While the nine Chicago mayoral candidates pitch plans to address crime and policing, Chicago voters for the first time in city history will be able to vote for representatives on civilian police oversight boards, part of a growing group of reforms following years of protests over law enforcement misconduct.
Voters will cast ballots for three-member councils for each of the city’s 22 police districts. The councils are expected to hold meetings and get feedback from residents and others about policing and crime and bring those concerns back to the city and police leadership. In addition, the councils will help develop and implement community policing initiatives and then nominate a seven-person Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability to oversee the entire Chicago Police Department.
Police reform activists for decades have been fighting to create a new system for police oversight and the answer, for now, came in the form of the new councils and community commission, which the City Council created in 2021 when it approved the Empowering Communities for Public Safety ordinance.
Frank Chapman, executive director of the National Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression and field organizer for the Chicago branch, said his organization has been working on this issue since the 1970s and described the ordinance as a “historical moment” that “shouldn’t just exist in Chicago.”
The district councils will give the community an opportunity to bring up issues people have been talking about for years such as racial profiling and no-knock warrants. It allows the people to empower themselves and initiate policies they deem necessary, he said.
“The people who are selected to be on these councils … are voted in by people who live in that community,” Chapman said. “This is democracy at the grassroots level.”
Still, there are questions about how receptive Chicago Police Department leadership will be to the input from citizens.
Craig Futterman, a law professor and director of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago, said an interim community commission that Mayor Lori Lightfoot put into place last year has already faced “staunch resistance” from department leadership.
Futterman said police leadership has so far treated the commission as if it has no power to establish policies as the interim commission has pushed back on the Police Department’s relaunch of a “gang database” and against the department’s delayed response times to 911 calls.
“They haven’t gotten a very warm reception,” Futterman said.
The Chicago Police Department declined to comment for this story.
Questions also have been raised about public awareness and interest in the new councils.
About 110 people are running for the 66 seats but four districts — the Central District (1st), Calumet District (5th), Gresham District (6th) and Shakespeare District (14th) — only have two candidates for the three spots. To fill vacancies, the other members of the council will be asked to submit names of three qualified candidates to the commission, which will recommend one to the mayor, who will fill the vacancy. The district with the most candidates running is the Deering District (9th) with eight candidates.
Anthony Driver Jr., interim president of the community commission, said while the 22 councils and the commission don’t oversee one another, they should be working together.
District members will help select seven individuals for the commission, which is tasked with helping select and remove the heads of the city’s Police Department and police oversight bodies and setting Police Department policy.
The council, whose members will be elected every four years and received a $500 monthly stipend, is “the next piece” of the puzzle to change the system of policing in Chicago, Driver said.
“It’s already starting. I think it’ll continue. I think it’ll be a snowball effect,” Driver said, noting the history of Chicagoans working to create greater police oversight. He said he recently found a 1973 clipping from “The Black Panther: Intercommunal News Service” that includes an article on a draft ordinance for community control of police.
“To see it in fruition is a dream come true,” he said.
In the Near North (18th) police district, six people are running for the three spots that represent parts of downtown, the Near North Side, west to Cabrini-Green and north to Lincoln Park.
The candidates offer diverse ideas of what their roles would be on the new council, with some stressing the need to ensure police accountability while others think being on the council will be a good opportunity to promote the work being done by police officers.
Most of the candidates say they want to increase engagement in community conversations around public safety, seeing low attendance at the police district’s Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, or CAPS, meetings. They also noted they would like to make crime statistics and public safety strategies more accessible.
Karen Kane, 67, a CPA and financial consultant who lives in Old Town, said she became familiar with the district council positions from her volunteer work with the Police Department, and she decided to run for the office because she was alarmed by the level of crime in the city, particularly the increase in the 18th District.
Running on the slogan “public engagement equals public safety,” Kane said her goal is to “dramatically increase” the number of residents involved in crime prevention.
“I would say that I just feel compelled to become part of the solution rather than just reading about it,” Kane said.
Amy Cross, 41, a project director at the social service agency Heartland Alliance, said she got interested in the district councils after learning about the city ordinance.
The Streeterville resident said she’s done work around police consulting and thinks safety is the main issue facing residents of the 18th District and throughout the city. But, she said, even as residents worry about crime they can’t forget about police accountability.
“I think (residents have) a sense of urgency in the area to immediately address public safety issues and to find some very short-term solution to resolve officer shortages,” Cross said. “But I think that might be at the expense of thinking about investments and longer-term solutions and improving justice and public safety in the long run, which will prevent crime in the first place.”
Kimberly Lynn Bowman, 39, a real estate agent who lives in the Gold Coast, said she is a supporter of police and felt the neighborhood is becoming unsafe. She said she experienced an attempted carjacking during the daytime and added that she’s had clients who want to leave the city due partly to crime.
“I don’t feel safe. I struggle driving, walking around. It’s just everything has changed,” she said. “If we don’t fix crime, our city is going to just continue to go downhill.”
Bowman said she wants to advocate for more police funding and better recruiting because she thinks one of the district’s biggest issues is not having enough police presence, which has forced many businesses to use private security.
Robert “Bob” Johnson, 78, a retired fire chief from Ohio who also worked as a police officer, said he’s a member of the 18th District’s police committee and wants to communicate with residents about what the police are doing. He’s worked with district officers and was good friends with the late Cmdr. Paul Bauer, who was fatally shot in the line of duty in 2018.
“I think the police are doing so many things right,” Johnson said. “They get criticized for doing wrong, but they do so many good things.”
Lisa Seigneur, 45, a business consultant who lives in Cabrini-Green, said she and her husband moved to the neighborhood in 2015 knowing the mixed-income neighborhood was being revitalized.
In the last two years, she said she witnessed a lot of parties on weekends and people in the park at odd hours. While she said she and her husband would call the police she realized community members like herself needed to get more involved. She joined several community organizations and learned about challenges some of the neighborhood children faced, including gang violence preventing them from being able to go south of Division Street to go to community centers.
“We were the brunt of a lot of shootings here in our neighborhood from external people coming into our neighborhood, terrorizing the residents and that includes all income,” Seigneur said. “It would be my hope that the three individuals that are elected are incredibly diverse and viewpoint diverse and backgrounds and experiences as also, and also geographically diverse across the district.”
Brad Kessler, 39, an attorney in Lincoln Park who co-runs an education company, said he joined the Lincoln Park High School’s Local School Council and saw firsthand the difficulties that face children.
“I do see that a lot of the crime issues we have in Chicago are issues we have in and around our city’s children, and how we’re either supporting them or failing them,” Kessler said.
Kessler said he supports better training and more resources for police officers, especially detectives, to help the police combat the rise in crime. He also supports more community policing because many officers now don’t know their police beats very well.
The elections in the 18th District and the others will say a great deal about how effective the councils will be and what issues they stress.
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While some advocates are optimistic the councils will be bring reforms, others remain more cautious.
Futterman, the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project director, noted the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents rank-and-file officers, has made an effort to put forth some FOP-endorsed or sponsored candidates. He said having FOP-backed candidates on the councils “would be the height of all ironies if these district advisory councils wind up being constituted by none other than FOP shills.”
Chapman said the group he heads, the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, has worked on this issue many times over the years but said after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, his organization united with the Grassroots Alliance of Police Accountability and they worked together to get the mayor to come to the negotiating table.
“I was at the table myself,” he said. “We negotiated every line in this ordinance. … We won some things and made some concessions.”
“I’m excited beyond words because we have literally crossed rivers of blood to get to this point. So many people have died,” he said. “Chicago is making history. … Once history is made, it can’t be reversed.”