On an evening in late September, dozens of people gathered at Malcolm X College on the near west side for the first official citywide meeting to talk about police oversight. The room was packed with community activists, office seekers, journalists, and grieving family members. For many of them, the satisfaction of seeing this long-awaited moment was tempered by the years of neglect preceding it.
On a dais at the front of the room sat the newly appointed interim commissioners of the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability—the result of decades of community organizing efforts to hold police officers accountable. Each of the seven members—a queer pastor, a political strategist, two lawyers, a nonprofit leader, and two activists—were drawn from different corners of the city.
As with many of the city’s committees, commissions, and task forces (the holy trinity of symbolic gestures), the interim members were handpicked by the mayor, who did so more than a year after the ordinance that created the commission passed through the City Council. Until permanent members are selected, they are responsible for making recommendations to the bloated police budget, hiring and firing leadership, and setting goals for the department.
It’s a far cry from the original demands for community oversight of the police pioneered by the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR), which also demanded the commission be given the power to investigate police misconduct, govern the rules of the department, and approve the city’s contract with the Fraternal Order of Police. Nonetheless, for the people of Chicago, establishing some semblance of civilian oversight was a historic win and a chance to do things differently—or at least they hope.
“We take public comment very seriously,” said Reverend Dr. Beth Brown, one of the seven interim commissioners, as she invited audience members to comment. Like other political circuses in the city, that means two minutes (and nothing more!) for members of the public to express their grievances.
A litany of pleas and words of skeptical encouragement poured into the mike. Some people begged for the return of loved ones wrongfully convicted. Others interrogated the commissioners. Many denounced the terror incited by members of the Chicago Police Department. Sustained applause followed each speaker.
After several people spoke, Frank Chapman made his way to the front of the room with the help of a walker, his signature fedora perched on his head. The decades of leading a movement to stop police crimes has weighed on the 80-year-old activist, as evidenced by his laborious pace. When he spoke, the audience fell silent.
“We’ve come here not just to challenge you . . . but to support you,” Chapman told the commissioners.
As the lead architect of the proposal for community oversight of the police, Chapman reminded the commissioners that he knows very well what they require to function properly: funding and robust staffing. Last week, the Sun-Times reported that out of the 14 staff positions in the commission, only one has been filled. At a City Council budget hearing, the commission’s executive director Adam Gross reassured dubious alderpeople that more candidates were in the hiring process, but that there would still be vacancies going into the new year. One alderperson questioned Gross about his near 14 percent salary raise included in the mayor’s budget for next year, to which he denied having any involvement.
“We didn’t do all this organizing to have a lame-duck council,” Chapman went on. His baritone voice sucked the air out of the room. All eyes and ears were on him. He directed his orders not just to the commissioners, but to the rapt audience before him that had made this meeting possible. Whenever Chapman said “all power to the people,” many in the packed room responded in kind.
Perhaps no one emanated Chapman’s urgency more than Chicago’s “concerned citizen” George Blakemore, a regular at public meetings. Sporting his signature hand-painted attire while waving a pointed finger, Blakemore said that the city has been here before, noting the failures of the Office of Professional Standards, the Independent Police Review Authority that replaced it, and the Civilian Office of Police Accountability that followed. Addressing the audience of nodding heads, Blakemore put his assessment of the interim commission bluntly: “I bet you won’t hold them to it.”
Following the public comments, the commissioners formally fleshed out the commission’s business as the audience patiently looked on. The commissioners elected Anthony Driver as president, adopted rules, and set the next meeting date. They also established committees faster than I could keep count. Oswaldo Gomez, the commission’s interim vice president, noted the lack of a translator and promised to translate materials into Spanish for the next meeting.
Before the meeting came to a close, the commissioners reminded people to run for a seat in the new district councils. In addition to the commission, the ECPS ordinance established these councils, which will be composed of three elected positions hin each of the city’s 22 police districts. The councils are charged with fostering a better relationship between police and community members.
With a little over a month before campaign petitions for district council hopefuls are due, interested candidates will have to collect anywhere between 300 to 700 signatures, depending on how many registered voters are in their police district. Candidates for district councils will be on the ballot in next February’s municipal elections.
Once elected, those members will then nominate 14 candidates for the permanent commission. The mayor will choose seven of the nominees for the city council to approve.
After two contentious hours, the meeting finally came to a halt. There was a collective gasp for air. Though skeptical, the crowd was also visibly hopeful and quickly dispersed into chatter. As Chapman headed to the doors, he was accompanied by a flurry of handshakes and thank-yous.
Maybe this time would be different.
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