The Chicago Police Department has a deep and systemic problem with racism. It has police officers, in particular former police Chief Jon Burge, who were involved in torturing black men. Its officers shoot and kill Chicagoans with impunity, and the killing of Laquan McDonald, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s government and police department conspired to cover up, brought new focus to this reality.
But on October 5, the Chicago City Council passed Emanuel’s ordinance to create a Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) to replace the disreputable Investigative Police Review Agency (IPRA) created in 2007. Emanuel described this as a major step in the right direction.
The ordinance allows non-sworn employees of the police department or former employees of the Cook County State’s Attorney office to serve on COPA after five years. Sharon Fairley, the current chief administrator of IPRA, will take over COPA. All of which raises questions about the independence of the oversight agency.
More than anything, the mayor’s ordinance was a way to ensure grassroots activists did not successfully secure enough votes for a competing ordinance, which is still pending and would create a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC). In fact, CPAC would prohibit any individuals formerly employed by the police department.
“It’s been noted that it’s not perfect. Of course, it’s not, but it also stands in context in a series of things that we have done as a city in the last 10 months collectively,” Emanuel declared. “From body cameras to tasers to different types of trainings to de-escalation to oversight of the police department and accountability, if you want trust and public safety, you have to have accountability.”
While repeating more platitudes, Emanuel contended the city had taken a significant step in improving a police oversight agency plagued by racism. But in April, a task force concluded the agency was nine times more likely to uphold claims of misconduct by whites than blacks and nearly three times more likely to uphold claims by whites than those by Hispanics. Plus, 40 percent of complaints filed with IPRA over the past five years were not investigated, and in three out of four cases, arbitrators “reduced or eliminated discipline.”
The task force also determined, “The community has long been shut out of Chicago’s police oversight system. Meaningful engagement with the community—and giving the community power in the oversight system—is critical to ensuring that officers are held accountable for misconduct.” It called for the creation of a Community Safety Oversight Board to allow community members to have a role in police oversight.
Emanuel’s ordinance avoided the issue of giving the community a role in police oversight. He chose to create a replacement for IPRA without immediately following through on the task force recommendation. The matter was put off until 2017, and no commitments on how citizens will be empowered were made.
The Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR), which has aggressively advocated for the passage of CPAC and held multiple press conferences at city hall, called the passage of COPA shameful because it is a “fake police accountability bill. It replaces the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), but the only change is the name.”
“Chicago politicians think that if they hold out long enough, if they starve us for justice long enough, the community will get weary, and we will accept whatever they offer us. They think we fear that if we don’t accept it, we will get nothing. But they are wrong,” CAARPR added. “The passage by the city council of a farce, such as COPA, exposes that the entire city government is complicit in the system that allows the police to commit crimes against black and Latino people.”
CAARPR pledged not settle for Emanuel’s ordinance and keep fighting for a Civilian Police Accountability Council.
CPAC had quite a lot of support at community meetings, which were held as part of the process. For example, Jeff Baker, one of the lead organizers in the fight for civilian police oversight, declared at a meeting on August 22, “What we are talking about is taking folks like you and I, who are not affected by politics, who are not worried about maintaining our jobs. We want you to say I saw that video and say that was murder, he needs to be fired immediately and not have to worry about whether or not you [are] making the mayor look bad, whether or not he is going to support you in the next election.”
One city council member, Alderman Joe Moreno, misrepresented the level of grassroots support for the mayor’s oversight agency and claimed the Workers Center For Racial Justice supported the ordinance.
“The Workers Center does not support the COPA ordinance, and we have had no forums with the community to discuss it,” the Workers Center stated. A day before the vote, the Workers Center sent an email out asking members to call Emanuel’s office to request the vote on COPA be stopped so the community could be heard.
Emanuel argued city council members must stress to Chicagoans that they have to work with the police department. “Because at the end of the day, the faith we’re looking for, the trust we’re looking for are essential for the public safety we are looking for throughout the city of Chicago.”
But by not establishing a civilian oversight mechanism as part of this push for police reform, Emanuel showed that he does not trust Chicagoans. He also has poorly made the case to the community that the police department deserves to be trusted.
Jamie Kalven of the Invisible Institute, which has tracked police reform and engaged in critical work to bring transparency to law enforcement, published a major four-part investigative feature at The Intercept. It highlights how a gang tactical team “operated a protection racket in the public housing developments on Chicago’s South Side,” a “major criminal enterprise.” He interviews a whistleblower, who faced retaliation for helping the FBI and CPD’s internal affairs investigate the racket.
The feature calls attention to the “code of silence” that enables such criminal activity. Officers engage in “tightly orchestrated lying and various means” in order to maintain “narrative control.” They retaliate against whistleblowers, who cooperate with internal affairs and try to root out corruption.
Last week, the Chicago Reader, the city’s indispensable free weekly, exposed a secret budget funded by the highly controversial practice of asset forfeiture, the seizure of people’s property when officers arbitrarily claim it can be tied to a drug crime. CPD has brought in “nearly $72 million in cash and assets through civil forfeiture, keeping nearly $47 million for itself.” It uses the money to purchase surveillance equipment secretly and with no city council oversight.
City council members on the council’s finance committee were outraged to learn the police department had a secret budget. Ed Burke, a pro-police council member who walked out on the vote on COPA, was actually infuriated. He called attention to how the department has made 4,700 individual purchases since 2009 that total $36.9 million.
“I’ve been here for 47 years, gone through 47 budget hearings, and I can’t recall once that this has been disclosed to the City Council,” Burke declared.
As the New York Daily News’ Shaun King recently highlighted, there are two police officers in the department, who sodomized a man with a screwdriver in 2004. Coprez Coffie went to the hospital with a bleeding rectum. The CPD initially refused to discipline either of the officers involved, and they are still working for the department.
It is important to go back to the report from the police task force, which pushed the city to initiate a reform process. The task force report summarized the history of police oversight in Chicago:
In the early 1970s, CPD faced increasing allegations of police brutality, particularly in African-American communities. In response, Congressman Ralph Metcalfe convened a “Blue Ribbon Panel” to report on “The Misuse of Police Authority in Chicago.” The panel heard testimony concerning “many instances of grossly abusive conduct on the part of Chicago policemen,” which “poison police-community relations.” The panel found that CPD used fatal force more frequently than in other big cities, and that 75% of those killed were black. It also noted “the false arrests, the illegal searches or the more common kind of psychological violence that occurs daily, especially in exchanges between police and minorities and young people. Very few young Blacks and Browns have been spared the experience of having to swallow their pride and take a bullying insult from a police officer.”
And yet, the Metcalfe panel found, “complaints from citizens of abusive conduct by police are almost universally rejected by [CPD’s] self-investigation system.” Excessive force complaints were sustained in only 1.4% of cases. This led the panel to recommend that “an entirely new independent investigating agency, reporting its factual findings to the Police Board for imposition of discipline … should be created.” The panel’s recommendation led to the establishment of the Office of Professional Standards (“OPS”) in 1974.
A similar set of circumstances stemming from systemic racism pushed Mayor Richard Daley to create IPRA in 2007. Large protests against the police department after video of Laquan McDonald was released, and in response to widespread state-sanctioned violence by police throughout the United States, led to COPA. However, it does not appear that Emanuel has satisfied Chicagoans’ very clear demand for meaningful accountability and lasting change.
All of Chicago recognizes something radical must be done to deal with the corruption within the Chicago Police Department, and trust is a two-way street. If Emanuel wants city residents to trust the police, especially black and Latinos, who have little reason to trust a department that has engaged in brutality against their communities for decades, then he should more openly support including citizens in police accountability.