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Best solution to Chicago police abuse is civilian commission that can hire and fire superintendent

The best of two proposed ordinances would create true democratic control. Elected representatives would be able to review police activities without input from the mayor or City Council.

Chicago police officers stand in front of a mural for George Floyd in Bronzeville on Aug. 15, 2020.
AP Photos

The police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd strengthened anti-racist organizing with national coverage and renewed public interest in a major issue plaguing American cities: unchecked police violence.

During the past year, tens of thousands of Chicagoans took to the streets in shows of interracial solidarity, demanding that politicians address the problem. This once-in-a-lifetime display of collective anger has yet to translate into concrete political change.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the City Council have largely ignored the mass demands of their constituents. Chicagoans received a promise from the mayor in early January — much like the one she campaigned on in 2019 — that she would tackle the problem this year. The mayor’s procrastination is all the more frustrating because grassroots organizations, such as the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, have been offering proposals since before the mayor began her term in office. Lightfoot maintains that these proposals are insufficient.

Right now, two major proposals are pending before the Public Safety Committee of Chicago City Council: the GAPA ordinance and the CPAC ordinance. While both proposals would institute new governmental bodies to oversee policing, only the CPAC ordinance would empower communities to directly control the operation of the Chicago Police Department. Any compromise ordinance must conserve this fundamental goal.

The proposal by GAPA, the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability Ordinance. creates a series of district councils with three councilors elected by voters in each police district. Each council then nominates one of its three members to serve on a nominating committee, which then creates a list of candidates to serve on a citywide Community Commission. After selection by the mayor and approval from City Council, seven of those candidates become commissioners.

If the GAPA plan sounds complicated, that’s because it is. The hierarchical decision-making system and lengthy selection process is designed to increase the power of politicians in determining who is able to hold office. Under the guise of “independence,” GAPA invests entrenched politicians with the ability to veto certain candidates and control the make-up of the Commission.

By contrast, the ordinance proposed by CPAC, the Civilian Police Accountability Council, would establish a democratically elected commission to write department policy, hire and fire the superintendent, and oversee the operation of the police department. Police districts would be paired up to create eleven CPAC districts with one representative elected per district.

Unlike the GAPA ordinance, the CPAC ordinance institutes true democratic control, authorizing elected representatives to review police department activities without the input of the mayor or the City Council.

Modern police departments threaten the liberty of the citizenry because their officers have the ability to use force and violence but remain unaccountable to us. Unable to recall individual officials and with a lenient judicial system, we have little recourse to the random and arbitrary whims of individual, street-level agents. We know that Black and Brown Chicagoans face a disproportionate threat as the specter of violence haunts public space, destroying the possibility of fostering a truly interracial democratic society.

The current police department consumes almost 40% of the city’s corporate fund, but its layers of administrators make it impervious to current electoral demands. Moreover, campaigns for local office rarely turn on individual issues, making it unlikely that the direct election of our mayor will lead to any substantive representation on the issues of police accountability. Because policing has become a major function of city government, we need more direct mechanisms of control to subdue the extensive bureaucracy.

We need the CPAC ordinance because we need real democratic control of the police in order to respond to the crisis of police violence in our city. We already know that “independent” review boards, staffed by the mayor’s friends, lead to lukewarm oversight. That is why the Civilian Office of Police Accountability has yet to fundamentally alter the system of policing in the city or reduce incidents of abuse by officers.

With the CPAC ordinance in place, we will have the power not only to end police impunity, but also to transform the system of policing and remold the institution so that it fits changing conceptions of collective justice. We can make this change happen. Chicagoans across all neighborhoods of the city must call or write their alderman and demand that they support direct community control of the Chicago Police Department. If we keep up the pressure, we might even win greater accountability from our elected representatives.

Larry Svabek is a member of 46th Ward Neighbors Against Police Violence.

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