How to Get to Compromise from Chaos in Police Accountability

Three proposals for community input into policing currently sit in the City Council. Finding the middle ground will be difficult but critical.

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A shorter version of this post appears at the Chicago Sun-Times.

Things have to get worse before they can get better. At least, right now, that’s certainly the way things seem with police accountability in Chicago. Three proposals for community input into policing currently sit in the City Council. The proposals represent very different philosophies in police oversight and democratic governance. Finding the middle ground will be difficult but critical, as community oversight is one of the last systemic reforms to tackle in what has been a chaotic two years for the public safety system in Chicago.

How we got here

Last month, Ald. Roderick Sawyer and Ald. Harry Osterman, working with the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA), introduced a controversial proposal that gave real power to a professional oversight board and addressed the call to have more elected representation and community input in the city’s policing. As with any major reform, the proposal was not perfect, and the roll out neglected to include all stakeholders. But, it is the right place to start the discussion.

Unfortunately, instead of moving that conversation forward and bringing us closer to ending four years of uncertainty for the police and city residents alike, Ald. Ariel Reboyras -- or really Mayor Rahm Emanuel as commentators have opined -- took two steps back and introduced a last-minute, competing proposal.

Why is that a problem? First, the Mayor’s Police Accountability Task Force recommended creating a board informed “by broad public input.” Second, it has reenergized another group with a proposal that calls for not just elected district councils, as GAPA recommends, but a fully elected board to run policing in Chicago. Ald. Carlos Rosa, the champion for the Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC), scattered the dust from his 2016 proposal this week by invoking the City Council’s “Rule 41,” which forces the council to hold a hearing on the issue or bring it to a full council vote.

Who controls the police?

The three proposals in the City Council represent different notions about who, ultimately, should control the police. On one end, the proposal to create CPAC, would give everyday control of policing and police accountability to a city-wide body elected for that purpose. On the other, Ald. Reboyras’ proposal would create an appointed board, with responsibilities similar to the advisory functions of the existing Chicago Police Board, but with very little actual power.

The GAPA proposal attempts to combine the two philosophies. The proposal suggests that an appointed community commission have significant say in policing and police accountability. However, the proposal does not give its commission as much power as the CPAC plan does. For example, the CPAC would have conflicting responsibilities to investigate police and adjudicate disciplinary matters, two tasks GAPA’s community commission steers clear of.

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The election question

Another major point of tension between Reboyras’ proposal and both the CPAC and GAPA proposals is whether to create elected positions. Of course, the mayor and aldermen are already elected and all those officials, in theory, have police oversight. As former Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine recently noted, “How that control is exercised may not be to the liking of some, but it is there.”

There are nearly 7,000 units of government in Illinois, by far more than any other state nationwide. So, as a general rule, any time a proposal creates a new governing structure, it deserves extra scrutiny. When that proposal includes elections, it deserves extra scrutiny because newly created elected bodies will cost taxpayers and carry a risk of being subsumed by the same power and political dynamics it was created to respond to.

However, as problem after problem has been brought to light in Chicago’s policing system -- poor training, low closure rates, and high-priced civil settlements among them -- advocates can be excused for thinking aldermen and the mayor have been lax in their oversight. Where have the regular hearings been to ask the superintendent and other officials about these problems and the department’s progress in fixing them? What pointed and measured performance goals have aldermen given the department and its leadership?

CPAC argues that officials elected specifically to pay attention to policing, and only those officials, will do a better job looking out for Chicago communities than aldermen and the mayor. GAPA, again tries to find a compromise, setting up local elected councils that, in turn, appoint the civilian commission that oversees police accountability. Are elections the salve to fix all the wounds in Chicago? No. Elections, especially if co-opted by political powers, can become a paper tiger or worse. But, in the absence of trust in the City Council, it’s hard to see an option succeeding that does not have an election component included. If the GAPA compromise doesn’t get there, aldermen need to work to find a solution that will.

As the debate over police oversight continues, aldermen also should take this moment to reflect on why the calls for elections persist. They should ask what changes they can make to their own rules and standards that would help them better represent their constituents, in policing and elsewhere.

More hearings vs. good hearings

CPAC will get its day in the City Council Tuesday morning and more hearings likely are on the way for the Reboyras and GAPA proposals. That’s good news. Aldermen should hear the concerns of the police superintendent and others. They should invite stakeholders to testify as witnesses with extensive comment, and consider bringing in representatives from Los Angeles and other jurisdictions to consider how other communities operate.

To have the best chance at long-term success, aldermen should stay committed to the process started in 2016. That means making the proposal offered by Sawyer and Osterman the starting point. Their proposal carries the legitimacy of community engagement and buy in that the new proposals lack. To get to compromise from the current chaos, aldermen should not try to choose between the ordinances. Rather, they should pull from all the possible options to improve on the compromise GAPA already has begun.

About the Author

Rachel L. Leven

Rachel Leven is the BGA’s policy manager focusing on Chicago and Cook County. Before joining the BGA, Leven ran communications for the City of Chicago Office of Inspector General (OIG), a nationally renowned municipal oversight agency.