In debate over civilian oversight of Chicago police, grassroots proposals win the day | Bleader

In debate over civilian oversight of Chicago police, grassroots proposals win the day

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Amanda Shackelford speaks in support of the proposed Chicago Police Accountability Council. - MAYA DUKMASOVA
  • Maya Dukmasova
  • Amanda Shackelford speaks in support of the proposed Chicago Police Accountability Council.

While nearly 60 people spoke at a public meeting on civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department, none of them came out in favor of the reform proposals pitched by the head of the City Council's public safety committee who's been hosting a series of meetings on police reform.

Hundreds of people filled the auditorium of Amundsen High School for the hearing Tuesday night, the last of five public hearings on the proposals. Over the course of two and a half hours, 57 people testified about four civilian oversight proposals aldermen are considering. Thirty-four speakers supported a proposal that would create a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC), 16 supported a proposal by the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA), and seven either rejected all proposals or didn't state their position on any of them.

Not a single person spoke in favor of the two police oversight proposals introduced last March by 30th Ward alderman Ariel Reboyras, the meeting's host.

An ordinance establishing CPAC, championed by the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and introduced by 35th Ward alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, has languished without a hearing in Reboyras's public safety committee for almost two years. The alliance has been advocating on behalf of victims of police violence since its founding in 1973 and has been organizing in favor of CPAC for the last five years. Activists have collected more than 50,000 signatures in support of a police oversight council made up of elected representatives from each of Chicago's 22 police districts. The council would have the power to hire and fire the police superintendent, oversee department policy, issue subpoenas, and investigate misconduct complaints. It would replace both the police board and the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA)—both run by mayoral appointees.

But the CPAC plan has been repeatedly written off by city officials. Reboyras, a staunch ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has said giving elected civilians the power to hire and fire the police superintendent is "out of the question." But the proposal has received renewed attention in light of GAPA's ordinance—introduced in March by Sixth Ward alderman Roderick Sawyer and 48th Ward alderman Harry Osterman—and Reboyras's response to it.

GAPA, a coalition of community organizations that formed after the mayor's Police Accountability Task Force released its scathing report on CPD in 2016, has conducted meetings throughout the city and collected input from hundreds of community members. Its ordinance would create a Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, similar to local school councils. Three-member local councils would be elected in each police district, and the 66 elected officials would then select seven members to serve on a commission. The commission would have similar policy-making and administrative powers as the elected council proposed under CPAC; the police board and COPA would be retained, but the seven-member commission would have significant say over their leadership. Under GAPA's proposal, undocumented people and anyone over the age of 16 would be able to vote for their local police district councils.

GAPA's proposal was supported by former police board president and Police Accountability Task Force leader Lori Lightfoot—who's now running for mayor. But the day Sawyer and Osterman introduced the ordinance, Reboyras introduced two of his own, based on police oversight models from Seattle and Los Angeles County. Neither proposal (one called the Chicago Civilian Oversight Commission and the other called the Chicago Community Police Commission) was crafted based on community input. Neither would include elected councils to oversee police department policy and administration. Instead, the proposals envision either a nine- or 21-member commission made up of members appointed by the mayor, City Council, and current police board members. These commissions would lack investigatory and subpoena powers, and would play no role in the appointment of the police superintendent.

Reboyras's move was seen by GAPA organizers as a "slap in the face," and it motivated Ramirez-Rosa to invoke a City Council rule that would have forced a floor debate on CPAC. To avoid that, Reboyras scheduled the five public meetings to debate all four proposals.

Reboyras began the meeting Tuesday by inviting representatives from CPAC and GAPA to present five-minute outlines of their proposals to the public. He did not, however, take any time to explain his own two proposals. Speaker after speaker decried the alderman's proposals as an attempt to scuttle painstakingly crafted, community-driven police oversight proposals at the behest of the mayor. Though supporters for CPAC and GAPA disagree on several issues, they spoke respectfully of each other's proposals and seemed to unite in their fervor against a plan that wouldn't give significant control over the police directly to voters.

"These hearings have been set up very wrong, to pit CPAC and GAPA against each other," said Tonii Magitt, an organizer with Good Kids Mad City who supports the GAPA proposal. "We're trying to work collectively to build policy that's not discriminatory towards black and brown communities."

"It sickens me that our city has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars protecting Chicago police officers who have broken laws and hurt, killed, and maimed people," said Thara Nagarajan, a clinical psychologist who works with victims of police abuse. She said she would support CPAC or GAPA and that both plans were "vastly better than the two ordinances proposed by Reboyras."

