Any way you cut it, significant real police reform is coming to Chicago
Under Mayor Lightfoot’s plan, the Chicago Police Department would be placed under stronger, though not ultimate, civilian oversight.
It’s appropriate that Mayor Lori Lightfoot has unveiled her plan to increase civilian oversight of the Chicago police in the same week that our nation marks the one-year anniversary of the killing of George Floyd.
The outrage that followed Floyd’s death, under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, has spurred police reform efforts across the country, including Lightfoot’s police oversight plan. Her long-awaited proposal includes many of the changes demanded by police reform advocates.
Much of the public discussion about the mayor’s plan, released on Monday, is sure to focus on where the mayor and reform activists fundamentally disagree. The mayor insists that she and future mayors must retain their authority to hire and fire the police superintendent and make major policy decisions. But two local police reform groups, who have joined together to support an alternative plan now pending in the City Council, say an elected board of civilians, not the mayor, should make those calls.
We stand firmly with the mayor on this. The people of Chicago will always demand action from the mayor, not some semi-anonymous elected board, when crime rates soar or the police screw up. Strip any mayor of that most basic power — the authority to hire and fire the superintendent — and watch accountability fly out the window.
But what’s more significant, to our thinking, is the degree to which the mayor’s plan incorporates other elements of proposals by reform advocates. The police department still would be placed under stronger, though not ultimate, civilian oversight.
Under the mayor’s plan, Chicagoans would elect three-person panels in each of the city’s 22 police districts. Those panels then would nominate people to a seven-person commission, with the mayor making the final appointments.
When it becomes necessary to hire a new police superintendent, this commission would choose three candidates. Then the mayor would choose a finalist to be approved by the City Council.
Assuming those three-person panels were elected in well publicized and fair elections — assuming the fix is not in — this process for choosing a superintendent would ensure an unprecedented level of civilian participation.
The mayor also would select the heads of the Police Board and the Civilian Office of Police Accountability — and for the same good reason. As Lightfoot said Monday, “the buck” will always stop at the mayor’s office.
The seven-member commission proposed by Lightfoot would not have final say on police policy. But, as Fran Spielman of the Sun-Times reported, it would “review and approve by majority vote” any changes in in policy. The weight of that advisory function, given the likely media attention, should not be underestimated.
The commission also would have the right to “direct” COPA’s chief administrator to “investigate complaints of police misconduct.”
Negotiations will now begin to find common ground for a final police civilian oversight ordinance. Both sides will have to compromise.
But know this: One year after the murder of George Floyd, significant, real reform is coming to Chicago.
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