Chicago Approves Civilian Police Oversight Board In Major Step Toward Reform

The ordinance that allows elected residents to have the final say in police-related policy is a product of years-long work by the city's grassroots organizers.

Chicago passed an ordinance Wednesday that creates an elected board of residents to provide oversight on the city’s police department, a major step toward law enforcement accountability that was long pushed by community organizers. 

The City Council voted 36-13 to approve the oversight, just a couple of votes more than the two-thirds majority required by Mayor Lori Lightfoot for this specific ordinance. The proposal was created by the Empowering Communities for Public Safety coalition, which is made up of multiple grassroots organizations.

“There’s a saying about Chicago: Chicago ain’t ready for reform. Well, today Chicago is,” said Alderman Leslie A. Hairston, who first introduced the ordinance in 2016. “And you’ve seen that in what we’ve introduced today and what we’ve passed today. ... We have something that was put together by all of the people who includes the people.”

The ordinance allows the City Council to create three-member commissions in each of the 22 police districts in Chicago and an appointed seven-member commission overseeing the city, beginning Jan. 1. A separate council made up of residents who aren’t citizens will advise the commission on issues that affect the city’s immigrant and undocumented communities.

Opponents of the new civilian commission expressed concern it would complicate the police department’s efforts to stop a wave of violent crime and make little difference in reforming the actual department. Supporters have touted it as a genuine effort to try to build trust in the police as the department consistently faces allegations of misconduct. 

“We need to return our department back to a community-facing organization,” Democratic Alderman Jason Ervin told the council before the vote. “Kids in my neighborhood’s first interaction with police should not be on the hood of a car; it should be in a community setting.”

The ordinance approved Wednesday gives the civilian board the final say on policy as it pertains to Chicago police and associated accountability agencies. Civilians elected to the commission can recommend candidates to the mayor for police superintendent and the Chicago Police Board. The commission can also hire the head of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), which is the city agency responsible for investigating police misconduct. 

If the oversight board votes with a two-thirds majority, it can pass a resolution of no confidence in the superintendent, the head of COPA and any member of the police board ― which could result in City Council action.

A 2017 Justice Department investigation ― conducted after a white Chicago police officer killed Laquan McDonald, a Black 17-year-old ― found that the city’s officers repeatedly violate the constitutional rights of Black and Latino residents and are rarely held accountable for their actions. The investigation resulted in a court order requiring the police department to implement reforms. Though COPA was established in 2016, officers have continued to harass, assault and kill Chicagoans with few consequences.

Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez of Chicago's 25th Ward speaks in support of the proposal for civilian oversight of the Chicago Po
Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez of Chicago's 25th Ward speaks in support of the proposal for civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department during a City Council meeting Wednesday.

ECPS, the group of grassroots organizations, introduced a previous version of the civilian oversight proposal that Lightfoot supported when campaigning for mayor and promised to pass in her first 100 days in office. The City Council had planned to pass that version early last year, but Lightfoot changed course at the last minute and opposed it because she wanted to have the final say on policy. 

From September 2020 to last week, the mayor repeated her claim that she wouldn’t be able to keep Chicago safe as long as a potential civilian board had powers that were more than just advisory to her. Negotiations over the past weekend led to Wednesday’s proposal.

Though the version of the ordinance that passed Wednesday gives the board authority over police-related policy, Lightfoot can veto board members’ decisions, and the City Council can override that veto with a two-thirds majority.

“Today’s news is a testament to the organizers on the ground who’ve been fighting relentlessly for years to bring real justice and accountability to CPD. I’m grateful for their work that brought this issue to the forefront and led us to this moment,” said gun violence activist Kina Collins, who is running to represent the city’s south and west sides in Congress. 

“At the same time, today’s reform is just the beginning of the change we need,” she added. “If we truly want a safer Chicago, we need to invest in health care, education, child care and good-paying jobs ― investments that are proven to help stop the violence before it starts. I’m ready to keep fighting alongside activists and organizers for the transformative change our communities deserve.”