CITY HALL — The City Council took what many aldermen described as a “first step” toward Police Department reform Wednesday, moving to create a new agency to probe police shootings and misconduct, along with a new deputy inspector general assigned to public safety.
Though Mayor Rahm Emanuel boasted of adopting many of the recommendations made earlier this year by his appointed Task Force on Police Accountability, Wednesday’s 39-8 vote was the first significant action on police reform adopted by the full Council since the release of the Laquan McDonald video set off a crisis in confidence in Chicago law enforcement late last year.
Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th), who helped shepherd Emanuel’s proposal through the Council as chairman of the Public Safety Committee, called it “a giant step in the right direction.”
Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) labeled it “a strong step forward,” even as he said the true test would come with the next contract negotiated with the local Fraternal Order of Police union.
Critics complained the new Civilian Office of Police Accountability created Wednesday doesn’t actually involve any true civilian oversight of the police department, an element Corporation Counsel Steve Patton called “the third leg of the stool” of police reform.
“Once again, we find ourselves having no choice,” Hairston said. “Once again, it’s what the mayor wants or nothing. It’s not what the NAACP wants. It’s not what Rainbow PUSH wants. It’s not what the Community Renewal Society wants. And it’s not what many community organizations and activists want.”
“It’s not the mayor’s ordinance,” countered Ald. David Moore (17th), adding that Emanuel only “took the lead on it.”
Ald. Joe Moore (49th) praised the “extensive collaborative process” that produced the reforms.
Even Emanuel, however, acknowledged, “I would consider this the beginning of a journey, not the end.”
“We have an enormous component that does not exist now, and that is the civilian board,” said Ald. John Arena (45th). “If we fail there, all the work we put into this will be for nothing.”
Arena added, “This is not a victory. This is not the end.”
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) echoed that, saying, “We can’t pat ourselves on the back.”
Critics added the new agency will offer little substantive improvement on the discredited Independent Police Review Authority it will replace, especially as IPRA Chief Administrator Sharon Fairley will simply shift over to head the new agency on an interim basis.
“You can’t have community oversight if the mayor still remains in control of the agency in charge of investigating police, if the mayor hires the person, if the mayor can fire the person and if the mayor supervises the person,” Hairston said.
“Nothing in the ordinance provides any more transparency than IPRA,” she added. “Obviously, Chicago ain’t ready for reform. Sadly, we prove it time and time again.”
A majority of the Council decided that it was critical to move forward on some elements of Police Department reform, especially with IPRA discredited and losing staff.
“We have to move as we talk,” said Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. “Folks want justice today. We need to put this in place and then incorporate better ideas.”
Emanuel agreed, “We’re working through that process,” of how the civilian oversight board will be arrayed and what its duties will be, including perhaps a role in the selection the COPA chief administrator.
Reboyras said a new resolution was submitted Wednesday calling for the creation of a true civilian oversight agency. Arena called for it to be completed early next year.
“We are committed to create that oversight board sooner rather than later,” said Ald. Milly Santiago (31st). “I urge you not to wait.
Hairston and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) have submitted competing proposals for a separate civilian oversight agency, with Ramirez-Rosa citing the widespread support of his Civilian Police Accountability Council at public hearings on police reform earlier this year.
Ramirez-Rosa repeated his call for CPAC to be considered Wednesday, even as he voted for the COPA ordinance.
The eight aldermen voting against included Hairston, Marty Quinn (13th), Matt O’Shea (19th), Michael Zalewski (23rd), Roberto Maldonado (26th), Christopher Taliaferro (29th), Nicholas Sposato (38th) and Anthony Napolitano (41st), many of them from wards with a high concentration of police officers.
Emanuel urged police to accept the reforms as the best course forward, saying, “The police will be as effective as their partnership with the community.”
The police reform package approved Wednesday was passed by a joint Budget and Public Safety Committee the day before on a 21-4 vote at the end of a marathon six-hour-plus meeting that saw a brouhaha break out in the Council gallery shortly into the session.
In addition to creating the new agency and a new deputy inspector general post, the council on Wednesday approved basic funding levels for both, as well as independent legal counsel.
Dozens of demonstrators advocating for the CPAC proposal stood at the beginning of the debate on the issue and disrupted the Council by chanting, “Hold the vote,” urging aldermen to address all aspects of police reform at the same time.
“Can’t we just get along?” Reboyras said as he sat down after making his initial remarks over the chants.
At one point in addressing the Council after the vote for passage, Emanuel acknowledged that perceptions of police are different in the 77 neighborhoods across the city.
“No kidding,” shouted someone in the gallery.