Civilian police oversight compromise includes binding referendumFran Spielmanon March 18, 2021 at 7:47 pm

Chicago Public Safety Headquarters.
A binding referendum could be used to establish the powers a civilian panel would have to oversee the Chicago Police Department. | Getty Images

If Chicago voters OK the binding referendum on the 2022 primary ballot, Mayor Lori Lightfoot would lose the power to hire and fire the police superintendent even though her political future could rise and fall on that choice.

Chicago voters would be asked to approve a binding referendum empowering a civilian police oversight commission to hire and fire the police superintendent, negotiate police contracts and set the Chicago Police Department’s budget, under a compromise ordinance circulated Thursday.

Two groups that have long pushed dramatically different versions of civilian police oversight followed through on their promise to join forces on a revised ordinance certain to encounter stiff resistance. That’s because it would strip both Lightfoot and the City Council of coveted authority over police issues.

If Chicago voters approve the binding referendum on the 2022 primary ballot, Lightfoot would lose the power to hire and fire the police superintendent even though her political future could rise and fall on that choice.

Her Law Department would lose the power to negotiate police contracts — ratified by the City Council.

And Lightfoot and aldermen would be stripped of the power they now hold to establish police spending. That power also would be ceded to an 11-member civilian oversight commission composed of nine elected commissioners and two appointed by the mayor.

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), the former Chicago Police officer now chairing the Committee on Public Safety, described the compromise ordinance as overreach.

“It should be within the authority of the mayor to hire and fire the superintendent, the Police Board and the COPA administrator. If she’s gonna wear the hat for any good or bad that happens within the police department, she needs to be able to hire and fire the chief executive of those offices,” Taliaferro said.

“I can’t imagine being the mayor of a municipality and you have no say-so in the direction of the police department.”

Taliaferro said he’s all for civilian police oversight, but the powers of that commission should be confined to “observing the policies and procedures” of CPD, the Police Board and the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.

Even if voters do not approve the binding referendum, the 11-member commission would have the final say in disputes over police policy unless two-thirds of the City Council decides otherwise. The commission would also be empowered in any event to take a vote of no-confidence in the superintendent and hire and fire the chief administrator of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.

“Once you start reaching too far into city government, why would you need a City Council? Why not take over City Council? … You can’t have one organization doing it all,” Taliaferro said.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) championed the more extreme version of civilian oversight proposed by the Civilian Police Accountability Council before helping forge the compromise with the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability.

Ramirez-Rosa called the binding referendum the “constitutional and politically-sound pathway” for Chicago.

“Under mayoral control, we got Laquan McDonald. Under mayoral control, we saw the abuse of Anjanette Young. Under mayoral control, we ended up with this consent decree. Mayoral control isn’t working. It’s cost Chicagoans their lives. It’s cost the city of Chicago hundreds of millions of dollars in police misconduct settlements,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

If, as expected, Lightfoot opposes the compromise, “What she’s saying is, she doesn’t want to give the people of Chicago a choice.”

And what are the chances that a binding referendum would pass?

“CPAC leaders wouldn’t have agreed to this compromise had it not been for their belief that they can get out the vote for a directly-elected civilian commission with expanded powers,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

The mayor’s office had no immediate comment on the compromise ordinance.

A source close to the negotiations argued the overreaching referendum plays into the mayor’s hands.

“If she were a deft politician, she would try to sound reasonable and say, ‘I support community oversight. But I don’t support a community takeover of the Police Department,” said a source close to the negotiations who asked to remain anonymous.

“She would say, ‘You elected me to fix the Chicago Police Department. Putting it in the hands of this body isn’t the way to fix things and it isn’t the way Chicago runs.’”

Last month, Lightfoot pressured Taliaferro to postpone a showdown vote on civilian police review to give her time to introduce a substitute ordinance that, among other things, would empower the mayor to break disputes whenever she and the commission disagree on proposed changes to police policy.

Lightfoot has also objected to empowering the civilian board to take an advisory vote of no-confidence in the police superintendent that would trigger the superintendent’s firing if it’s followed by a two-thirds vote by the City Council.

The following day, GAPA and CPAC joined forces, putting even more pressure on the mayor.

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