CITY HALL — A leading Police Department reformer called for a commitment to better police training Wednesday, as aldermen discussed the need for speed in replacing the embattled Independent Police Review Authority.
Testifying before the City Council's Public Safety Subcommittees studying police reforms, IPRA Chief Administrator Sharon Fairley granted that "we are starting to dip below critical mass" in staffing levels as investigators left the agency, which is likely to be replaced by some sort of civilian agency.
Ald. John Arena (45th) called IPRA "an agency that has an expiration date" and is "hemorrhaging people," and used that to argue against the "complexities" of a proposed Civilian Police Accountability Council, which would see members elected from each of the city's 22 police districts.
"We need to seat a body, and we need to do it with haste," Arena said, estimating that it would take a year or more to elect and place the civilian council as originally proposed.
Yet Larry Redmond, of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression spearheading the drive for civilian control of the Police Department, argued that IPRA could continue to function as the investigative unit into police misconduct while the civilian panel was being created and empowered to oversee IPRA's operations.
"It dovetails perfectly with what we're trying to do," Redmond said.
Arena and Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), however, both signaled their readiness to accept a real and efficient "compromise" on a civilian police oversight panel. Sawyer worried over creating a board that swung too far from the pro-police status quo to something "overly anti-police."
Sawyer and Redmond clashed over how the police superintendent should be selected. Sawyer said that task rightfully belongs to the mayor as the chief of the city's executive branch of government.
Redmond begged to differ, saying, "It is the people who have the right to pick the superintendent of police. That's our position."
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), who sponsored the actual civilian council ordinance — one of many being considered in a package of police reforms — likewise spoke of the need for compromise.
"One thing that is not negotiable is the intent — true community control of the Police Department," he said.
Aldermen are debating widespread police reforms in the wake of the Laquan McDonald case and other recent police shootings, up to and including the recent killing of Paul O'Neal. At the same time, they're awaiting the findings of an ongoing U.S. Justice Department investigation into Chicago Police practices.
Adam Gross, of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, testified on the need for an independent auditor of the whole system, suggesting that position be appointed within the Office of the Inspector General.
"No one is policing the police oversight system," Gross said.
Arena, Sawyer, Ramirez-Rosa and Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd), chairman of the subcommittee, are all members of the Council's Progressive Reform Caucus, which formally called on Mayor Rahm Emanuel Wednesday to share draft language on the reform package that is being prepared after nine committee meetings on the issue — five of them held this month in communities spanning the city.
Munoz said after the meeting he found it productive and "diverse," adding that "we really drilled down on some of the issues." He said he expected to meet with the Emanuel administration Thursday on what actual shape the police reforms are going to take.
Earlier, the panel got an earful from Lori Lightfoot, head of the Police Board and the Police Accountability Task Force that recommended IPRA's replacement, as she made immediate suggestions for police reform, much of it in training.
"There's no strategic plan right now for training in the Department," Lightfoot said. The Department "has not invested in the training of officers fundamentally in a way that it should."
Lightfoot insisted the Task Force's 190-page report had been widely misinterpreted, in that she said it didn't charge police with institutional racism, but instead cited the widespread public belief that "frankly, police officers were racist." That, she added, was a belief held by "people of color" and among a "startling cross-section of people," beyond class and neighborhood divides. Calling for "some kind of racial reconciliation," Lightfoot said that was something she believed could be addressed with the proper training.
Lightfoot agreed when Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) suggested the city had largely squandered millions spent on police training programs. She said they had been incompletely implemented when they weren't ignored altogether.
"There's got to be a commitment," she said, "that these are issues that have to be addressed."
She blamed "horse trading" in negotiations for police contracts with the Fraternal Order of Police union, even as she called blaming that contract for all police ills "the bogeyman that's out there."
According to Lightfoot, if the city took the $20 million a year it typically spends on police settlements, and instead invested half that in more extensive training, "We would dramatically transform the conversation."
Fairley agreed, expressing confidence in the eagerness of new police recruits to do a difficult job well and professionally. "I think that's a huge opportunity going forward," she said.
While Fairley was lauded by several aldermen for doing a good job under difficult circumstances, and she sometimes fought to defend her agency, she agreed that an institutional change might be necessary.
"The most important thing about police oversight is public trust," Fairley said. "It's really up to the public, and you guys have to make that decision about what will have that public trust."
Aldermen and the Emanuel administration have stated they're trying to prepare an overall police reform package in time for the next Council meeting in September.
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