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Emanuel pressured to deliver civilian police oversight before leaving office

Ald. Roderick Sawyer at City Hall news conference

Ald. Roderick Sawyer held a news conference Thursday at City Hall to keep the pressure up on a lame-duck Mayor Rahm Emanuel to wrap up the police reform process before he leaves office. Sawyer and others are pushing for reforms backed by the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability, also known as GAPA. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

The Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability and its City Council allies on Thursday turned up the heat on Mayor Rahm Emanuel to deliver “independent and impartial” civilian police oversight before he leaves office.

Six months ago, Emanuel signaled a go-slow approach by arguing that the civilian oversight he promised two years ago, but failed to deliver must be “complementary – not contradictory” to the city’s “public safety goals.”

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson underscored the point by arguing that civilians “don’t have the professional acumen to develop strategy” for the police department and allowing them to do so while empowering them to fire the superintendent is “just crazy to me” and “like telling a surgeon how to do his business.”

Now that Emanuel has chosen political retirement over the uphill battle for a third term, the Grassroots Alliance and its City Council allies are concerned the lame-duck mayor will try to punt the political hot potato to his successor.

They’re not going to let it happen — even if it means going around the outgoing mayor.

“We’ve been having conversations with the administration. … But our focus should be on our colleagues in the City Council. This is a strong council, weak mayor form of government. What we need are the votes. We need 26 and … 34 in case there’s a veto,” said Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), the Black Caucus chairman who co-sponsored the ordinance backed by the Grassroots Alliance, also known as GAPA.

Sawyer acknowledged the ordinance is a “dramatic departure” for the city and the Chicago Police Department.

It includes the power to subpoena documents, fire the police superintendent (reversible only by a two-thirds City Council vote), establish police policy, choose the Police Board and hire and fire the Police Board president.

But, he said: “Dramatic change is what’s needed to restore the public trust that has been shattered — not only by police shootings but by the countless infractions and misdeeds of poorly trained or recruited police officers and the department’s culture as a whole. Chicagoans deserve better. We just paid out millions of dollars for victims of police abuse in the shadow of the Van Dyke trial” for the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke.

During a news conference after Thursday’s City Council meeting, Emanuel argued that there are “three different ordinances” outlining civilian police oversight and, “We have to find the votes.”

But the mayor argued that, in the meantime, there is no shortage of police oversight.

“When you count the federal judge, the monitor, the Police Board, COPA and the inspector general, that’s five entities…That’s more than any other city,” the mayor said, referring to the draft consent decree now pending before a federal judge.

But Emanuel quickly added, “I agree with the need for civilian oversight and influence. That’s what City Council is working through…trying to find a majority.”

Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) hinted strongly that Emanuel’s retirement would be a liberating thing for aldermen when it comes to civilian police review. Already, the ordinance has 22 co-sponsors.

“You’re gonna see more aldermen come on board. People in the past that have been somewhat resistant or reluctant to support this are re-thinking their opposition,” Osterman said.

Although the mayor’s primary focus has been on finalizing negotiations with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a consent decree outlining the terms of federal court oversight over the Chicago Police Department “doesn’t cover everything,” said Autry Phillips, a member of the GAPA Coalition.

“While the decree may only last a few years, GAPA’s proposal will create a process for continuing reform that go beyond the scope of the decree and will continue long after,” Phillips said.

Adam Gross, an attorney for Business and Professional People for the Public Interest who has been negotiating for the Grassroot Alliance, shot down the notion that a consent decree makes civilian police oversight superfluous.

“The consent decree, if it moves as the city hopes it will, will be over in a few years. We’ll have no more court oversight at that point. … There’s no tension between the consent decree and civilian oversight. They go hand in hand,” he said.

Over the summer, Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th), the mayoral ally who chairs the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety, presided over a series of stormy public hearings on the long-stalled “Civilian Police Accountability Council” along with three more moderate proposals for civilian police oversight.

Two of them were introduced by Reboyras and neuter the Grassroots Alliance’s proposal in favor of a civilian review structure that’s more advisory in nature.

On Thursday, Reboyras blamed the administration’s laser-like focus on finalizing the consent decree for the delay in delivering civilian police review.

“I’m willing to sit down with [the Grassroots Alliance] this week. We need to do something,” said Reboyras, who faces a strong challenge from the daughter of retiring U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez.