As the nation grapples with the police killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, and as Chicagoans prepare to vote for mayor Feb. 28, crime remains at or near the list of top issues candidates are sparring over with a few weeks to go before votes are counted.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot is seeking another term and standing by her record on public safety and her handpicked Chicago police superintendent, David Brown. Homicides were down last year from 2021, but still higher than pre-pandemic levels and the years before Lightfoot took office.
Most of her challengers have seized on that fact, pledging to fire Brown and push a focused return to community policing as a major initiative, saying many city residents feel unsafe and blaming crime for Chicago’s slower-than-desired recovery from COVID-19 shutdowns. Paul Vallas was among those to stress the strategy at candidate appearances last week.
“That is pushing the police officer down to the local beat,” Vallas said at a forum held by WGN.
U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, another challenger, joined in at the same event.
“They need to get out of the cars, they need to talk to people,” García said. “I think the representatives from the district councils can be a great bridge to that.”
Chicago is, for the first time, set to have local police councils, and voters will see candidates for those posts by district on their ballots. Three representatives from each of the city’s 22 police districts will be responsible for collaborating with department officials on community-policing issues.
District members also will help select seven individuals for the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, 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.
Mecole Jordan-McBride, now part of the Chicago Neighborhood Policing Initiative, was previously coordinator of Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability, or GAPA. That group was made up of many community organizations across Chicago and worked to create the ordinance for the commission and district councils.
“Let’s be honest, in a city as large as Chicago, seven commissioners cannot possibly have their eyes and ears on the pulse of every single community in our city, but that’s where your district council members come into play,” Jordan-McBride said at a panel organized by the City Club of Chicago on Wednesday to discuss community policing. “These are people that are running to be these liaisons, to be able to hear the voice of the community and to be able to — in real time — address concerns.”
Jordan-McBride also spoke generally about what a philosophy of community policing would look like in the Chicago Police Department going forward.
“Community policing is not just the responsibility of a subset of officers, but it’s the responsibility of every single beat officer,” she said. “That is, working in our community to build relationships, to understand the needs of the community, and most importantly, to talk to community members to understand from their perspective, what the challenges are and what the answer is.”
CPD’s first community policing strategy was the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, also known as CAPS, which started in 1993 and still continues today. Its goal was to bring the community, the Police Department and other city agencies together to proactively address crime in neighborhoods and communities across the city through districtwide community programming.
“CAPS has been tragically underfunded,” Jordan-McBride told the Tribune. “It is dependent on every single administration that comes in or leadership that comes in with CPD, which has a different strategic focus. And a lot of times that focus shifts with what they see as a priority or strategy to ‘fight crime.’”
In January 2019, the Chicago Neighborhood Policing Initiative was launched as a joint project between CPD and the Policing Project at New York University School of Law in order to enact community policing by developing one-on-one relationships between district coordination officers and the communities they serve.
The initiative showed promise but faced setbacks, including the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020, which frayed trust between the community and police, according to the findings of a 2021 report by the Northwestern Neighborhood & Network Initiative.
The Police Department also may not have adequate staffing in the office that handles community policing, according to report last year from the city’s independent monitor, underpinning complaints from Lightfoot’s challengers. The report also said it’s unclear how CPD will merge its two community policing programs — Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy and its Neighborhood Policing Initiative — despite the monitoring team asking for clarification for two years.
In August, Robert Boik, CPD’s executive director of constitutional policing and reform, was fired by the superintendent after sending an email asking for a reversal of a decision to distribute his staff to patrol instead of officer training, according to multiple police sources. Boik had been in the role for about a year and a half, and the move was criticized in the latest consent decree report.
In Boik’s email, which was obtained by the Tribune, he said that if those individuals were moved to patrol, there would be 21 fewer instructors at the academy and the department would no longer be able to offer an eight-hour gender-based violence course to officers.
Despite the long-standing existence of Chicago community-policing efforts that have succeed and failed on various levels, experts believe the new police district councils will represent a much-needed step toward ensuring that communities have a direct say in how they are policed.
“We have a hope that the district councils will provide an independent way to engage with CPD,” Jordan-McBride said. “And that it would be a way that community members can have a stronger voice in how policing happens in their area and across the city. Which, again, has historically never happened in Chicago — policing has always happened in a vacuum.”
But not all experts are as optimistic.
Sheila Bedi, a law professor at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and director of the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic, said that community policing is too often used as a sort of “branding” instead of an intentional practice.
“Chicago’s got a long history of community policing and of using the term ‘community policing’ to justify increased police intrusion into people’s lives,” Bedi said.
Still, Bedi expressed hope in the potential of the new police district councils, especially as “a tool for myth-busting around the idea that more police equal more safety.” They will also provide more oversight into how policing resources are used, effectively giving the community some form of control over the police, she said.
“What the district (councils) would do is provide oversight and, to some extent, management and input on how policing resources are used, and that would allow a community some form of community control of the police,” she said. “And the idea behind community control is that the police would then be working for the people — not treating the people as an occupying force.”
Voters will select three councilors to serve in each of the city’s 22 police districts, who will be elected in regular municipal elections every four years.
The district councils’ roles include building stronger connections between the police and community at district levels and ensuring that the community is a partner in anti-violence work.
The district councils will also share their community’s input with the commission, now made up of an interim group of community leaders Lightfoot appointed last summer.
The commission has the power to advance systemic reform. It holds a central role in selecting and removing the police superintendent, police board members and the Civilian Office of Police Accountability’s chief administrator.
And it has already been outspoken on several issues, including pushing back on the Police Department’s relaunch of a “gang database” and speaking out against police’s delayed response times to 911 calls.
Law professor Craig Futterman, director of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago, said he believes in community policing, but in the “original and true version” of it, which isn’t what Chicago has experienced.
“That is policing in which there’s a partnership between police and community, with community being the senior partner, meaning that the police are both a part of, responsible and accountable to the community,” he said.
In Chicago, police tell the community what they want to do, and police want the community to help them do what the police believe is important, Futterman said.
Futterman said he has also seen that community policing is more of a public relations part of the Police Department in Chicago that isn’t integrated into the overall attitude or culture of the force. The department declined to comment for this story.
In discussions about the race for mayor, police and public safety are usually at or near the top of the list of talking points, especially given the department’s issues and its placement under a consent decree, Futterman said.
“The mayor is the single most powerful person in the city when it comes to determining what the police force looks like, its policies, its practices,” he said. “That person has the single most power than anyone to determine what policing looks like in Chicago.”
Anthony Driver Jr., interim president of the community commission, said he hopes those who are eventually elected to the councils are hyperfocused people “who have the best interest of their community at heart.”
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Once those members are elected and sworn in they will undergo training with the commission, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and the police board, Driver said. They’ll learn about the structures of the organizations, histories and responsibilities.
“I am very optimistic about the district council elections,” Driver said.
“The biggest piece is the residents of Chicago: getting them to buy in to this, and to believe in it,” he said.
As the days till the election dwindle, activists are joining the mayoral candidates who are speaking out about the importance of voting for council members.
“I want you to grit your teeth, do whatever you got to do, but get out there on voting day. And vote. And vote,” said Frank Chapman, educational director and field organizer for the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. “And I ain’t talking about the mayor. I ain’t talking about the aldermen. I’m talking about: Vote for the district council.”