The public release of the video that showed Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke murdering 17-year-old Laquan McDonald helped propel Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot into office. In response to public outcry, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel formed the Police Accountability Task Force and appointed Mayor Lightfoot as chair. Under her leadership, the task force issued a powerful report that indicts CPD’s entrenched racism, brutality and lack of accountability. As a central remedy, the task force called for the creation of an entity composed of community representatives with the power to oversee the CPD. Lightfoot wrote, “A coalition of community groups has proposed the creation of a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) to establish direct community oversight over the CPD. The proposal here strives to honor the principles established by CPAC.”
CPAC is based on a simple premise: Chicago police will continue to harm black and brown communities until the CPD becomes accountable to those communities. CPAC would create accountability by giving communities control over the police in the same way that elected school boards have power over their school districts.
Mayor Lightfoot now supports a watered-down proposal for community police oversight that falls substantially short of the recommendation put forth by her task force. Moreover, her administration has been negotiating the terms of that proposal in secret — out of public view and without the participation of any of the community groups that have long fought for CPAC. Community oversight created without any community oversight is doomed to fail.
Rather than create an independent, community-controlled body with real power to oversee the CPD, she proposes a body in which all power ultimately resides with the mayor — even the power to appoint and replace the people who sit on that body.
We have been here before. Chicago has a long history of ineffective reform gestures in response to police scandals that reveal the systemic racism and conditions of impunity within the CPD.
Congressman Ralph Metcalfe’s 1972 report on Chicago policing included findings practically identical to the 2016 report signed by Mayor Lightfoot. In response, the City created the Office of Professional Standards (OPS), the head of which reported to the police superintendent, to investigate complaints of police brutality. After three decades of shoddy investigations that insulated officers from accountability, the CPD found itself in the throes of yet another converging set of scandals arising from the cover up of an officer’s brutal beating of a white woman tending bar that was captured on video and unchecked corruption in its elite Special Operation Section. This time, City Hall rebranded OPS as IPRA, the Independent Police Review Authority, in 2007, with its chief chosen by and placed under the thumb of the Mayor.
Ten years later, in 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice excoriated that same oversight agency for conducting biased, incomplete investigations and assisting the CPD cover-up acts of police brutality. In its ongoing game of alphabet soup, City Hall then replaced IPRA with COPA, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability. Yet contrary to task force chief Lightfoot’s very first recommendation for community oversight — that the power to select the leader of this investigative agency must reside with the community oversight board — Mayor Lightfoot now insists that this power must remain with the Mayor.
For nearly 50 years, Chicago’s leaders have created commissions, revamped city agencies, and payed out hundreds of millions dollars as a result of unchecked police abuse. And at every turn, they have resisted accountability to Chicago’s most impacted communities. The one constant over these 50 years has been the suffering of black and brown at the hands of police.
CPD remains in crisis. Just last week, two police officers shot an unarmed man in a train station at rush hour. The man was suspected of switching train cars — an ordinance violation. The Fraternal Order of Police is poised to elect a reactionary, anti-reform president who is committed to denying the reality of CPD abuses past and present and blocking public scrutiny of the police. CPD is under a federal consent decree — a court order designed to end biased policing and excessive use of force — but the consent decree has thus far failed to produce results. The last monitoring report indicated that CPD was in violation of almost every relevant provision.
So what will solve Chicago policing’s crisis? A key part of the answer, as task force chair Lightfoot recognized, is CPAC.
CPAC requires the creation of an elected council, independent of both CPD and City Hall, empowered to appoint, supervise and fire a police superintendent for cause, to approve CPD policies and procedures, and to appoint those responsible for administering the agencies that investigate complaints of CPD wrongdoing. CPAC would operate with unprecedented transparency, so that Chicago’s communities would be fully informed about the policing that happens in their names and with their tax dollars.
Over 60,000 Chicagoans from every ward in the city have signed petitions demanding CPAC. The Mayor cannot make good on her promise of police reform, while ignoring the community’s demands. As task force chair Lightfoot understood, systemic change requires more. If she and her allies fail to create genuine community based accountability for the CPD, her legacy will not be one of reform. Instead, she will be known as just another Chicago-style mayor who refused to exercise leadership by sharing power with communities most impacted by police abuse. Her legacy will then be a failure to address a violent, racist and unaccountable police force.
Craig B. Futterman is a clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School. Sheila A. Bedi is a clinical law professor at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.