City Council approves civilian police oversight ordinance

The 36-to-13 vote came after a sometimes heated and emotional debate that dragged on for nearly two hours. Mayor Lori Lightfoot called the debate “historic” and “one for the ages.”

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a Chicago City Council meeting Wednesday at City Hall last month.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot discusses a proposal for civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department during a Chicago City Council meeting Wednesday at City Hall.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

It’s been a long time coming and a rocky road along the way. But civilian oversight pivotal to restoring trust between citizens and police is finally coming to Chicago.

The City Council delivered it Wednesday, clearing the 34-vote hurdle needed to approve any ordinance involving the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. The ordinance does that by electing three-member councils in each of Chicago’s 22 police districts.

The vote was 36 to 13. A relieved round of applause followed.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) began the debate by talking about the “long, long journey” that began with “Black leaders decades ago” — after the police raid that killed Black Panther leader Fred Hampton — and was “revitalized” after the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

“Sometimes, we were at odds. But we came together because we knew that our city had to get something right ... to ensure that people in every single community feel safe. That they are safe. No one should be afraid of violence — whether by another citizen or by those tasked to protect and serve them,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

“This ordinance is predicated on a belief that, if we empower … young people and empower those who have been directly impacted by racist and broken policing and give them the ability to nominate the police superintendent, take a vote of no confidence when they feel that superintendent has failed … given them the ability to set policy, if we empower our communities to have a real say in policing, we’ll be a better city.”

At the Wednesday, July 21, 2021 Chicago City Council Meeting, Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa spoke in favor of a compromise measure establishing some civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa spoke in favor of a compromise measure establishing some civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ald. Harry Osterman (48th), who helped forge the compromise, called it a “long-awaited” and “historic day” for public safety in Chicago.

“We cannot have true safety in every neighborhood unless there is trust between citizens and police. ... The violence that we see every day is a byproduct of that lack of trust and lack of people wanting to call and work with the police,” Osterman said.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), another champion of civilian oversight, said “democracy is messy” for good reason. Ordinary people need to have “great involvement” at all levels.

“There’s disconnect between police and our communities as it relates to solving crimes. In order for us to get back to that, we have to get the community involved. This takes a strong step with reengaging, resetting our relationships between the community and the police,” Sawyer said.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer(6th) speaks in support of a proposal for civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department during a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Wednesday, July 21, 2021.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer said civilian oversight is important because ordinary people need to have “great involvement” at all levels of government.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), a former Chicago police officer and firefighter whose Far Northwest Side ward is home to scores of cops, predicted the Council would be back in six months, creating “another acronym committee to find out why our crime has tripled.” That’s how hesitant he believes already-reticent officers will become.

“This 12th layer of police oversight is gonna make every potential wannabe officer think about going in a different direction,” Napolitano said.

“They’re in the middle of a war on our city. So think when you vote, because the second you vote, you are gonna change the way ... police officers patrol and what you’re gonna get out of them. ... The output you’re gonna get from them will create your next committee.”

Ald. Nick Sposato (38th) said he had planned to vote against the ordinance without speaking. But then, he said, “somebody set me off” with a claim about the police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo.

“Adam Toledo was not murdered. ... We don’t need police reform. We need family reform,” Sposato said, asserting that there already are 11 different levels of police oversight.

When Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) rose to, as he put it, correct the record about the Toledo shooting, Mayor Lori Lightfoot jumped in and urged him to tone it down.

“Thus far, we’ve had a very civilized debate. It’s my hope and expectation that that will continue,” the mayor said.

“We should lift up this conversation. This is a historic, important moment for our city. Let me remind everyone here. So please, ladies and gentlemen, let’s make sure that the commentary, discussion and debate is worthy of this moment. This is not about attacking each other. It can’t be. And I will not allow that to happen as the presiding chair.”

Ald. Nick Sposato speaking against civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department, though he did plan to vote against it.

Ald. Nick Sposato said he hadn’t intended to speak on the issue of civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department, though he did plan to vote against it. But he was irked by something that was said about the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by a Chicago police officer. “We don’t need police reform. We need family reform,” Sposato said.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Minutes before the roll call, an emotional Lightfoot called the debate “one for the ages” and made passing reference to the contentious negotiations that set the stage for the compromise.

“We’ve come a long way. We’ve had some stumbles. We’ve had some disagreements. But because of the hard work [of so many], we are on the precipice of making history,” the mayor said.

After recounting the police reform efforts that have defined her career, Lightfoot scoffed at suggestions that the overwhelming majority of police officers who are honest and hard-working will “stop working” because of additional oversight.

“They won’t. They won’t. It’ll be hard. We’ll have to explain to them to break through the noise and the rhetoric that they’re also hearing from certain sources. But legitimacy is key to the work that our police do. If the communities do not trust them because they’re not legitimate to them, they will not be effective in their most core mission, which is serving and protecting every single resident of this city,” the mayor said.

