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Lightfoot prodded — ever so gently — to deliver on promise of civilian police review

As Police Board president and co-chair of the Task Force on Police Accountability — two months before becoming a mayoral candidate — the mayor embraced civilian review. Now, community leaders want her to keep that promise.

Adam Gross, director of Justice Reform and Police Accountability for Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, talks to reporters at City Hall on Tuesday about the proposal he helped draft for civilian police review.
Adam Gross, director of Justice Reform and Police Accountability for Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, talks to reporters at City Hall on Tuesday about the proposal he helped draft for civilian police review.
Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

In March 2018, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel was warned he’d face a furious political backlash if he refused to empower a civilian oversight board to fire the police superintendent and establish police policy, or if he tried to stall a City Council vote until after the 2019 mayoral election.

Then-Police Board President Lori Lightfoot issued that warning — two months before she declared her candidacy for mayor — as she embraced the sweeping proposal drafted by the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability.

Now, the shoe is on the other foot.

Lightfoot is the mayor pre-occupied with passing her 2020 budget after enduring an 11-day teachers strike.

On Tuesday, the alliance held a City Hall news conference to prod Lightfoot — ever so gently — to approve the newly-revised ordinance and finally deliver the civilian police review she championed as co-chair of Emanuel’s Task Force on Police Accountability.

“We’ve been in good-faith negotiations for a number of months. Things have been progressing well. [But] there’s a sense among a lot of the participants in the process that the timing really matters,” said Adam Gross, director of justice reform and accountability for Business and Professional People for the Public Interest.

Noting there is “a lot going on,” Gross said he is “not at all” concerned Lightfoot is wavering in her commitment to civilian police review.

He noted the search for a permanent replacement for retiring Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson will move forward under the existing ordinance, which requires the Police Board to conduct a nationwide search and recommend three finalists from which the mayor must choose.

But, Gross argued, the City Council still must approve the ordinance by year’s end so Chicago can “bring in a superintendent who is bought-in from the beginning to this new approach.”

“There’s also a process that needs to happen community-by-community once the ordinance passes to educate people about what this changes, get the broadest possible buy-in, encourage people to participate in the process. That’s gonna take a while before there are elections in November [2020]. So the sooner it passes,” the better, he said.

The ordinance Gross helped draft is modeled after the civilian review process in place in Los Angeles; retired L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck has been named Chicago’s interim superintendent.

“The entire policing system will be better if there is more community engagement and more community buy-in,” Gross said.

Mayoral press secretary Anel Ruiz said top mayoral aides are “continuing to meet regularly with GAPA leadership to work through the proposed ordinance and are fully committed to passing it as quickly as reasonably possible.”

“We are supportive of GAPA’s efforts to advance this ordinance, while at the same time balancing the need to maintain focus on additional public safety priorities including violence reduction, fully implementing our consent decree, and effectively managing a leadership transition at the Chicago Police Department,” Ruiz said in a statement.

The latest version of the ordinance calls for a nine-member commission, chosen by elected representatives from the 22 police districts. But it no longer gives that commission the absolute power to fire the police superintendent or establish police policy.

Instead, policy would be written by the Chicago Police Department and “reviewed and voted on” by the civilian commission.

Six of nine civilian commission members could get the ball rolling on a change at the top of CPD by taking a vote of no-confidence in the superintendent. The final word on firing a superintendent would rest with a simple majority of the City Council.

When a police superintendent is fired or retires, the Civilian Police Commission would conduct the nationwide search and recommend three finalists. The civilian commission would also recommend candidates to run the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and serve on the Police Board.