The Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability is currently in the spotlight as it looks for candidates to be the next Chicago police superintendent – but it has been doing plenty of other work since it was appointed last August. 

Under the package of police reforms approved in July 2021, the three-member councils just elected in each police district are responsible for choosing 14 public safety commission candidates, with the next mayor selecting seven of them to serve for staggered four-year terms. But since the councils weren’t elected until the end of February, and they aren’t expected to start work until May, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, in the summer of 2022, chose seven members – two from the North Side, two from the South Side, and three from the West Side – to serve on an interim basis. 

Aside from selecting superintendent candidates, the public safety commission is responsible for reviewing the Chicago Police Department budget, setting goals for the superintendent and heads of police oversight bodies, and reviewing proposed police policies. Austin Weekly News spoke to the three West Side interim commissioners to get their perspectives on the work so far. The overall response has been that, while it hasn’t been smooth sailing, they believed that they accomplished a lot and they look forward to the work they still had to do.

Who they are

Remel Terry | Provided

Remel Terry, of North Lawndale, currently serves as the Director of Programs at Equiticity, the North Lawndale-based organization that seeks to improve mobility options in the city’s minority communities. She also serves as the first vice president of the Westside branch NAACP. Terry said she applied for the commission because it wasn’t something she wanted to be on the outside looking in.

“A lot of my work is in civic engagement, advocacy and policy, very focused on ensuring that the needs of Black communities are addressed,” she said. “I just felt that [if] there was going to be a new commission, instead of standing on the sidelines and possibly having complaints about it, I wanted to be someone who’d ensure it started out in the right direction.”

Cliff Nellis | Provided

Cliff Nellis is a co-founder and current executive director of Lawndale Christian Legal Center who has been involved in a number of initiatives to improve the justice system for youth. He said that, as a white man who grew up in the suburbs and lived in majority-Black North Lawndale since 2009, he saw first-hand not just the differences in the way police treat African-Americans, but the differences in how the department as a whole approaches policing compared to their suburban counterparts. These realities, Nellis said, led him to apply for the commission.

“The way our families and young people are treated in North Lawndale are worse, sometimes unconstitutional, abusive and illegal,” he said.  So, when I heard about the law that was passed, I was approached by a number of people saying “you ought to apply,” I sent in the application.”

Oswaldo Gomez | Provided

Community organizer Oswaldo Gomez, of the Near West Side, previously worked as the community organizer for Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability, which advocated for one of the police reform proposals that set the foundation for what the city eventually adopted. 

“I decided to throw my name in the ring because I wanted to see that work being implemented the way it was intended,” he said. “A lot of [reforms] end up failing not because of actual legislation, but because of implementation.”

What they’ve done

The interim commissioners were appointed last August – and Gomez said they felt it was important to hit the ground running.

“[We thought] — we know that police accountability is affecting people on the West Side and South Side today,” we said. “We weren’t going to wait a year — we’re going to start the work today.”

Nellis said the commissioners take on different aspects of their work in pairs, because more than two public officials meeting would count as a public meeting under the Open Meetings Act, before bringing it back to the full commission for final approval.

The commission is responsible for setting goals and evaluations for the police superintendent, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and the Police Board, as well as reviewing the proposed department budgets. These were some of the first tasks the commissions tackled. 

Gomez said the commission’s interactions with COPA and the police board have been largely smooth. He described their interactions with the department itself as a “growing relationship.”

“I think there were points where we had to tell the police — these are the goals we want this year, and they’d say — that’s not achievable, that’s not something that was expected from you,” he said. “And we had to kind of double down and say — that’s our mandate.”

#NoCopAcademy protesters stage a die-in at City Hall in May 2018 demanding the mayor invest in education rather than the police and fire training facility. (Credit: Facebook)

Gomez said the process made them appreciate there are many “external factors” such as political pressures that department had to deal with. For example, the commission questioned the budget allocations for officer wellness, and they found that there are many factors in play they haven’t considered, such as officer retention, the way the department is set up, how violence affects both officers and civilians and how many hours officers work

The commission is also responsible for reviewing general orders – the department’s policy directives – and propose their own general orders. The police and the commission either sign off on their respective proposals or work on a compromise that satisfies both parties.

