Lightfoot forges compromise on civilian police review

The Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability wanted the right to take a vote of no-confidence in the superintendent that would trigger “some action.” They didn’t get it.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot has come up with a compromise plan for civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department.

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Two years after demanding that then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel empower a civilian oversight board to fire the police superintendent and establish police policy, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has forged a compromise that does only one of those two things.

The Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability wanted the right to take a vote of no-confidence in the superintendent that would trigger “some action” — either City Council hearings or a public statement by the mayor about why she agrees or disagrees.

They didn’t get it.

Instead, the compromise calls for the commission to work with the mayor to establish annual “goals” for the superintendent, Civilian Office of Police Accountability chief and Police Board. Each would be required to submit a “written self-evaluation,” followed by the commission’s assessment and the mayor’s “final performance review.”

Top mayoral aides acknowledged Thursday that the decision last month by a civilian police commission in Oakland, California to fire its police chief without cause hardened Lightfoot’s opposition to giving a civilian oversight panel in Chicago similar powers.

“You need to look no further than Oakland and what has happened there to see what the downside of that can be,” said a top mayoral aide.

“The mayor felt very strongly that the power needs to remain with her. … She’s still gonna have to deal with it in the court of public opinion. She still has to deal with her police commission. But it’s not gonna be something that triggers a series of operational things that leaves the superintendent questioning his job or her job.”  

Another Lightfoot aide added: “We’re trying to balance being able to still govern and operate the police department while inviting community participation and input. The decision was that the vote of no-confidence disrupts that delicate balance.”

The mayor was more accommodating on the issue of policy. Her ordinance empowers the commission that would also recommend candidates for police superintendent to approve police general orders and COPA policies.

Policy-making would rest primarily with the Chicago Police Department. The commission could request that CPD and COPA “draft new or amended policy for the commission to review.” The commission also could draft its own policies.

Disagreements would be followed by 30 days of “good-faith discussions.”  If those fail to produce an agreement, the mayor would be the final arbiter. If she doesn’t proceed with a proposed policy, she’d have to explain that decision in writing.

After years of negotiations, GAPA Coordinator Desmon Yancy said he’s “very excited” about an ordinance with potential to “transform public safety and policing across Chicago.”

“It will increase accountability and improve police community relations and that will make all of us safer — civilians and police officers,” Yancy told the Sun-Times.

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety, correctly predicted the firing of Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick would prompt the mayor to dig in her heels.

Nevertheless, he called the ordinance, to be introduced at the March 18 City Council meeting, a “great compromise” that could “bridge the divide of trust between police and community” created by the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

“If the police superintendent is not performing well, she should be free to get rid of them. If they are performing well, she has a right to keep them. Ultimately, their performance rests on her and could determine her future as mayor,” Taliaferro said.

Kirkpatrick had left CPD for the Oakland job.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, said Lightfoot was smart to stand her ground.

“If something goes wrong, they’re not gonna call the commission. They’re gonna call the mayor,” he said.

The seven-member commission would be nominated by elected representatives from the 22 police districts.

Those representatives must circulate nominating petitions to get on the November ballot. The deadline for nominating commission members is July 15, 2021; that’s why time is critical.

Last month, Yancy was singing a different tune. He argued then that the “whole idea of a community oversight commission is to be more than advisory” — including a vote of no-confidence in the superintendent.

“If a majority of people feel that the police superintendent is missing the mark on the way police should be acting in black and brown communities or feel as though they have lost faith, it should trigger some sort of action.”

Lightfoot did not deliver all of the powers she once advocated for the civilian police review panel recommended by the Task Force on Police Accountability she co-chaired.

But the mayor’s office argued Thursday she was “delivering on our campaign promise” with an ordinance developed “in partnership” with the Grassroots Alliance after more than 200 community meetings.

“Since day one, Mayor Lightfoot has been clear that implementing civilian oversight over the Chicago Police Department is an essential component for building greater transparency, accountability and trust between our law enforcement and the residents they serve,” the mayor’s office said in a statement.

The civilian oversight commission will make Chicago safer by “increasing accountability” and by “ensuring community members have a voice at every level — from local police districts to leadership across our public safety agencies.”

“We look forward to working with the City Council to pass this legislation as soon as possible.”

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