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Public Safety Committee Backs Compromise Plan To Create Civilian Police Oversight Panel

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Chicago is a step closer to establishing a new civilian panel to oversee the Chicago Police Department, after a key City Council committee on Tuesday backed a compromise hammered out over the weekend between Mayor Lori Lightfoot's office and a coalition of grassroots police reform activists.

The Public Safety Committee voted 12-8 on Tuesday evening to approve a deal that would allow the mayor to veto CPD policy mandates approved by the new civilian oversight commission, although the City Council could override her veto by a two-thirds vote.

The oversight commission would be able to cast a no-confidence vote in the police superintendent, prompting a City Council vote, but the ultimate decision on firing the superintendent would stay with the mayor.

Lightfoot and grassroots groups had been at odds for months over questions of who would resolve disputes over police policy, and whether the panel should have the power to fire the superintendent before the compromise was announced on Monday.

Public Safety Committee Chairman Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), a former police officer, said he's confident the ordinance will create a better Chicago Police Department.

"What produces a better Police Department is better policies, and now we're getting our civilians, our communities, our residents an opportunity to have a voice in those policies," he said at Tuesday's committee meeting.

Ald. Harry Osterman (48th), the committee's vice chair, and a chief co-sponsor of the civilian police oversight ordinance, called the measure "a balanced approach that would put us at the forefront when it comes to oversight in the country."

"This is a piece of the safety puzzle that is desperately needed in Chicago, and has been needed for many years," Osterman said.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), who joined Osterman in introducing an earlier version of the ordinance in 2019, said "this has been a labor of love and commitment."

"This is something that's extremely important. We need the collaboration between police and the community, and this is the most effective way to get us there," he said.

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), who sponsored a competing grassroots effort at civilian police oversight in 2019 before activist groups joined forces earlier this year, said she was glad to see aldermen and activists with various viewpoints on the issue come together to craft a compromise after years of often heated debate.

"I am so glad to see that we have come together from all roads, coming to one point where we agree, and even agree to disagree, but we have come up with something and a formula that I believe works for the citizens of Chicago, works for the city, and will do something different to try to deal with how we engage with the police, and how the police engage with us," she said. "We are at the end of the day, one city, and we all wear the jacket for the tragedy that happens in this city."

Hairston's "wear the jacket" remark was an apparent dig at Lightfoot, who had repeatedly said she "wears the jacket" for public safety in Chicago while opposing previous versions of grassroots activists' proposals for civilian oversight of CPD, before her ultimate compromise with those same groups.

Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), a former CPD officer, said he fears aldermen are "missing the mark" with the civilian oversight plan in an effort to control shootings that have skyrocketed since the beginning of 2020.

"To a lot of people, we look bad to constituents for that, so a lot of people are going after the next thing that they can control, which is the Police Department, and I feel that this is an unjust way to go about it,"  he said. "I think we're trying to appease a portion of the city that would like to see accountability, but we're really dropping the ball on a massive amount of the city that is going to see the repercussions of what happens after something like this is voted in."

Napolitano said the new oversight commission will not help the city get the best out of police officers, because they will be worried about being under more scrutiny than ever before, and potentially losing their job. He also said he believes more oversight of CPD will only discourage good people from applying to become police officers at a time when CPD is seeing a huge wave of retirements.

Ald. James Gardiner (45th) also said he fears creating more oversight of CPD will "create a police force that is unable to react to a given situation when needed."

The ordinance would establish a new seven-member Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability. It would also set up three-member councils in each of the city's 22 police districts, who would advise the commission and nominate its members.

The seven-member commission would be empowered to set policies for CPD, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, and the Chicago Police Board.

However, the mayor would be able to veto policies established by the commission, which could only be overridden by a two-thirds vote of the City Council.

The commission also would have the authority to hire the head of COPA, subject to City Council approval; and to take a vote of no-confidence in the police superintendent or members of the Police Board, requiring a two-thirds majority from the commission.

If the commission were to approve a no-confidence vote against the superintendent or police board member, the City Council would hold a vote on whether to recommend to the mayor that they be fired – a recommendation requiring a two-thirds vote from aldermen. However, the final decision would still be up to the mayor, who would only be required to explain the decision in writing within 14 days of the council's vote.

In the future, when there is a vacancy for police superintendent, the commission would conduct a nationwide search for candidates, and present the mayor with a list of three finalists to choose from, essentially taking over the nomination process now in the hands of the Police Board.

While the commission would not have the direct authority to fire the head of the COPA, members could also hold a no-confidence vote for the agency's chief administrator, prompting a City Council vote on whether to remove the chief administrator by a two-thirds vote.

If the civilian oversight plan is approved by the full City Council, an interim commission would be set up by next year, until a permanent board could be established in 2023.

The City Council Rules Committee would nominate 14 people for the commissioner seats, and the mayor would then appoint seven members to the interim commission – at least two each from the North, South, and West Sides.

In 2023, during the same election for mayor and City Council, voters would choose three members for each of 22 district councils in the Chicago Police Department's 22 districts. Those district council members would then nominate candidates for the Community Commission for Public Safety, and the mayor would appoint commission members from among the nominees, subject to City Council approval.

The commission also would have the power to:

  • Seek input from the public and Chicago police officers regarding community relations, CPD policy, and the police accountability system;
  • Provide feedback to CPD, COPA, the Chicago Police Board, and the public safety section of the Chicago Inspector General's office on their operations, based on community feedback;
  • Publish public reports on policing;
  • Assess the performance and set goals for the police superintendent, the head of COPA, and the Police Board president, including annual performance reviews;
  • Recommend the public safety section of the Inspector General's office to conduct specific audits or research "on specific topics or issues, including emergent issues that, in the Commission's judgment, are needed to support public confidence in the Department and related criminal justice practices;"
  • Recommend changes to the annual CPD budget proposal; and
  • Identify and recommend to the City Council ways to increase the effectiveness and efficiency in the use of public safety resources.

The ordinance also would allow the commission to create a Noncitizen Advisory Council, to advise the commission on issues impacting immigrant communities, in particular undocumented immigrants.

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) said he's not happy with more oversight of CPD, but believes it will help to restore a sense of legitimacy in the Police Department, and to stop the second-guessing of officers at every turn. He said officers are afraid to do their jobs, and he hopes a new civilian oversight agency will give them confidence they will get a fair hearing if they're accused of misconduct.

"The reason our officers are afraid, is because when questions of their actions come into play, the public immediately assumes a coverup or a conspiracy that clouds the questions of what they did, even when they were trained rightly," he said. "Our officers need to know that there's a way for them to be held accountable, yes, but also to be believed once the truth comes out."

Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th), who was among the aldermen who voted against the ordinance, said he agrees there needs to be more collaboration between Chicago residents and CPD, but he believes the department already has enough oversight.

"I think this ordinance also creates uncertainty who the police answers to. Is it the mayor? Is it the Police Board? Is it to COPA? Is it to the public safety inspector general? Is it to this commission? Is it to the district councils? It's not going to be to the City Council after this ordinance, as basically this is abdicating our authority over the Police Department," Thompson said.

Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara accused aldermen of "turning the keys over to the criminals" by backing the new civilian police oversight board.

"I'm a firm believer there is way more oversight for the Police Department than needs to be," he said. "My question is why is the oversight always about the Police Department, and turning over now control to a lot of the squeaky wheels who made this city into anarchy last summer, and now entertaining the idea that you want to give them the ability to dictate police policy going forward is absolutely absurd and dangerous and reckless."

The ordinance now goes to the full City Council for a vote on Wednesday.

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