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A Chicago Police Accountability Task Force holds a public forum at the Benito Juarez Community Academy in February.

Chicago’s Civilian Review Board: Will the New One Be Better?

Advocates seek more independence from police involvement.

Chicago residents have been meeting with the city’s elected officials this summer to help establish new and more potent civilian oversight of a police department so deeply troubled by incidents of brutality and racial bias that it faces intervention soon by the federal government.

The existing panel, the Independent Police Review Authority, an agency with a chief investigator and 60 staff investigators, has served as Chicago’s oversight agency since 2007. But the agency took years to investigate cases, often resulting in little or no punishment of officers. Investigations were sometimes cut short because of the agency’s reliance on mediation. In this process, the officer admits to the alleged misconduct in exchange for lighter punishment, according to a report by the Police Accountability Task Force, a group formed to review police policies and practices in December by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel amid the aftermath of the Laquan McDonald shooting. Members of the task force and its working groups include former and current elected officials, leaders from community organizations, academics and lawyers.

Once the officer admits to the misconduct, the mediation ends and the case is closed without a full investigation. Initially, mediation was used to address minor infractions, but the review authority has historically not had clear criteria for when to use it. The Bureau of Internal Affairs, the police department’s in-house office that conducts investigations concerning allegations of misconduct and violations of policy, reviews requests for mediation, usually filed by the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, or the police department’s Management and Labor Affairs Service, a unit that performs duties related to collective bargaining agreements, including contract interpretation, grievance administration, labor relations research, and training. Internal Affairs developed standards regarding mediation requests but they were not formalized in writing.

In a series of five neighborhood meetings around the city, two of which have already been held, Emanuel has been sharply criticized for failing to consult residents, says he is hoping that community members will provide guidance on ways that new civilian oversight measures can be more responsive.

“I know that people expressed a lot of anger and frustration and pain about the community’s interaction with the police department,” said Karen Sheley, director of the police practices project at the ACLU of Illinois, who attended one of the initial meetings. “People who have family members who’ve been killed by the police spoke and expressed their concern that there hasn’t been a mechanism for discipline or any kind of accountability.”

The task force concluded that there was “failure to make accountability a core value and imperative within CPD.” It recommended establishing an office of Inspector General for Public Safety, which would independently audit and monitor CPD and the police oversight system, and overhauling the IPRA with a new, fully transparent and accountable Civilian Police Investigative Agency.

While details about the new civilian oversight agency have yet to emerge, there are proposals for how it will function.

The existing agency had been run for years by former members of law enforcement, and its decisions to dismiss complaints showed favoritism toward the police, according to the task force report. The staff investigators — who are currently fighting for their jobs — are hired by the city. Pending potential changes, future investigators cannot have been previously employed by CPD or the State's Attorney in Cook County, which includes Chicago. (In December, as an interim step in response to an outcry regarding police-involved shootings, the mayor named the review authority’s chief investigator, Sharon Fairly, to run the agency.)

Proposals for the new system suggest that the chief investigator be appointed by a five-person committee made up of individuals representing civil rights, activist and organizing groups — all of which will have no direct ties to city government or law enforcement. Additionally, board members will represent the 22 police districts, and be selected by election.

In the current system, collective bargaining agreements between police unions and the city require a complainant to sign a sworn affidavit that certifies that the allegation is true, a requirement that sometimes deters people from completing the process. The affidavit requirement can be waived only if there is overwhelming evidence that an incident should be investigated. Proposals for the new oversight agency will not require an affidavit.

Since its formation, the IPRA has not provided the public with clear information about the discipline imposed for misconduct, according to the task force, which is one of the reasons for its elimination. Because many complaints were handled through mediation, many were kept out of public view. Among other changes, the task force recommended the IPRA and CPD create a discipline matrix that establishes clear penalties for officers. It also urged that when BIA or IPRA suspend a CPD member, the disciplinary process should be publicly posted and tracked.

The new oversight will have more community engagement by scheduling public hearings where citizens can give testimony or a full-time employee who will charged with educating community members on information on filing procedure, investigations, and know-your-rights training. The staff member will also collect feedback about police misconduct from community members and hold the chief investigator accountable for providing updates about complaints.

The mayor plans to introduce the ordinances to establish the new civilian oversight system in early September, after the community meetings, according to his office. The plans are subject to City Council approval.

Civilian oversight began with the first board in 1948 and gained traction in the 1960s but over the years, many have fallen apart. “The ground is littered with failed police accountability boards, citizen accountability boards,” said David A. Harris, John Murray Faculty Scholar and professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, who specializes in search procedure law and police misconduct.

Often, the boards’ budgets are squeezed or cut. They can’t always hire who they want as investigators and are have to take on people with law enforcement experience, who are perceived to be biased.

One reason that Chicago’s review agency — and agencies that serve similar functions across the United States — has failed, according to Harris, is because it lacked true independence for most of its time as the key agency for police oversight.

“If independence is not real and assured, they can’t be successful. It is a necessary condition though not necessarily a sufficient one,” Harris said.

Harris added that civilian oversight boards also need to have an independent budget and resources as well as subpoena power to obtain documents and interview officers, which many police oversight agencies do not have. “If any of those [characteristics] are missing, there’s a strong chance that the board will not work as strong as you want it to,” he said.

In addition to the affidavit requirements for complaints, investigators can’t talk to the officer for at least 48 of hours after a complaint is filed. And officers have a right to review all the evidence before they make a statement, according to Jeanette S. Samuels, principal attorney at Samuels & Associates, Ltd. in Chicago. She said in order for the new agency to work the city will have to revise these rule and regulations “so that [officers] don’t get extra special privileges or attention when you’re investigating what is essentially criminal matters.”

The new oversight system has the potential to do this by prohibiting collective bargaining agreements that undermine the powers of the police oversight agency.

This will require buy in from both the city and the police department and unions. “Getting the police department and the police unions on board is a, the most important and b, the hardest task,” Harris said.

Oversight of Chicago’s police department is in a state of flux and has the potential to insure future accountability for misconduct. “There’s an opportunity here to put in new mechanisms, to put in better leadership, to have a fairer process, a transparent process, that provides more accountability,” Sheley said.

But the opportunity for real change is not guaranteed. “It’s an optimistic time but unfortunately we have to be cautiously optimistic,” Samuels said. “Hopefully this thing will work out.”

An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect name for the Fraternal Order of Police.