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How best to make Chicago’s cops more accountable

Police Supt. Eddie Johnson | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Police Supt. Eddie Johnson | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Things have to get worse before they can get better. That’s certainly the way things seem with police accountability in Chicago.

Three proposals for community input into policing are pending in the City Council. The proposals represent very different philosophies in police oversight and democratic governance.


Finding the middle ground will be difficult but critical, as community oversight is one of the last systemic reforms to tackle in what has been a chaotic two years for the public safety system in Chicago.

On one end, a proposal to create a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC), would give everyday control of policing and police accountability to a city-wide body elected for that purpose.

On the other end, a proposal included in two ordinances submitted by Ald. Ariel Reboyras would create an appointed board, with responsibilities similar to the advisory functions of the existing Chicago Police Board, but with very little actual power.

The third proposal, promoted by the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability, attempts to combine the philosophies of the first two. Submitted by Ald. Roderick Sawyer and Ald. Harry Osterman, this proposal suggests that an appointed community commission have significant say in policing and police accountability — but it does not give its commission as much power as the CPAC proposal would.

For example, the proposed CPAC would have conflicting responsibilities to investigate police and adjudicate disciplinary matters, two tasks the Grassroots Alliance’s community commission steers clear of.

Another major point of tension between Reboyras’ proposal and both the CPAC and Grassroots Alliance proposals is whether to create elected positions. Of course, the mayor and aldermen already are elected and, in theory, have oversight over police. As former Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine recently noted, “How that control is exercised may not be to the liking of some, but it is there.”

However, as problem after problem has been brought to light in Chicago’s policing system — such as poor training, low case closure rates, and high-priced civil settlements — advocates should be excused for thinking aldermen and the mayor have been lax in their oversight.

Where have the regular hearings been to ask Police Supt. Eddie Johnson and other officials about these problems and the department’s progress in fixing them? What pointed and measured performance goals have aldermen given the department and its leadership?

The CPAC proposal argues that officials elected specifically to pay attention to policing, and only those officials, will do a better job looking out for Chicago communities than aldermen and the mayor. The Grassroots Alliance proposal, again trying to find a compromise, would set up local elected councils that, in turn, would appoint the civilian commission that oversees police accountability.

Are elections the salve to fix all the wounds in Chicago? No. Elections, especially if co-opted by political powers, can become a paper tiger or worse. But, in the absence of trust in the City Council, it’s hard to see an option succeeding that does not include an election component.

If the Grassroots Alliance compromise doesn’t get there, aldermen need to find a solution that will.

As the debate over police oversight continues, aldermen also should take this moment to reflect on why the calls for elections persist, and ask what changes they can make to their own City Council rules and standards that would help them better represent their constituents, in policing and elsewhere.

The CPAC proposal will get its day in the City Council on Tuesday morning, and more hearings likely are on the way for the Reboyras and Grassroots Alliance proposals. Aldermen should hear out the concerns of the police superintendent and others. They should invite stakeholders to testify as witnesses with extensive comment, and even bring in representatives from Los Angeles and elsewhere to consider how others operate.

To have the best chance at long-term success, though, aldermen should stay committed to the process started in 2016. That means making the proposal offered by Sawyer and Osterman the starting point. Their proposal carries the legitimacy of community engagement the new proposals lack.

To make compromise from chaos, aldermen should not try to choose between the ordinances. Rather, they should pull from all the possible options to improve on the compromise the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability has already begun.

Rachel Leven is policy manager at the Better Government Association.

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