Nearly a decade of grassroots organizing for police accountability in Chicago culminated in a measure that provides residents with two levels of oversight of the Chicago Police Department—on a citywide scale and in each police district.
Frank Chapman, a field organizer for the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR), attended the first meetings in Englewood in 2012 that called for a fully elected civilian police accountability council. In other words, community control of the police, in the spirit of the Black Panthers.
Organizers called that proposal The Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC).The earliest supporters of the movement were families of police torture survivors and the kin of people who had been killed by CPD, namely twenty-two-year-old Rekia Boyd, who was shot by an off-duty cop. Within a few years, the campaign grew from a couple of hundred supporters, to tens of thousands, emboldened by the police murder of Laquan McDonald in 2014 and countless other cases of police brutality that have gone unaccounted for.
An ordinance that passed on July 21 was celebrated by roughly one hundred community organizations on the South and West Sides. However, it was not CPAC. The new ordinance, called the Empowering Communities for Public Safety (ECPS), was a compromise.
It was “a unified ordinance,” Chapman told the Weekly, one that combined the CPAC ordinance with another one that a separate but overlapping coalition, the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA), had been drafting under the same name since 2017.
The conversations about policing in Chicago bubbled to the surface the previous year, after the murder of George Floyd that sparked the 2020 uprisings across the country. The work of the coalitions preceded the Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police movements, according to Chapman, though those popular campaigns undoubtedly influenced public opinion about the role of police. Marches and protests last summer were repeatedly attacked and surveilled by police, as demonstrators continued to push for police accountability.
“The police have always been in the forefront of repressing our movements,” Chapman said. “And that’s why we see having some kind of community control over the police is critical to the defense of our movements.”
In the City Council, the push for civilian oversight came to a head in February, when Lightfoot asked Alderman Chris Taliaferro (29th), chair of the Committee on Public Safety, to stall consideration of the two ordinances presented by CAARPR and GAPA while the mayor drafted her own. The legislative maneuvering only fueled the coalitions’ efforts.
In a joint statement in March, organizers said, “After years of working independently, the coalitions joined forces, collaborated with aldermen who have been powerful voices for reform, and delivered an ordinance that integrates the best thinking on police reform in Chicago.”
On March 29, a Chicago police officer shot and killed thirteen-year-old Adam Toledo, and on March 31, another Chicago cop shot and killed twenty-year-old Anthony Alvarez as he fled. In a Weekly op-ed on April 29, Chapman and GAPA spokesperson Desmon Yancy wrote, “The ECPS ordinance has broad support within City Council—but it is being blocked by Mayor Lightfoot, who has refused to join forces with our coalition and who has had important Public Safety Committee meetings canceled to stop our work.”
In May, Lightfoot presented her own ordinance, which would have kept most of the control of police in the Mayor’s Office. It failed to pass.
As public support of ECPS mounted and compromises were made at the negotiating table, the ordinance gradually gained the support of every caucus in City Council and even Lightfoot’s reluctant support—and ultimately the vote of thirty-six aldermen.
“We admit that we made some concessions,” Chapman said of ECPS. “But we also admit that there were a lot of things that we didn’t make concessions of.”
Both Chapman and Yancy are native South Siders whose respective offices are located on 63rd Street, an area of the city that is overpoliced, with two police stations located on that thoroughfare about two miles from each other.
Yancy, who serves as the community organizing director of the Inner City Muslim Network (IMAN) said the mayor’s role in advancing the ECPS ordinance was “small” despite her campaign’s talking points around overhauling the police department.
“The GAPA coalition met with Lori Lightfoot when she was considering running for mayor… because she had a background in this work through her role in the Police Accountability Task Force,” Yancy said. “But the crux of the ordinance was written by the community.”
GAPA consulted other legislative and policy experts such as the LAPD Commission, considered the oldest police commission in the country, and the Chicago Board of Elections to figure out how to incorporate elections in the oversight process. On their end, CAARPR considered the input of the National Council of Black Lawyers, the Women’s All Points Bulletin, the Criminal Justice Project at Kennedy-King College, and the South Side chapter of the NAACP, among other professional and community-based advisors.
The ECPS ordinance will create a citywide commission of seven members (known as commissioners), selected by the mayor, but recommended by a nominating committee and approved by City Council, for four-year terms beginning in 2023. Two will be from the South Side, two from the West Side, two from the North Side, and one representative for the whole city.
“The commission [acts] as the steering committee that vets those candidates and presents those candidates to the mayor,” Yancy said. “We have a voice that we didn’t have before in this process. It really removes the mayoral appointees out of the process that allows for the community to be involved.”
At least two commissioners will be experienced lawyers in civil rights, civil liberties, or criminal defense or prosecution. Other candidates will have “at least five years’ combined experience in one or more of the following fields: law, public policy, social work, psychology, mental health, public safety, community organizing, civil rights, or advocacy on behalf of marginalized communities,” with the exception of two commissioners between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four years old who will bypass these requirements.
The other kind of oversight will consist of three elected seats in each of the twenty-two CPD districts in the city. Interested residents would have to meet Board of Election eligibility requirements and submit petitions for nominations. Among their duties would be to hold public meetings at least once a month; engage with members of the community to gather input about public safety and policing in their districts; and “report its findings, conclusions, and recommendations to the commission as requested,” according to the ordinance.
“Instead of trying to have a conversation with a police officer in a police station, they can come to a district council meeting, which is held outside of the police department, staffed by people who are not connected to the police department, and in most cases, people from the community who have the same sorts of concerns,” according to Yancy.
The mayor would retain the power to hire and fire the police superintendent, but the commission could adopt a resolution of no confidence on the superintendent, a Police Board member, or the COPA chief, by a two-thirds vote. The City Council Committee on Public Safety must then hold a hearing to “consider and vote on whether to recommend that the affected party be removed,” which the mayor would be required to act upon.
“There’s a lot of things about this ordinance that we want to improve and develop further,” Chapman said.
They will work on expanding the powers of the commission, he said. The inclusion of a referendum in the ballot or creating a separate ordinance is a priority that could empower the community to decide on the police budget, set policy, and negotiate contracts.
For now, organizers want to ensure community voices are included in the interim commission that will be formed in January and slating candidates to run for the district-level elections.
“But the main thing is that we have accomplished a very important first step, and that is getting our people in policy-making positions. And by people, we mean people who live in the community, people who are the ones who are most affected by police abuses and police crimes… and by Black and brown people in this city.”
Jacqueline Serrato is the editor-in-chief of the Weekly.