Since January, the two sides have been discussing two orders. The department proposed an order that would tighten the existing policies about police officers not associating with criminal organizations to include “groups that practice or support terrorism and groups that practice or support illegal discrimination and prejudice.” The two sides disagree around the exact language, and the commission wants to include a section explicitly outlining how the officers will be trained to follow this order. 

The commission proposed an order that would allow it to review any policies related to  so-called “Gang databases – something that’s currently exempted from the commission’s review authority.

 Terry, one of the commissioners reviewing the criminal organizations order, said she was optimistic about the way things have been going so far.

“So far, this is just the beginning, and it has been a collaborative experience, and something that I hope will continue moving forward,” she said.

Nellis said he is working with commissioner Beth Brown to develop a policy clamping down on specialized violent crimes units such as the Memphis police department’s SCORPION unit, which was disbanded after its members beat resident Tyre Nichols, which led to his death. 

“We want to make sure that units like the SCORPION unit doesn’t exist in Chicago,” Nellis said. 

He also said the commission is investigating the use of traffic stops, which, as previously reported by Austin Weekly News, have been disproportionately higher in communities of color. Nellis argued this was ineffective at stopping crime and worsened community-police relations – but the commission wanted to get a better sense of how widespread the discriminatory practices are, and whether it happens with city-wide units, local beat officers, or some combination of both.

Overall, the commissioners agreed that they made good progress – and they were hopeful about what’s to come. 

“The role of this commission is very pivotal to the reform, as this is the first of its kind in the city’s history,” Terry said. “The great thing about it is the commission is for all Chicagoans. Our goal is to listen and elevate all the concerns, so whether you are a community resident, whether you’re a business owner, or even whether you’re part of the police department, we are here to [listen] and ensure that everybody is represented.”

The future

National Lawyers Guild observers get caught in the scuffle
Counter-protesters and police face off at Aug. 20, 2020 rally at Homan Square | Igor Studenkov/Contributing Reporter

The West Side commissioners agreed that, while they were glad to have the district councils in place, the election could have gone better. Like many candidates who spoke with Austin Weekly News, they felt that the city could have done a better job informing Chicagoans about what the councils were.

“I wish we had more people that ran, but I’m excited,” Terry said. “Hopefully, in the next cycle, people are familiar and aware and would pursue that office.”

Nellis said he was glad to see that “so many people” did run, and he was looking forward to working with the new councils.

“All of us, collectively, I can’t imagine we can’t move the needle on the police improvements in Chicago,” he said.

Gomez said he had faith that there would be plenty of community organizers, activists and “people with lived experiences” who would want to run, and, by and large, he was proven right.

“I think, overall, we saw positive involvement and we saw competitive elections,” he said.

The district councils have until the end of 2023 to nominate candidates for the commission.  Nellis said he was leaning toward putting his candidacy forward.

“I feel like a lot of work that we started isn’t going to happen overnight,” he said. “I’m passionate about this work, I have a unique perspective and knowledge [as someone] who lives in North Lawndale, really specialized in [working with] the young people involved in the legal system.”

Gomez said he was weighing his options. He felt it was important for the commission to have “a true representation of the community” and he was thinking whether there are others out there who would fit the bill better than him.

“That’s something I need to consider — whether I’m the one who should be doing the job, or whether I want to get other people involved,” he said.

Terry said she “hasn’t given much thought” about whether she would apply for a permanent seat, though she hasn’t ruled it out. She added that, for now, her priority is to set the foundation for what’s to come.

“For me, my goal was to ensure that the foundation was set,” Terry said. “We want to make sure that this work, the work we’re doing – that we’re setting a very high floor, so that the next commission keeps the work going.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...