The Future of Police Accountability in Chicago

Zachary Mauer 
Associate Editor
Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD/MPP 2022

In the wake of mass protests across the country, many cities are grappling with how to hold their police accountable.  In Chicago, the Committee on Public Safety has been debating two proposals, the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA) and the Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC), for the past few months. Both ordinances would supersede the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) with a fully elected board of community members. The key difference between the two proposals is that CPAC would be independent of the mayor’s office and would have complete hiring and firing control of Chicago Police Department (CPD) officers and the police superintendent, while the GAPA ordinance would only give the board power to make recommendations to the mayor and the police superintendent. The Chicago City Council will debate and vote on these ordinances in the coming months.

In response to the Police Accountability Task Force created by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2016, the Chicago City Council created the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) and created a Deputy Inspector General position. The final recommendation by the task force, to create a community safety oversight board, has not yet materialized.

What do we currently have?

Under the current system of police oversight, the mayor has control over the appointments of the superintendent, the inspector general, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and the Police Board. After conducting investigations into police misconduct, COPA only has the authority to make recommendations to the Police Board and the mayor’s office regarding discipline.

Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC)

CPAC requires the creation of an elected council of 11 members, one from each set of two contiguous police districts. Members serve four-year terms and would be elected alongside the Local School Councils for Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Two deputies, one stationed in each police district, would assist every council member. The council would be independent of both CPD and the mayor. They would have the power to appoint, supervise, and fire a police superintendent for cause, to approve CPD policies and procedures, be responsible for overseeing COPA, and appointing the Police Board. The annual budget for the council would be roughly $26 million (or 1.5% of CPD budget), with each member of the council being paid a salary commensurate to an alderman.

The Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR) has advocated for CPAC and 19 aldermen sponsor the ordinance. Also, 31 law professors from University of Chicago and Northwestern University law schools wrote a letter urging the mayor and city council to pass CPAC. 

Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA)

The GAPA ordinance seeks to create both a Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability and a community-level body within each police district. The Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability would consist of seven members who would be selected by a nominating committee comprised of elected District Council members. Similar to CPAC, this Commission would oversee CPD, COPA, and the Police Board. However, the GAPA commission would not have unilateral control to select or remove any of those agency heads. Those decisions are appealable and can be overturned by the City Council. In stark contrast to the proposed CPAC annual budget, the GAPA budget would be only $2.8 million, with commissioners being paid $12,000-$15,000 each.

GAPA is a coalition of 13 core organizations and 10 community foundations, which represent more than 30 wards. The ordinance currently has 29 sponsors in the City Council and is supported by the Public Safety Committee.

What happens next?

While Mayor Lori Lightfoot has supported the GAPA ordinance in the past, there have been recent disagreements with GAPA about who has the final say on establishing police policy when there is a disagreement between the Community Commission and the CPD. The mayor wants to maintain her position as the final decision-maker, while GAPA insists its seven-member commission should be the final arbiter. Amidst the backdrop of protests across the city and country, there is hope that the GAPA coalition and the CPAC organizers can come together to create a hybrid ordinance. Still, either ordinance would likely require 34 votes, two-thirds of the council, to override an expected veto from Mayor Lightfoot. The next City Council meeting is on September 9th, but with the City grappling with various crises simultaneously, it is unknown when the City Council will debate these proposals for a civilian police accountability board.