About that magical commission that would solve Chicago’s policing problems

When it comes to one of the toughest jobs in Chicago, running and reforming the police department, another layer of semi-anonymous government is no way to go.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot, along with Police Supt. David Brown, meets with reporters on March 15.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The easiest way to make a farce of democracy — the power of the people to call the shots — is to generate too much of it, to create so many elected councils, boards and commissions that nobody knows who anybody is or holds them accountable.

How many voters in Cook County really have a clue when they’re voting for the dozens of judges who come up for election or retention? How many voters know who’s best when choosing commissioners for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District?

How many voters make informed decisions when picking township school trustees in some townships? How many voters — let’s be honest — even know there are township school trustees?

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And yet, when it comes to one of the most important functions of government in Chicago, the running of the Chicago Police Department, a coalition of would-be reformers is calling for the creation of an elected commission — yet another layer of semi-anonymous and only distantly accountable government — to make even the biggest policing decisions, including the hiring and firing of the police superintendent.

Wishful thinking versus reality

They are dreaming. They are kidding themselves.

They imagine a noble reinvention of the police department via direct and complete grassroots control, and who can argue with that? Sounds great. But in reality, Chicago could easily end up with a two-headed monster of an elected police board, one controlled by over-the-top “defund” activists on the left and see-no-evil cop apologists on the right.

Who, then, would be in charge? Who would step up, take responsibility and be held accountable the next time our city rises up in outrage because of a police shooting of another Laquan McDonald, Rekia Boyd, Quintonio LeGrier or Bettie Jones?

As things stand now, as we wrote last month, the buck stops with the mayor’s office. As it should. The mayor is elected and anything but anonymous. And the buck stops, secondarily, with Chicago’s 50 aldermen, who also are elected and not exactly strangers to the voters.

But, as Fran Spielman of the Sun-Times reported on Thursday, activist groups are calling for Chicago voters to approve a binding referendum to create a commission that would have complete powers overs the police department. The mayor and City Council would be sidelined.

The new commission — with nine elected members and only two appointed by the mayor — would have the power to hire and fire the police superintendent, negotiate contracts with the Fraternal Order of Police and other unions, and write the department’s budget.

There is a naiveté in this. A kind of wishful thinking. There is an unwarranted confidence that the new commission, like the folks pushing for it, would be politically progressive, leaning heavily left.

As if other interest groups with other agendas would not or could not prevail instead.

Dominating interest groups

A majority-elected police commission is a bad idea, as we wrote in February, for the same reason a majority-elected school board is a bad idea. In addition to the diffused accountability that comes with diffused responsibility — the buck stops nowhere — organized interest groups could readily gain control, leaving the best interests of the average Chicagoan out in the cold.

We can well imagine an elected Chicago school board dominated by charter school interests and the Chicago Teachers Union. Exactly that dynamic — charters versus teachers — has resulted in a highly dysfunctional elected school board in Los Angeles.

And, in the same way, we can well imagine an elected Chicago police commission that is dominated not by forces for reform, however reform is defined, but by the Fraternal Order of Police. Some 13,000 uniformed Chicago police officers and their families live and vote in the city.

Chicago’s contract with the FOP is already an embarrassment. It is full of indefensible protections for bad cops. Imagine how much worse that contract might become if the FOP were to gain control of both sides of the collective bargaining table.

The mayor’s job

We strongly support a federally monitored effort, initiated after the killing of McDonald in 2014, to reform and even reinvent the training, practices and culture of the Chicago Police Department. We’re as frustrated as anybody that this change is coming so slowly.

We also share the general view of critics of traditional policing practices that law enforcement is about more than locking up bad guys. It’s about meeting the needs of a community and making folks safer in myriad ways. Sometimes a crisis counselor can do more good than a uniformed cop with a gun.

But Chicago hired a mayor, Lori Lightfoot, to do that job. She ran on a promise to do her best to fix the police department, beholden to neither the “defund the police” movement nor the FOP, and the voters of Chicago signed on to that promise.

We intend to hold the mayor to it.

Because we sure can’t buy the argument that yet another layer of government — a commission made up of folks who might well do somebody else’s bidding instead of yours — is the key to solving Chicago’s policing problems.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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