during its release of the proposal, along with eight aldermen. Lightfoot urged city leaders not to forestall debate and approval of the commission.  

As aldermen consider the proposal, they should hold discussions in public with invited witnesses — from the LA board, for example. Once a commission is approved, the process to build it out also will take time. However, police contract reform and the community commission are some of the last major pieces of Chicago’s police reform package. The realization of this committee will not fix everything, but it will increase public involvement in Chicago policing and might bring a measure of needed stability to police oversight, even for those who completely oppose it. Let’s get going.