Tangled up in blue: Seven key questions to ask about Chicago Police civilian oversight

What will be the required qualifications to sit on the new oversight board? If the goal is simply to punish police, any activist can do that.

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If the goal of civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department is to achieve real reform, write the authors, a new board will have to work closely and professionally with the department.

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The battle for civilian oversight of the Chicago Police is a tangled mess. Just as the competing proposals known as CPAC and GAPA seemed to be coming together, the mayor balked and backtracked on one of her central campaign promises. She reportedly now will introduce a police oversight ordinance of her own.

Meanwhile, policing in Chicago remains a three-ring circus.

In the first ring, civil society, reporters and activists maintain constant pressure on the Chicago Police Department. In the second ring, the mayor, superintendent and his staff spend too much of their time defending their performance. And in the third ring is the Fraternal Order of Police and the union’s embattled leader.

It is a great show, but it features more politics than professional management.

Opinion bug


When we wrote our book about the structure of Chicago’s government, we recommended that the city adopt the Los Angeles Police Commission model. We still back that scheme but, if we are to end up with the CPAC proposal, the GAPA proposal or the mayor’s proposal, there are still some major questions that remain unanswered.

Without careful consideration of these questions, even the most well-intentioned police accountability measures will fail.

1) Civilian oversight will be administered by a board, but what are the qualifications for sitting on the board? 

If the goal of the board is simply to punish police, any activist can do that. If the goal of the board is to work with the department to develop professionalism, enforce constitutional policing, and pass the consent decree, it might take different qualifications. Although the Los Angeles Police Commission has no requirements, many of its members are retired lawyers and other professionals. 

2) What is the time requirement for board members? 

There is a big difference between a full-time job and attending a monthly meeting. LAPC members spend about 15 hours a week in their roles. Commissioners in Chicago must spend enough time to help solve problems, not just play gotcha.

3) Will board members be compensated? 

If so, the board might end up a feathered nest like the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. The Chicago school board and the LAPC commissioners are not compensated. Civilian oversight should be about community service, not a patronage play. 

4) What will be the fate of the current Civilian Office of Police Accountability, known as COPA, and the Chicago Police Board? 

Having three agencies overseeing the police is a system built to fail. COPA already has 150 employees and a budget of $13 million. These entities should be folded into any new oversight scheme so Chicagoans can clearly understand who is responsible for police accountability.

5) Will the new civilian oversight board have a professional staff? 

The LAPC has an executive director and he has a staff. If the board is to work constructively with the department, it will need competent experts to help implement practices, structures and behaviors.

6) What about the inspector general for policing? 

Currently, this position is housed in the City of Chicago’s inspector general’s office. In Los Angeles, the police IG works for the LAPC and has a 27-member staff. Activists rightfully mistrust the internal affairs department of the Chicago Police Department, so they should consider a robust IG department.

And finally, a bigger question hovers above all these important considerations.

7) What is the real goal of civilian oversight? Is it political or professional? 

The overseers can continue to find fault with the department and keep the superintendent, his aides and the mayor at press conferences defending themselves. In essence this goal is punitive.

If the goal is to make real progress, then the board will need to work closely and professionally with the department. There is a lot of work to do and the consent decree is really a 225-page work plan. To accomplish this, the board will need to act differently. It also will need a modest staff that can work alongside counterparts in the department to establish the culture, practices and structures that are currently missing. It will need to make sure the department is planning and staying current to avoid the chaos we saw in late May and early June.

The time is now for the City Council and those in civil society who are working on this problem to answer these questions and untangle a mess they might just be making.

Ed Bachrach and Austin Berg are the authors of “The New Chicago Way: Lessons from Other Big Cities.”

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