Chicago’s battle over police accountability

Veteran activist Frank Chapman speaks at a Jan. 9, 2019, press conference to support the Civilian Police Accountability Council in Chicago. Photo by Charles Edward Miller

Myles Frazier was in the midst of a mental health crisis when the Chicago Police Department’s SWAT team fatally shot him after a half-hour standoff on May 22.

Police say the twenty-two-year-old black man, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was armed and fired shots outside the building where he had barricaded himself on the city’s predominantly black South Side.

The next day, May 23, two armed people were holed up in an apartment building on the predominantly white Northwest Side. Calls to police progressed from “a man waving a gun around” to “shots fired.” The SWAT team was brought in, and after four hours, a man and a woman were arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault.

“In Chicago, black people are fourteen times more likely to experience [Chicago Police Department] use of force than white people,” said Aislinn Pulley, co-executive director of Chicago Torture Justice Center, at a June 13 press conference called by a coalition of police accountability groups, some of which were plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city. “We have a crisis with policing.”

To be sure, this crisis existed before police fired sixteen shots into the body of black seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014. Police commander Jon Burge and his “Midnight Crew” of South Side detectives-for one example, were accused of torturing more than 100 suspects, mostly black people, in custody from 1972 to 1991 in order to force confessions. And before Burge, there was the dawn-raid-turned-police- assassination of Illinois Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton in 1969.

But it was McDonald’s death, and the coverup by the police and the city to protect his killer, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, that set in motion a political earthquake in the country’s third-largest city.

In the aftershock, Chicago’s police superintendent was fired, and Cook County’s incumbent state’s attorney was ousted in the 2016 elections. Mayor Rahm Emanuel declined to run at all. A U.S. Department of Justice investigation found racial disparities in the Chicago Police Department’s use of force and patterns of unconstitutional practices. On January 31, a judge approved a federal court-enforceable consent decree, which established new standards for the use of force, crisis intervention, police training and supervision, and transparency.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot/MacLean Center

With a new Chicago mayor and a wave of new progressive city council members set to reconvene on July 24, the ground under City Hall is still shifting, and police accountability is a critical fault line. In the weeks since the approval of the consent decree, six people have been killed by Chicago police officers; four of the six were killed after the city’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, took office on May 20.

Myles Frazier was one of them.

Lightfoot was elected as an outsider candidate, a self-described reformer seemingly untouched by the stench of political corruption. Chicagoans showed they were (and are) hungry for change, rewarding the political newcomer with 73 percent of the vote. Celebrated as a history-making mayor, being the first African American woman and openly lesbian person elected to the office, Lightfoot quickly rose to national prominence.

For Chicago’s black-led police reform activists, there is more than a healthy dose of skepticism, however. They have battled Lightfoot since her time as president of the Chicago Police Board and Police Accountability Task Force.

Frank Chapman, field organizer for Chicago Alliance against Racist and Political Repression remarked at a Juneteenth Public Police Crimes Hearing on June 19: “the mayor is someone we fought for three years while she was president of the Police Board. Who stonewalled the hell out of us. Around the Rekia Boyd case. Around the Flint Farmer case. Around numerous cases.”

Chapman, a veteran activist who young members of the movement refer to as “Baba Frank,” credited the Chicago Black Lives Matter coalition and movement for Lightfoot’s victory.

“If we hadn’t been in the streets raising hell,” he told the activist audience, po“there wouldn’t have been no black mayor, ’cause [former Mayor] Rahm [Emanuel] would’ve threw his hat in. We are responsible for this situation. So let’s take responsibility.”

This includes organizing to pass a proposal for a Civilian Police Accountability Council through Chicago’s new city council, which the movement’s leaders plan to do.

“We are absolutely, positively looking forward to meeting with the new mayor,” Arewa Karen Winters of Justice for Families said at the June 13 press conference. “It’s going to take a collaboration of voices, especially our voices as we’ve worked long and hard in bringing this consent decree because we have lost loved ones.”

But, Winters added, there have been “a lot of red flags” since Lightfoot took office. She questioned Lightfoot’s call to put more police on the South and West Sides in response to gun violence. “The first measure should have been putting resources in the communities,” Winters said.

Lightfoot, for her part, has responded to the spate of six police killings with familiar City Hall talking points.

“We are continuing to work hard to implement the kind of training that is necessary, so we don’t put officers in circumstances that use deadly force,” Lightfoot told ABC News.

The next stretch of road for civilian oversight and reigning in police power runs through the city council and mayor’s office. Activists are pushing for police accountability using every available tool: the federal consent decree and the courts, the streets, the city council.

