On October 20, the Chicago City Council Committee on Public Safety held a public hearing to discuss two proposals that would each create a civilian oversight board to supervise the Chicago Police Department. The meeting was a culmination of public pushes to enact such a board since 2016, when two competing reform plans—the Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) and the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA)—were first introduced.
Although CPAC was first introduced in July 2016, it did not receive a public hearing until 2018. In order to proceed with the ordinance, the Public Safety Committee needs to have a hearing on the proposal and the City Council needs to vote on whether to approve or reject it. The City Council rejected the CPAC proposal after the 2018 hearing, with Mayor Lori Lightfoot opposing the ordinance. She said that there are a “number of things that are highly concerning” about the ordinance without specifying what her concerns were. In this version, CPAC would have completely replaced the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) and the Police Board and would have had its own investigators for police misconduct.
While the old version of CPAC planned to eliminate the Police Board and COPA, a new version presented at the most recent hearing would give the oversight board the power to hire and fire COPA administrators and to appoint members of the Police Board. However, COPA would also be given its own investigative force to review allegations of police misconduct, and CPAC’s own investigative corps would be eliminated.
During the hearing last week, Tamer Abouzeid, a former investigator for COPA, spoke as a CPAC representative. He introduced the newest version of CPAC. Under the plan’s latest iteration, CPAC members would be elected every four years, and one member would be elected from each set of two contiguous police districts by residents of the districts, totaling 11 members in the council. Candidates would need to fulfill certain qualifications in order to run, including at least two years of experience with organizations that protect the rights of people who have faced police brutality.
Alderman Michele Smith of the 43rd Ward expressed concerns over CPAC qualifications. She pointed out that the qualifications are too specific and risk excluding a particular group of qualified candidates. These candidates would have been victims of negative experiences with the police and have meaningful perspectives to contribute but cannot run due to lack of work experience with such organizations.
Abouzeid called on the aldermen to engage with the proposals. “What the movement means to you, Aldermen, is living up to your duty and engaging with the proposals in good faith, reading the ordinance, thinking about what it does, offering amendments if you think they make it better, and passing fundamental change that puts power not in the hands of this body, or a mayor, or whoever they may be, but in the hands of the people,” he said.
The GAPA plan was also introduced in 2016. Unlike CPAC, GAPA would keep many of the current structures within the police department. Following Mayor Lightfoot’s opposition to CPAC, the Mayor’s Office announced their partnership with GAPA in a statement. Lightfoot had been a supporter of GAPA since she chaired the Police Accountability Task Force, a police reform group, in December 2015. However, she recently had a disagreement with GAPA over who should be the final decision-maker for Police Department policy. Although activists wanted to transfer that power to the civilian oversight board, Lightfoot insisted on keeping it with the city officials. As a result, the Mayor’s Office withdrew its support for GAPA in March.
GAPA representatives Desmon Yancy and Barry Friedman outlined the proposals at the hearing. The citywide commission will appoint the police superintendent and the police board from a list of candidates recommended by the mayor and an oversight commission. Yancy said that this process maximizes community control over selecting public safety leaders while remaining within the boundaries of Illinois constitutional and state law.
The GAPA ordinance would establish a three-person District Council in each police district, and each District Council would then select one member to be on the nominating committee for the citywide Community Commission. The nominating committee would nominate two candidates for each commission seat, and from these nominees, the mayor and City Council would select the final seven commissioners. The proposal does not detail specific qualifications for candidacy.
Several aldermen expressed support for various aspects of both plans.
In her comments, Fifth Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston expressed her support for civilian oversight and acknowledged that creating elected boards would require unprecedented changes. “It is going to require us to take some steps that we have never taken in the city,” she said.
40th Ward Alderman Andre Vasquez, who led the effort to demand a public hearing two years after the last City Council decision on CPAC, also commented on several details of CPAC and GAPA. According to him, CPAC provision allows the board to introduce and adopt its own policy, as well as policy introduced by other bodies. “Let’s imagine a scenario where the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) has a ton of money compared to everybody else. They are able to get a full council, and they would have the ability to introduce and pass their own laws in that scenario,” Vasquez said. “When money influences the election period, and there is no check and balance on that, we would be in a worse position in that case.”
Abouzeid responded that such issues could occur in any election or legislative body, but Vasquez insisted that there should be checks and balances introduced in the proposal to address this problem. “If there isn’t some kind of safeguard in there, there could be something,” he said.
Vasquez supported the democratic design of the district council model proposed by GAPA but expressed concern about a needlessly complex nomination process. “I think the only critique that I have got is having three per every district as opposed to one. Going from those 66 people to 22 nominating to then figuring out the members of the commission ends up being pretty clunky,” he said.
The last speaker, 48th Ward Alderman Harry Osterman, concluded that the Public Safety committee will return further feedback on the two ordinances and aim to move the process to a vote within the committee.
Clarification on Nov. 2, 2020, 4:37 p.m. CST:
This article has been updated to reflect that Tamer Abouzeid is a former investigator for COPA (February 2018 - July 2020). The original version addressed Abouzeid as "an investigator for COPA".