Empowering Communities for Public Safety Ordinance Passes in Chicago City Council

By Michael Bednarski and James Piehl

NAARPR Executive Director and CAARPR Field Organizer Frank Chapman speaking at an ECPS rally. Photo courtesy of Alec Ozawa

Police accountability has been a contentious issue for decades in the United States. In recent years, people from around the country have flooded their streets demanding justice for those killed, tortured, or wrongfully convicted by the criminal justice system.

The deaths of black and brown people at the hands of police, including Laquan McDonald, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Adam Toledo and countless others have garnered international attention, and in the summer of 2020, sparked one of the largest protest rebellions in American history.

Many outraged Americans are demanding bold systemic changes to the criminal justice system, which has allowed many police officers to act with impunity. One organization that has been at the forefront of the movement for police accountability has been the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (NAARPR), founded in Chicago in 1973.

Emerging out of the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis and all political prisoners, the Alliance has fought for decades to free those tortured or wrongfully convicted, and to enact elected Civilian Police Accountability Councils (CPAC) in cities across the country.

“We started struggling for [community control of the police] in 2012 after the murder of Rekia Boyd by an off-duty police officer who was not held accountable. [CPAC] came out of a community meeting in Englewood where the agreement was that these police officers need to be held accountable and it needs to be the community that does it”, said Kobi Guillory, organizer with the Chicago Alliance.

CAARPR organizer and Chicago resident Kobi Guillory. (Photo/James Piehl)

After nearly a decade of tireless organizing, and coming off the heels of the 2020 George Floyd rebellion, the Chicago Alliance (CAARPR) and the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA) joined forces to get the Empowering Communities for Public Safety Ordinance (ECPS) passed through City Council in July 2021.

In Chicago, there is a long history of police crimes, corruption, and cover-ups, from torture overseen by Chicago Police Department (CPD) Commander Jon Burge, to the murder of Laquan McDonald and subsequent cover-up by high-ranking city officials, including former Mayor Rahm Emmanuel.

“I think Kim Foxx is accurate when she says Chicago is the epicenter of police torture in the nation” said Jazmine Salas, an organizer with the Chicago Alliance. “The history and experiences here are so deep and truly intergenerational, and I think that’s also why this movement for community control of the police has really flourished in Chicago.”

CAARPR organizer and Chicago resident Jazmine Salas. (Photo/James Piehl)

Since 2015, there has not been a year in which police misconduct complaints in Chicago have been below 4000. Complaints reached a peak in 2020 and have stayed high over the past year.

ECPS will create a district council for every one of Chicago’s 22 police districts, each of which will consist of three elected community members. The 66 district council members then nominate 22 candidates for a community commission, seven of which are selected and confirmed by the mayor and City Council.

Once the community commission is formed, it will have the power to give final approval on CPD policy, oversee district councils, select or remove the COPA (Civilian Office of Police Accountability) Chief, Police Board President and members (pending mayoral approval), and the CPD Superintendent (pending mayoral approval).

The ECPS ordinance is regarded as the most democratic police accountability system in the country, rivaled only by that of Los Angeles which while having a community oversight board, does not elect its members like Chicago will now be doing.

Members of the committee will include two individuals from the South Side, two from the West Side, two from the North Side, and one representative for the entire city. A minimum of two members on the board will have backgrounds in civil law and criminal defense or prosecution.

Additionally, the other candidates will have at least five combined years of experience in fields such as psychology, public safety, and social work. There is, however, an exception that grants two board members between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four years old a pass from these requirements.

The prerequisites for being on this commission are fairly extensive and the need for experience in these various fields has the potential to cause issues with recruiting the proper candidates to fill the desired roles.

This will be an aspect of the situation that will need to continue to be monitored, as getting the seven commissioners who are willing to carry out the four-year term that comes with the position is essential for an effective result.

While ECPS is a huge step forward towards keeping the Chicago Police Department in check, there is still work that needs to be done to give more control to the community. There is currently a separate ordinance being deliberated by the City Council which would pave the way for a public referendum on expanding the powers of the ECPS community commission.

Included in this expansion would be the removal of mayoral and City Council authority from the process, the direct election of nine commissioners by Chicago voters, the district councils’ selection of two additional commissioners from marginalized and underrepresented communities, and the power of the commission to negotiate police contracts and the CPD budget.

If this ordinance passes, the referendum would take place during the 2022 city-wide elections. Meanwhile, members of CAARPR and GAPA frequently referred to as the “ECPS Coalition”, have been canvassing inwards all around the city to spread the word about the referendum and garner support for community control of the police among Chicago’s residents.

Undoubtedly, this would lead to an immense change in the way that the Chicago Police Department operates and carries out its duties. The department budget, which is currently about half of the entire city budget, would likely see a significant reduction, and police presence is expected to be curbed in areas considered to be overpoliced by many supporting ECPS.

Frank Chapman, the Executive Director of NAARPR and Field Organizer of CAARPR, has been leading the Chicago Alliance in their efforts to achieve community control of the police and free political prisoners, informed by his own personal experience as a former political prisoner, freed from a life sentence with the help of his sister in the struggle, Angela Davis.

Chapman’s direction was pivotal in another recent victory of CAARPR: freeing Gerald Reed. Reed was tortured into signing a false confession to a double murder by detectives working under Commander Jon Burge, and after 30 years of wrongful imprisonment, the Chicago Alliance succeeded in pressuring Governor Pritzker to pardon Gerald Reed.

Unfortunately, notwithstanding Burge’s defamed reputation, many of his victims remain incarcerated despite the inadmissibility of their confessions, signed through torture and coercion. Because of this, CAARPR continues to fight for all who are wrongfully incarcerated and continues to demand the release of many prisoners.

The CPD claims to value accountability and transparency, but the successful passage of the ECPS ordinance and growing protest demonstrations against police crimes suggest a disparity between CPD’s rhetoric and their actual responsiveness to the community.

Those looking to get involved in the CAARPR’s push for police accountability or simply looking to do more research on the subject should visit their website at https://www.caarpr.org/ and look for the referendum on their ballot in the primary election next year.

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