Currently, there are two proposals now before the city council.

One would create a Civilian Police Accountability Council, or CPAC. It calls for putting police oversight into the hands of an elected council of civilians, one from each police district, stripping away appointment power and control from the mayor and city council. It abolishes and replaces the current oversight bodies: the Police Board, and the Civilian Office for Police Accountability.

In the proposed ordinance, CPAC would appoint the police superintendent and negotiate police collective bargaining agreements within the financial guidelines set by the city council. It adopts rules and guidelines for the Chicago Police Department and has disciplinary and investigative powers. It also bars any police-active or retired and their extended families-from serving on the council.

CPAC has thirteen sponsors in Chicago’s fifty-member City Council.

The other, more traditional proposal would create a Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, referred to as GAPA because it was drafted by the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability, has twenty-nine sponsors, including six who are sponsoring CPAC. The mayor, perhaps predictably, favors the commission ordinance, which does not strip her power.

According to a side-by-side checklist made available to , there are a few overlapping powers that CPAC and GAPA share. Both create district councils for local input. Both allow the oversight committees to immediately question a police officer following a shooting incident, currently prohibited under the Fraternal Order of Police contract. And both would function independently from the mayor’s office.

But among the independent powers CPAC has is the ability to directly appoint the CPD superintendent. Under GAPA, the commission must submit a list of nominations to the mayor, who can accept or reject them. The accepted nominee must be confirmed by the city council.

CPAC supporters are organizing on its behalf. Chapman said CPAC has “teeth” and the current version of GAPA doesn’t quite have “baby teeth.”

The Chicago Fraternal Order of Police has rejected any attempt at enforcing the consent decree or other accountability measures. So far, Lightfoot has refused to negotiate a contract with the union until reform is on the table.

From 2000 to 2016, only 1.2 percent of civilian complaints against all Chicago police officers accused of misconduct resulted in a suspension or firing. These statistics are why CPAC supporters say real police accountability means empowering communities most affected by police violence.

It has become an article of faith that the way to deal with daily abuses of power by police officers is through training and retraining. However, training without substantial accountability and reform could equal more status quo, more militarized, and more lethal police.

Mayor Emanuel got the city council to approve $95 million to build a police training facility-after closing fifty public schools-igniting the #NoCopAcademy movement. But Lightfoot supports the controversial “cop academy,” slated to be built in a majority black neighborhood. Critics say the $95 million could be better spent by investing in health and education needs of impoverished communities.

“Police don’t need more training. They don’t need training to not kill people,” said Pulley at the press conference. “We need expansive public schools, not policing; mental health facilities, not policing. We know scientifically what causes intra-communal violence. It’s lack of jobs. It’s lack of resources. Those things will address the root causes of intra-communal violence, not policing. It’s throwing fuel on an already raging fire.”

Since 2004, the city has had to pay about $662 million in police misconduct cases. And that’s in a town where out of the 247,150 civilian complaints from 1988 to 2019, only seven percent resulted in any kind of disciplinary action.

The city could be held in contempt for the six deaths this year-and the lack of official response-arguing they violate the decree’s “sanctity of life” clause, McArthur Justice Center attorney Alexa Van Brunt announced at the June 13 press conference.

“The consent decree explicitly requires respect for sanctity of life, as well as specific mental health measures, and Myles Frazier was in mental health crisis when he was shot and killed in his own home by a SWAT team,” she said. “There has been absolute silence by city officials in the wake of these killings and it’s really been business as usual.”

Van Brunt and other attorneys from the McArthur Justice Center, housed within Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, represented plaintiffs in Campbell v. City of Chicago, a June 2017 class-action lawsuit that sought federal court oversight of Chicago Police Department. The plaintiffs were individuals, activists and community groups including Black Lives Matter Chicago, Justice for Families and Women’s All Points Bulletin, all represented at the press conference.

Through the hard work of civil rights advocates, attorneys and journalists at the Invisible Institute, police data have been made public and searchable through the institute’s Citizens Police Data Project.

The Intercept, in partnership with the Invisible Institute, reported that the “data shows not only police shootings, but also thousands of regular police uses of force over more than a decade — involving an average of 10 people every day — documenting cases in which officers tackled, tased, or used other types of force on civilians, nearly 90 percent of whom were people of color.”

Van Brunt said Chicago is the first city in the country to win a consent decree in which the communities most affected by police violence have the power to go into federal court and enforce that decree.

“We intend to use that power,” she said, “but we shouldn’t have to.”

Writers interpret the world in various ways, the point is to change it.

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