No votes were cast by: Brian Hopkins (2nd); Anthony Beale (9th); Patrick Daley Thompson (11th); Marty Quinn (13th); Edward Burke (14th); Matt O’Shea (19th); Silvana Tabares (23rd); Ariel Reboyras (30th); Nick Sposato (38th); Samantha Nugent (39th); Anthony Napolitano (41st); Brendan Reilly (42nd) and Jim Gardiner (45th).

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) was absent.

Prior to the final vote, Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara had denounced the district councils and the appointed, seven-member oversight board created by the ordinance as “useless redundancy” that would further demoralize rank-and-file police officers retiring in droves because they don’t feel the city has their back.

Catanzara noted the FOP has already agreed to a host of accountability measures sought by Lightfoot as part of a tentative, eight-year contract. The mayor has repeatedly refused to acknowledge that agreement.

Noting the new contract includes a four-year, retroactive raise for rank-and-file officers, Catanzara said: “You’re patting ’em on the back while you’re stabbing ’em with the other hand.”

Catanzara pointed to the multiple layers of police oversight already provided by the Police Board, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, the Chicago Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division, the federal monitor and the Illinois Attorney General’s office.

“Another layer of oversight is just ridiculous. It’s only going to make coppers more pissed off because more oversight means, ’You’re doing something wrong. You need to be watched because you’re not doing something right,’” he said.

“It’s blaming the police for what’s wrong in this city. ... And we know that numbers don’t lie. Police are not the problem in this city. Criminals are the problem in this city and the politicians who defend the criminals.”

Civilian oversight was a pivotal recommendation by the Task Force on Police Accountability co-chaired by Lightfoot in the furor after the court-ordered release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.

Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to empower a civilian oversight board to hire and fire the police superintendent and be the final arbiter in disputes over police policy and the Chicago Police Department’s budget. She promised to deliver civilian oversight within the first 100 days of her administration.

What she managed to deliver — 26 months into her four-year term — falls far short of that promise.

The final language would empower a seven-member commission to take a vote of no-confidence in the Chicago police superintendent. The commission also could take no-confidence votes for the chief administrator of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and any Police Board member. Such votes would need the support of at least five of the seven members to pass.

A no-confidence vote by the commission would trigger a vote by the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety within 14 days — and then a full City Council vote at its next monthly meeting. If two-thirds of aldermen agree with the no-confidence vote, the chief administrator of COPA “shall be removed.”

However, no-confidence votes in either the CPD superintendent or Police Board members would not be binding on the mayor. Instead, the mayor “shall respond in writing within 14 days after adoption of the resolution, explaining the actions that the mayor will take in response.”

As for police policy, the commission would be empowered to “initiate a policy either by drafting a policy itself or making a written request” to the Chicago Police Department, COPA or the Police Board.

CPD, COPA or the Police Board would then have 14 days to “accept or decline. If the answer is no, there must be an explanation in writing. If the recommendation is accepted, the policy must be drafted within 60 days.

“If the Department, COPA or the Police Board does not respond, declines the request or accepts the request, but fails to draft a policy within sixty calendar days or any extension thereto, the commission may take its request to the mayor, who shall review the parties’ positions and either direct the superintendent, chief administrator or police board president to take appropriate action or explain why in writing the mayor has concluded that no action is warranted,” the ordinance states.

A referendum giving the seven-member commission even more power was stripped out of the compromise ordinance because it would never have attracted the 34 votes needed for passage.

Ramirez-Rosa introduced a separate referendum ordinance. But it also is unlikely to clear the two-thirds hurdle.

Lightfoot has been under heavy political pressure to deliver civilian oversight, particularly after changing her tune on an elected school board bill approved by the Illinois General Assembly over her strenuous objections.

She can now scratch that off her progressive agenda to-do list, even though the final version doesn’t go nearly as far as she promised. Aldermen have been under similar pressure to do something dramatically different to stop the bloodbath on Chicago streets. They now can claim they have, before the Council’s traditional summer recess.

The complex process established by the ordinance calls for the immediate seating of an interim, seven-member commission. The mayor would choose from 14 people nominated by the Council’s Rules Committee. The North, South and West sides of the city would each get four nominees.

The first full slate of permanent commissioners will be seated in 2023. District council members would serve on a nominating commission that would recommend people to serve as permanent commissioners. The mayor would then pick the commissioners from that list.

Three of the seven board members would serve two-year terms. The rest would serve four years. The North, South and West sides of the city would each get two seats.

Among the big items on the agenda for possible passage at the Wednesday, City Council meeting were a compromise plan establishing some degree of civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department.

Among the big items on the agenda for possible passage at Wednesday’s City Council meeting were a compromise plan establishing some degree of civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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