Throughout much of the testimony the aldermen—Reboyras, Osterman, Ramirez-Rosa, along with John Arena of the 45th Ward, James Cappleman of the 46th Ward, and Tom Tunney of the 44th Ward—sat expressionless at a table on the auditorium's stage. Alderman Debra Silverstein, who represents the 50th Ward, observed from the audience, and was repeatedly chastised by speakers for not attending the previous four meetings. Multiple people supporting CPAC delivered chilling tales of experiencing abuse at the hands of the police.

CPAC supporter Amanda Shackelford spoke about her son, Gerald Reed, who a state commission found had a credible claim he was tortured by a detective working under Jon Burge in 1990. Reed is appealing his double murder conviction. "You get paid to do a job, to do it properly," Shackelford said to police and aldermen at the meeting. "But instead you picked my son and you tortured him into signing [a confession]." She said her son wouldn't be in prison if the police had better oversight. "His case is back in court. His case is looking great," she added. "But it shouldn't have never happened!" she exclaimed to thunderous applause.

Police representatives at the meeting rejected all four proposals.

"In the last six years there have been about 17,000 people who have been shot in the city—less than 1 percent of those are officer-involved shootings," said Kevin Graham, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge Seven, the union representing rank-and-file cops. "One of the things that I would like to see done is more openness so that you understand how investigations work, because obviously there are people who don't think that things are fair. These ordinances are not going to do that."

Graham said all the proposals would "put another layer of bureaucracy in the mix," and said the $2.5 million cost estimate to implement one of the proposals wouldn't be a good use of taxpayer dollars. "I used to work in this area, in Uptown, there's a lot of homeless people," he said. "If you got an extra $2 million, help the homeless people." The crowd booed and jeered as he concluded.

Throughout the evening, Graham's remarks were repeatedly lambasted by other speakers, particularly those that emphasized the potential costs of a new oversight mechanism, which is already dwarfed by the $600 million the city has paid out to settle police misconduct cases since 2004.

Another police officer, John Catanzara—who at the last community meeting threatened the aldermen with an "uprising" if a civilian oversight ordinance passed—wore a jersey with sleeves covered by American flags and "Trump" emblazoned on the back. "CPAC is the worst of these four proposals. . . . The only reason you're entertaining these ordinances is to create a buffer," he said to the aldermen over loud boos, "to say it's GAPA's fault or CPAC's fault when there's a problem with a police officer."

Last year, Catanzara was removed from duty as a school resource officer at Hubbard High School after posting provocative political images on social media, and he later lost his off-duty security job at a charter school. He's one of just seven officers on the force who have been suspended seven or more times for misconduct since 1995, ProPublica Illinois has reported, though he's also received almost two dozen department commendations. COPA's predecessor, the Independent Police Review Authority, recommended firing him in 2012 though the police board opted to give him a 20-day suspension.

After the meeting, asked by the Reader whether he felt swayed in any particular direction by all that he'd heard, Reboyras said he had, but that he wasn't ready to discuss it in further detail. "I'm not tied to any of the four ordinances, including the ones that I submitted," he said. "It's just a matter of choice and see what works the best, and we're gonna work on that."

Osterman said he wasn't surprised no one spoke in favor of his colleague's two proposals. "That's been the case at each of the previous hearings," he said.

Also after the meeting, organizers for CPAC and GAPA were open to collaboration.

Drea Hall, an organizer with the Community Renewal Society who has been leading the push for GAPA among faith leaders, said she felt these public meetings have been "just talking and talking and nothing getting done on the aldermen's end. We want to make sure the aldermen are actually hearing us, because . . . we're voting." Indeed, two challengers to 40th Ward alderman Patrick O'Connor—Ugo Okere and Andre Vasquez—spoke at the meetings, and both support CPAC.

"The fact that we see not a lot of black aldermen coming out is making us upset," added Hall. None were at Tuesday's meeting. "We're open to talk [to CPAC supporters]. . . . I'm optimistic that we can come together, because if we don't we may lose everything. If we don't pass CPAC or GAPA what's left is the city's ordinances—everything we've fought for two years and them for 50 years goes down the drain."

Frank Chapman, of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, also said his group is open to coordinating with GAPA, but not at the expense of the fundamental principal of its proposal: to wrest control of the police department from the mayor.

Chapman admitted that he thinks the City Council will vote against CPAC, but that legislation that aims to merely "restore trust" in the police department is a nonstarter for the people he represents. "You can't restore trust where there was no trust," he says. "They're gonna vote against us. This is nothing new. But we're 50,000 strong and growing. There's no grassroots movement in this city as big as ours."

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