With union support, Chicago civilian board to exercise increased control over police
Mayor Lori Lightfoot presides over city council meeting where the community oversight ordinance was approved. | Ashlee Rezin/AP

CHICAGO —With support from nine unions, including the politically powerful Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), Service Employees Local 73, and SEIU Healthcare, Chicago’s civilians will, starting next year, have an independent police board that exercises increased control—for them—over Chicago’s police.

That control, capping a long campaign by civil rights and community groups, is the result of an ordinance the City Council approved, 36-13, on July 21.

It also could be a harbinger of further such community controls, say the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, whose Chicago chapter played a major role in uniting the groups. They report similar campaigns are going on in Milwaukee, Salt Lake City, Tallahassee, Fla., and the Twin Cities.

The ordinance gives community-elected representatives a solid measure of control over Chicago police following years of protests and mobilizations over law enforcement misconduct —and decades of police aggression against African Americans, brown people, anti-war activists, and others. The Chicago police even had their own “Red Squad” in the 1960s and 1970s.

“On April 1, 2016, we were marching at Michigan and Wacker behind a lead banner calling for elected school and police boards for our city,” the CTU tweeted. “Today, we have both, as we celebrate the passage of the Empowering Communities for Public Safety (ECPS) ordinance, which vaults Chicago to the forefront of change in how we view public safety.

“Deep love, gratitude, and appreciation go out to the advocates, labor partners, workers, and everyday Chicagoans who made this possible. There are too many to name, but one we must name is Mike Siviwe Elliott, who made this work his life and passed away in May before seeing it become a reality. Rest easy, friend. It’s done.”

The struggle for community control, many of the groups involved say, is what brought Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot around to backing a compromise the community activists could also support.

That’s a direct contrast with the attitudes of prior mayors, especially white male mayors Rahm Emanuel, the legendary Richard J. Daley, and his son “Richie,” Richard M. Daley. All kept tight control over the cops, not letting citizens intrude.

Those mayors tolerated—and sometimes encouraged—police abuses ranging from “The Burglars in Blue” in 1959 to beating anti-war protesters in Grant Park and Lincoln Park during the 1968 Democratic Convention, to recent outright murder of unresisting Black youths.

The demonstrations and actions demanding community control of the police, although having gone on for years, increased in Chicago after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the continuation of fatal police shootings by city cops.

That makes the new ordinance even more important, because the new community board, while not completely overriding mayoral control of the cops, puts the citizens first—before the mayor decides on firing the police superintendent or adopting new police rules.

The ordinance establishes a citizen panel to oversee Chicago police, but not with all the powers originally demanded by many of the community activists. It can vote to remove the police superintendent but will not have the final authority to do so. The mayor will. The city agreed to give the board the power to vote for removal after the community groups agreed to drop their demand they be able to directly fire the superintendent.

The real victory is for the forces in Chicago and elsewhere that believe safety and security in the city streets are best achieved when there is community control of the police.

“It’s the real way to guarantee a safe and secure city,” said Frank Chapman, chair of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.

“Unless you have community control you really have nothing, regardless of how much money you allocate or take away from police. The real issue is community control is the way to achieve safe and secure neighborhoods. People in communities know their needs the best.”

Chapman attributed the positive development in Chicago to “the broad coalition we had fighting for this for years. We had nine unions, countless community groups and religious groups representing Muslims, Jews and Christians, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and so many more,” he said.

Chapman’s organization and the Grass Roots Alliance For Police Accountability were the two main groups locally, leading the successful coalition. Nationally, the main ally was the Movement For Black Lives.

“This ordinance is predicated on the belief that when you empower our communities, that when you give them a real seat at the table and you give them a real voice, that we can make our policing system better and we can have a safer city in every single neighborhood, on every single street,” said Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, D-35th Ward, a pro-worker lawmaker who helped negotiate the compromise deal.

“We, as a city, cannot have safety, true safety, in every neighborhood unless there is trust between citizens and police,” added North Side Alderman Harry Osterman, D-48th Ward.

In 2023, voters will elect to name members to 22 district councils across the city. A seven-member Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability would be chosen by them in consultation with the mayor. The mayor could accept or reject any nominee, but the nominating committee would keep submitting names until all seven citywide seats are filled.

Initially, Mayor Lightfoot gets to select the members of an interim commission, a president and six other members, from among 14 nominees chosen by the City Council Rules Committee.

And while the citizens commission could recommend the Mayor bounce the police Superintendent, it would have the ultimate power to remove the chief administrator of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability that investigates police shootings and reports of wrongdoing. If two-thirds of aldermen agreed, the chief administrator would be removed.

Citizen control, even partial, of the city police, was CTU’s second big win in two months. Overcoming resistance from Lightfoot—who reversed course from her prior stand—the union convinced the Illinois legislature in mid-June to restore an elected school board to Chicago.

The former GOP-run legislature, at Mayor Emanuel’s demand, had trashed the prior elected board, making Chicago the only school district in Illinois without one.

The elected school board was skeptical of Emanuel’s imposition of a corporate structure on the schools, complete with a CEO, and closure of 56 community schools, almost all in Black and Brown neighborhoods. So was CTU. It went out on strike, with wide community support.

The legislature’s vote “represents the will of the people, and after more than a quarter of a century, moves our district forward in providing democracy and voice to students and their families,” CTU said before Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) signed the bill, HB2908.

“This is the culmination of a generation of work by parents, rank-and-file educators, and activists, who recognized the shortcomings of mayoral control of our schools and demanded better for our children. This is their legacy. This is Karen’s legacy,” it added, referring to late and activist CTU President Karen Lewis.


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.