Policing experts sound off on civilian oversight

Taliaferro's Jan. 23 public safety hearing gathered experts, activists

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

While the exact opinions varied, the four expects called to testify before Chicago City Council's Committee on Public Safety, during its Jan. 23 hearing, agreed on two things: Civilians should be involved in police oversight and they have to know that their input has meaningful impact. 

Not long after he became chair of the Committee on Public Safety, Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) announced he wanted to hold hearings on the two ordinances that would create an oversight body which, unlike the Chicago Police Board, wouldn't be directly appointed by the mayor. Since then, the hearings have been pushed back several times — something the alderman attributed to scheduling conflicts and negotiations about potential changes to the ordinance. 

The Jan. 23 hearing, held at the City Council chambers, 121 N. LaSalle St., was meant to provide expert opinions on what kind of changes the city should aim for. Taliaferro said he hoped to hold hearings on the two ordinances themselves sometime in February.

For the past few years, the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA) and the Chicago Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression (CAARPR) have been pushing for ordinances to create an elected civilian council that would have some degree of oversight over CPD practices, discipline issues, and hiring and firing of the police superintendent. CAARPR ordinance (also known as "CPAC ordinance") would make the most sweeping changes, with the Civilian Police Advisory Council taking over all functions of the police board and the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and getting the authority to review and approve the police department's budget; discipline and fire police officers, and, if necessary, bring them to trial; and negotiate and approve police union contracts.

While the CPAC ordinance remained largely the same over the years, the GAPA ordinance changed over time. In fact, according to Desmon Yancy, GAPA's community coordinator, the group is still negotiating details of the ordinance with the city, and he declined to give a concrete timeline for when it would be publically available. 

But the most recent publicly available version called for the creation of three-member elected councils in each police district. The nine-member Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability would be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council from a pool of candidates selected by a committee made up of district council members. 

The Community Commission would select candidates for police superintendent and recommend a superintendent removal, with the city council getting the final say in both cases. The commission would play a similar role in hiring and firing the head of COPA, the appointment of Chicago Police Board members, as well as annual performance reviews for all three. It would also be able to review, approve and propose CPD and COPA policies, unless a consent decree disallows it. 

For the Jan. 23 meeting, Taliaferro invited four experts. Sam Walker is emeritus professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice who has written multiple reports on police accountability. Barry Freedman is the head of the New York University School of Law's Policing Project, which among other things is currently working with the 25th and 15th police districts to create a more collaborative form of community-based policing. Arif Alikhan previously served as director of the LAPD Office of Constitutional Policing & Policy and currently serves as director of Policing Innovation and Reform at the University of Chicago Crime Lab. And Craig Futterman is a clinical professor at the University of Chicago Law School. While most panelists carefully avoided supporting either ordinance, Futterman said he supported the CPAC ordinance. 

Walker said, "A consensus [among] police experts across the country is that police can't do their jobs alone.

"They require active participation by the public in order to effectively confront crime and disorder, and provide public services," he said. "And citizen participation is not only recommended, it's absolutely necessary." 

Walker said such civilian bodies shouldn't dictate policies to the police, calling it "bad practice." Instead, police and residents should work together to develop them. He added that residents should have an active role in not only selecting a superintendent but evaluating his or her performance.

"At the beginning of each calendar year, the superintendent will meet with community representatives and define their goals and objectives to the community for that year," Walker said. "At the end of the calendar year, [the superintendent] will deliver reports assessing accomplishments for a year and what needs to be done for the upcoming year. This process, this dialogue, the goals and expectations for the police department, will help build trust and confidence, and [residents] will have a sense that they had the voice."

Friedman said the accountability needs to come in two forms: the "back-end accountability," which is where investigative bodies such as COPA and the police board respond to incidents that already happened, and "front-end accountability," the policies and practices that are designed to prevent misconduct from happening in the first place. The latter element, Friedman said, is missing in Chicago — and having something that's democratically elected has legitimacy in the eyes of the public. 

Alikhan cited the Los Angeles Police Commission as an example of front-end accountability. As noted on its website, it sets overall policy, while the chief of police implements it. 

"The commissioners' concerns are reflective of the community-at-large, and their priorities include implementing recommended reforms, improving service to the public by the department, reducing crime and the fear of crime, and initiating, implementing and supporting community policing programs," the site states.

The commissioners are appointed by the mayor of Los Angeles. As Alikhan noted, they have the power to remove the police chief, though that's subject to mayoral veto. 

Futterman agreed about the importance of front-end accountability while also saying that having public hearings on the ordinances was important. He pointed to the fact that the notice for the Jan. 23 meeting didn't go until Jan. 21, leaving many residents with little advance notice. 

Futterman also said he disagreed with Walker and Friedman about police and community needing to have equal input on policies, arguing that the community should have more power in the equation.

"We've given police extraordinary powers, powers that nobody else has — the power to take our liberty in the name of our protection and public safety," he said. "And the principle [is] that this extraordinary power comes with extraordinary accountability."

As part of that, Futterman argued in favor of having a council that's made up of "people who have been most impacted by police abuse."

Ald. Matt Martin (47th) wondered what the aldermen could do to improve accountability. Futterman said they could do more on the policy end to help avert misconduct that leads to lawsuits. And when the city is choosing a superintendent, they could hold community forums to let the residents know about who the finalists are.

Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th), who served as chair of the Committee on Public Safety before Taliaferro, questioned how civilian oversight bodies such as the Los Angeles Police Commission affected the way police do their jobs. Walker said research in Los Angeles and other cities showed that both crime and use of force went down, while "law enforcement activity went up.

"They were working harder, they were working smarter," he said, adding that making de-escalation a priority made a lot of difference. 

Friedman said while the objectives of what the police officers do hasn't changed, their approach has — that is "getting police officers to understand they're part of a community [who] are partners and not the problem."

Looking at what the Policing Project has done at the 25th District, Friedman noted, officers involved said they felt "great satisfaction in their work because they're working together [with the community] and solving that problem."

Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) questioned whether another layer of oversight was necessary, Taliaferro stuck up for the concept.

"One of the things I heard in my community as well is that we do need a civilian component," he said. "We have a police board [appointed] by the mayor, you have an Inspector General that is appointed by the mayor. What we don't have, which is very important, we don't have a board and a commission that's elected by the people."

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com 

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