Chicago Election Puts Police Oversight in Voters’ Hands

On Tuesday, Chicagoans will elect new district councils tasked with oversight, but police-backed candidates may lessen their impact.

Max Blaisdell   |    February 23, 2023

Two Chicago police officers patrolling Michigan avenue. (iStock/400tmax)

In the upcoming Feb. 28 election featuring a tense mayoral contest between incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot and an array of formidable challengers, Chicagoans will also have their first opportunity to vote on ordinary citizen candidates for 22 new police district councils. 

“This is the first time in the history of Chicago and in the history of the United States that Black and brown people have been given a democratic option to say who polices their communities and how their communities are policed,” activist Frank Chapman said of the new police oversight body. 

Chapman, now 80 years old, led the grassroot movement that prompted the city council to pass the Empowering Communities for Public Safety (ECPS) ordinance in 2021, creating the district councils.

These councils, the culmination of decades of activism for increased police accountability, represent Chicago’s boldest attempt to give residents direct input over policing practices. Councils will hold forums and monthly public meetings to hear residents’ concerns and discuss topics like police interactions with youth and undocumented residents, community policing, and restorative justice initiatives.

Each district council will operate with three positions; a chairperson, a community engagement coordinator, and a member who serves on the nominating committee for another citywide police oversight board. All members of a council must be a resident of the district for at least a year, and none can be active members of the Chicago Police Department (CPD), although former officers can be elected if they left the department at least three years prior to the date on which they would assume office.

While these duties and responsibilities outlined in the ECPS ordinance are fairly clear, much about the members’ day-to-day responsibilities has yet to be determined. “We are building the plane while we’re flying it,” is how Julia Kline, a candidate for the 2nd District police council who is also a voting rights activist and former Chicago Public School teacher, described it. 

Over 100 candidates are now running for the 66 council seats. They come from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences—young people of color and Chicago Public School teachers to retired CPD officers and practicing attorneys—and many have not held elected office before. 

As the inaugural members, the winners in Tuesday’s election will likely chart the direction of future district councils and have a hand in shaping how they handle common community complaints such as lengthy response times or patterns of misconduct like stop-and-frisk. Although the practice was reined in under a 2015 federal consent decree, stop-and-frisk is nevertheless still occurring to Black and brown youth, according to at least one district council candidate. But if candidates with pro-police and reform-minded views end up on these councils, any nominations, policy recommendations, and initiatives that emerge will be contingent on the ability of these factions—who have historically been at odds—to share power. 

Most crucially, the district councils will help decide who gets nominated to serve on the seven-member Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability (CCPSA), another accountability body with more direct and wide-ranging powers over CPD’s policies and budget. This city-wide oversight commission, which was also created by the 2021 ordinance, can also remove the head of the Citizens Office of Police Accountability (COPA), which has existed since 2017 and is tasked with conducting its own investigations into police misconduct and releasing reports and body-cam footage that result from those investigations. 

COPA has faced public criticism after the police killing of Harith Augustus in 2018, the botched raid on social worker Anjanette Young’s home in 2019, and the fatal shooting of Adam Toledo in 2021. In these cases and others, Chicago residents took issue with the length of time it took COPA to release its disciplinary recommendations, and for its hesitancy to release all available body-cam footage from the incidents, not just those videos deemed most relevant.

The Commission can also cast a vote of no confidence for Chicago’s police superintendent, forcing both City Council hearings and a public response from the mayor which could lead to their possible ouster. It also gets to draft the shortlist of candidates whenever a vacancy arises.

Asked how these reforms were achieved, Chapman said, “We built a grassroots movement in the neighborhoods going door by door, block by block, district by district. And after we built up a big groundswell of support, we actually forced the city to the negotiating table to negotiate this history-making ordinance.”

But the roots of the movement extend back much further than this most recent election cycle. Calls for community control of policing trace back to the Black Panther Party and Illinois deputy chairman Fred Hampton Sr., who brought the first multicultural Rainbow Coalition together in the late 1960s around this very issue. But the reform effort failed, according to Chapman, in the face of concerted opposition from Chicago’s political machine helmed by longtime mayor Richard J. Daley. (Hampton was later killed by Chicago police, in conjunction with the FBI.)

Nevertheless, the 2012 killing of Rekia Boyd by off-duty police detective Dante Servin, and his subsequent acquittal on the charges of involuntary manslaughter, reignited calls for police accountability. It also prompted the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR) and other organizers to host a meeting that was attended by around 150 community members, many of whom had previously experienced police violence, who then decided to build a movement demanding elected police councils, according to Chapman.

High-profile police killings and scandals in subsequent years have added strength to the movement and garnered significant public support for substantial reform measures—like the killing of Laquan McDonald, who was revealed to have been shot 16 times after police attempted to cover up details of the shooting; revelations about the widespread extent of police torture committed by former Chicago police commander Jon Burge and his associates leading to a landmark reparations ordinance; and the still-unfolding corruption scandal involving former Sgt. Ronald Watts, which prompted the largest wave of exonerations in the history of Chicago.

