The Next Step For Police Accountability in Chicago: Civilian Oversight

In the wake of Jason Van Dyke’s conviction of second-degree murder for the killing of Laquan McDonald, many Chicagoans are wondering what comes next in the fight for police accountability. While the verdict was certainly a victory, it doesn’t bring back Laquan or the many, many others who have been and are systematically murdered by the Chicago Police Department. Van Dyke is, after all, just one cop in the $4 million-a-day pigsty that is the CPD.

It was only a few days after the trial’s conclusion that Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Department of Justice would fight the proposed consent decree recently put forward by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. The consent decree aims to reform and improve the CPD, but it too lacks the larger structural change that would radically alter the balance of power between civilians and police in the city.

Spending almost two years stuck in committee, the ordinance for the establishment of a Civilian Police Accountability Council (or CPAC) in Chicago has been mostly ignored by Rahm Emanuel’s City Hall. CPAC, which was drafted by The Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR), aims to democratize policing in Chicago and abolish the bureaucracy that has long festered within the CPD allowing rampant abuse and corruption to go mostly unchecked for more than a century.

CPAC would establish an elected council with a representative from each of the city’s twenty-two police districts, including their own staff and salary on level with those of aldermen. The council would have the power to appoint (and fire) the Superintendent of Police; rewrite CPD policy, including use of force guidelines and standard operating procedures; investigate police misconduct and all police involved shootings that kill unarmed people; and act as final authority regarding discipline in the Chicago Police Department, including the ability to indict police officers.

CPAC is in many ways a “non-reformist reform” just as Medicare For All or Universal Rent Control are. Socialists aim towards the abolition of police and prisons just as with capitalism and private property, and as such we don’t see the end goal as simply reforming the CPD. Rather, socialists fight for the establishment of CPAC because it would result in a fundamental shift in power from the police to the communities they patrol.

But despite 50,000 residents writing their aldermen in support of the ordinance, as well as numerous community groups backing it (including Chicago DSA), CPAC was set to be left behind back in April as Public Safety Committee chairman, 30th Ward Ald. Ariel Reboyras, announced that he would start holding neighborhood meetings across the city on the three other competing police accountability proposals: a plan drafted by the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA), and two others introduced by Reboyras himself.

That was until 35th Ward Alderman (and DSA member) Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, whose 2019 re-election campaign was recently endorsed by Chicago DSA, told the press that he would force a vote on CPAC under parliamentary rule 41 at the City Council’s next session. Reboyras first responded by moving to hold the vote at the Public Safety Committee meeting the day before the council’s meeting, but less than 24 hours prior to that meeting, Reboyras conceded to Rosa’s demands and agreed to move CPAC forward along with the other three plans for discussion.

CPAC has been editorialized in local reporting as being “radical” (Chicago Tonight, 4/05/18), a “long shot”(Chicago Tribune, 4/05/18), “extreme” and even “draconian” (Sun-Times 4/05/17, 4/13/18); quite a reach when describing an ordinance developed from the bottom up to curb state oppression. While Draco may have given out death sentences for the most minor of crimes back in ancient Athens, the CPD seems to have always been given the leaway to execute its citizens without any need for ‘due process’ whatsoever.

The more lenient plan put out by GAPA, which builds upon the existing Chicago Office of Police Accountability and does not grant such sweeping oversight, has received similar backlash to CPAC. Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson dismissed the idea of increased oversight on the grounds that civilians “don’t have the professional acumen to develop policy and strategy” for the CPD, and that it would be akin to “telling a surgeon how to do his business.” Quite rightfully, it takes several years of education and experience to be certified to slice and dice as a surgeon. The requirements to butcher for the CPD are much less intensive.

Speaking to the Sun-Times, 41st ward Alderman Napolitano said that the GAPA plan would severely hurt cop morale. Napolitano says that GAPA would “put civilians on a board who most likely don’t like the police and are gonna look for everything they’re doing wrong.” Further, Napolitano adds, “we’ve already lost the pro-active police officer. [With civilian oversight], we are gonna completely lose them. It’ll be gone. Our crime rates are going to skyrocket. Nobody’s gonna take this job anymore. What reason do they have?”

Napolitano’s questioning of what reason someone would have to be a cop if they were going to be held accountable by an elected civilian council slyly reveals a belief that a large part of the allure of a career in law enforcement, and in Chicago this is quite certainly a given, is that being a cop will position you in a place above accountability and above the standard rule of law, along with other privileges and power CPD patronage grants. With civilian oversight in the picture, and such perks at least weakened, what reason would anyone have to serve with Chicago’s Finest? To serve and protect?

No more disturbingly was this belief illustrated than at one of the community hearings on the different reform plans this summer when an off-duty cop in attendance told the crowd that “if any civilian involvement legislation passed, we’ll stage an uprising.” A direct threat if there ever was one.

While The Fraternal Order of Police union would like to frame their opposition to any community oversight as being a labor issue, socialists recognize that police are not public workers to be stood with in solidarity against management. They are class traitors, a militarized syndicate paid and given total discretion by the bourgeoisie state to enforce order through unfettered violent oppression.