Following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May 2020, thousands in Chicago and millions across the United States took to the streets to protest police brutality. This gave leaders of the police accountability movement, backed by alderpersons Jeanette Taylor, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, and Roderick Sawyer of the Black Caucus, leverage to negotiate the Empowering Communities for Public Safety ordinance with the mayor’s office. The police district councils were the signature policy of that ordinance, which passed the city council with a 36-13 vote, because they extended community input and democratic control over individual police districts. 

For reform-minded candidates running for those district councils, increasing the number of restorative justice and alternative public safety interventions could pave the way to reducing police budgets. “If we can figure out how to keep each other safe in such a way that nobody needs to call the police into our neighborhoods, we will all be so much better off,” Kline, the 2nd District candidate, said. “And then maybe the police can shrivel in the way that they need to do.”

Meanwhile, some candidates have ties to the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which has spent more than $25,000 backing specific candidates in these races, and supports increasing CPD’s budget and hiring more officers, according to the Chicago Reader. On February 11, the FOP endorsed 19 candidates across 11 of the 22 district council races. This move came after the Chicago FOP chapter said on Twitter that the city’s police accountability measures “support criminals over victims.”

Perry Abbasi, a FOP election lawyer who’s been accused of posting misogynist and racist social media posts, was tapped by the FOP to run in the 25th District race after they failed to find a candidate who aligned with their interests. 

Abbasi confirms that he has been paid $15,000 by the FOP since September 2022 for work getting several pro-police candidates on the ballot and for filing challenges against slates of progressive candidates in the 19th, 20th, and 24th District races. Abbasi argued that these candidates shouldn’t be on the ballot because they filed their ballot petitions as a group rather than individually. 

Per a decision by the Board of Elections and affirmed by the Circuit Court that rejected his argument, the candidates remain on the ballot. Abbasi’s argument was once again rejected by the Illinois Court of Appeals, he says, and so the slates of progressive candidates will not be disqualified.

“[Police] have a First Amendment right to participate in the political process, and they’re doing so,” Abbasi told Bolts.

By running their own slate of candidates, activists think the FOP is trying to undermine this new oversight mechanism from the start. 

“This is the height of hypocrisy,” Chapman said. “You’re not in favor of this law, so…why do you want people in the district councils? So you can gum them up, so you can block progress. That’s the only reason.”

CAARPR encouraged more than 50 candidates to run for their desire to achieve greater accountability for police misconduct and plan to explore alternatives to policing like sending mental health workers in response to crisis calls. 

Because so many of the candidates are working class, Chapman said that “they can’t afford to buy this election.” For that reason, CAARPR has been assisting them with canvassing, printing campaign materials, and other field operations.

One of those candidates backed by CAARPR is Coston Plummer, a home care worker who’s championed disability rights and is running for the 2nd District council. Plummer brings a different perspective on policing than the FOB-backed candidates as brother of a Burge torture survivor who remains incarcerated to this day, and is an ardent supporter of police accountability measures. He wants to bring an end to stop-and-frisk measures and no-knock warrants, and he sees the recent objection by the interim CCPSA to the new CPD gang database as evidence of how the elected oversight commission can influence policy. 

Carisa Parker, a survivor of domestic violence at the hands of her partner who was a CPD officer and mother of a current officer, has a complex relationship to policing in the city. She is running in the 22nd District and plans to “focus on the systemic issues that cause those disciplinary issues.”

“Are we hiring people with a military mindset and not people who are going in as guardians?” Parker asked. “​​I really see this body as being a really important piece of proactive accountability.”

Organizers from across the country have journeyed to and camped out in Chicago in the dead of winter to learn from the ECPS campaign about the district council model. They came from cities such as New York, Washington DC, and Silver Spring, Maryland, and even places as far away as Dallas and Seattle.  

They are looking to Chicago’s new model of popularly-elected councils with cautious optimism after seeing their own cities’ efforts at police accountability through civilian oversight boards stunted by lack of staffing, inadequate funding, limited powers, or a combination of constraints. In Dallas, for example, where citizen oversight body members are appointed by city council, some have been criticized for having too close ties with police. In Fort Worth, after the city council voted down a proposal for a civilian oversight board, the police chief recently put forth his own proposal for a model in which he’d handpicked a majority of the members.

Chicagoans are also familiar with oversight reforms that raise hope only to be dashed against stonewalling by the police department and foot-dragging from the mayor’s office. But the city does have a track record of success with accountability measures; COPA, unlike its peer institutions in other cities, is well-staffed, adequately funded, and conducts its own misconduct investigations. 

Additionally, the level of transparency is somewhat higher in Chicago given that the public has full access to data from Chicago police disciplinary records through the Citizens Police Data Project, which was unparalleled when first launched in 2015. Two years after New York’s state legislature repealed Section 50-a in 2020, making police disciplinary records publicly accessible in that state, the Legal Aid Society created an NYPD misconduct dashboard.

Chapman isn’t optimistic about reform efforts that focus on persuading the police of the need for change from within: “the sad news is that has never worked.” Nevertheless, he was more sanguine about putting power in the hands of the ordinary citizens: “Once we learn how to mobilize the people and demand the changes that we want…that always works.”