Meaningful Police Reform
Dear Neighbors:

Many people on all sides of the issue have contacted me regarding ongoing reforms to the Chicago Police Department.

Here is some background, and my position on the issue.

In the wake of the shooting of Laquan McDonald in October 2014, and the November 2015 court-ordered release of the video, which proved that police had lied about the circumstances of the shooting, the city formed a Police Accountability Task Force , chaired by now-Mayor Lori Lightfoot. In April 2016, the Task Force proposed broad and deep changes to policing in Chicago, particularly to the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the police and the city. 

The Police Accountability Task Force found that, “in the interest of protecting police officers from unfair or unfounded allegations, the collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) between the four police unions and the City create unnecessary barriers to identifying and addressing police misconduct. Many provisions are out of step with national trends or pose impediments to accountability that are not sufficiently justified by the needs of due process.”

These CBA provisions prohibited anonymous complaints against policemen, allowed officers to change their statements after seeing video or audio, limited questioning of police, erased records of alleged police misconduct, allowed police unlimited secondary income with no oversight, and more. These extraordinary protections for police officers allowed the “code of silence” to persist for decades, and led to only 2% of 28,000 complaints against police officers to result in actual punishment .

As a result, in April 2016, I joined the first City Council effort to create civilian oversight of the police and to create a special Deputy Inspector General over police matters. In February 2017, I joined a group of aldermen calling for the city to seek to revise or eliminate the CBA provisions in upcoming collective bargaining negotiations.

The US Justice Department also investigated the department and in January 2017, found a pattern and practice of using excessive and deadly force which violated individuals' civil rights, primarily Black and Latinx Chicagoans, as well a systemic lack of training and many other violations.

The Justice Department findings and the Police Accountability Task Force led to a series of reforms over the last three years, including: increased and improved training, including de-escalation and crisis intervention training; mandatory body-worn cameras, the disbanding of IPRA (Independent Police Review Authority); and the establishment of COPA (the Civilian Office of Police Accountability) with greatly expanded powers to investigate police misconduct and abuse. 

The US Justice Department investigation also led to a Federal consent decree , signed in January 2019, that legally requires the Chicago Police Department to enact reforms to ensure that the civil rights of Chicagoans are not violated by CPD. The consent decree process is overseen by a Federal monitor and it is expected to take five to ten years to enact the required reforms. Chief among the items demanded by the consent decree is that the City use its best efforts to change the offending parts of the current collective bargaining contract with the police.

The Federal monitor's recent report to the court said that Chicago is behind by about 70% in meeting many of the required reform deadlines. Our Public Safety Committee, of which I am a member, will be working to speed up CPD's progress on meeting these deadlines. 
Collective Bargaining Changes

The city began bargaining with the first set of unions covering Sergeants, Captains, and Lieutenants in 2017, but the issues surrounding these CBA provisions were not resolved until last week. (The financial issues such as pay, were resolved in 2019). Since the unions would not agree to change these provisions, the case went to binding mandatory arbitration, and a trial was held in January, with Mayor Lightfoot testifying. 

The result was a transformative ruling that will, if extended to the Fraternal Order of Police contract for patrolmen, will likely be the single most important change for police reform. 

The arbitrator’s ruling: 

  • Ends the ban on anonymous complaints after 40 years
  • Ends requirements to destroy disciplinary records
  • Broadens the use of disciplinary records
  • Allows CPD to recognize officers who report misconduct
  • Removes technical barriers to officer interrogations
  • Permits investigators to note on the record when officers consult with counsel
  • Delays disclosure of the identity of the complainant if known, and
  • For the first time, puts in place controls and restrictions of second jobs held by police officers

While these issues sound technical, they have been a bar to effective police reform for decades. Now that these reforms will be part of the bargaining agreement with the Sergeants, Lieutenants and Captains, we can have some assurance that these reforms will be applied to the bulk of police in the Fraternal Order of Police contract as well. This will probably take a year or so to finalize, but this is the type of work that makes reform permanent. 

We should all applaud this extraordinary result. As an attorney with labor law experience, I can say that a win like this is unusual and is a result of outstanding preparation and persuasiveness.  You can read about it here. CBS covered the story also.

Civilian Oversight of the Police

Many of the recommendations of the Police Accountability Task Force that could be implemented by City Council have been put into place, while the consent decree still has quite a way to go. But one key recommendation that has yet to be established is civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department. I support civilian oversight and believe it is critical to the overall credibility and integrity of the police department. 

After much study, I joined as a co-sponsor the GAPA (Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability) ordinance in 2019 . The GAPA ordinance would create a city-wide, civilian-led oversight body called the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, and locally-elected District Councils in every police district.

The Community Commission would nominate candidates for Police Superintendent, COPA Chief (which investigates police misconduct), and Police Board (which imposes police discipline). The Commission would develop, review and approve policy for the whole police department; establish goals and evaluate processes for the department; and promote community engagement. The Commission is to be composed of civilian residents of Chicago with varying degrees of expertise or life experience. 

The seven-member District Council in each police district will pick one of their members to serve on the committee which will select nominees for the Commission to the Mayor and City Council. 

The people will elect three members of the District Councils. The elected members will be allowed to select several more members, while the local District Commander will pick 1/3 of the remaining members.

Thousands of community members in community conversations over the course of 2 years contributed the ideas that GAPA community organizations used to draft the ordinance.

Twenty-nine Aldermen signed on to the June 2019 ordinance. If you’d like to learn more, click here .

Many of you have written to me regarding the CPAC (Civilian Police Accountability Council) ordinance. I do not support the model of civilian oversight proposed by the CPAC ordinance. I have voted against it in the past and will not support it in its current form. I have a number of concerns about the CPAC ordinance and the effect it would have if enacted.

CPAC puts the power over hiring the police superintendent, policy and the accountability system in the hands of 11 individuals, with little or no process for checks and balances. The approval of the budget for CPD, and negotiations and approval of contracts for CPD officers and supervisors, would be taken out of control of the Mayor and City Council and given to the CPAC council, dispersing accountability. Instead of holding the Mayor accountable, the public would have to attempt to overturn decisions of another set of elected officials. The significant financial and legal impact of this shift is very concerning to me and should be to all Chicagoans. The lead organizer for CPAC, the Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression says that with CPAC, “we can defund, demilitarize, and regulate the police out of existence,” according to its website

CPAC elected representatives, in addition to their policy functions, would have direct investigative responsibilities of police misconduct or abuse. They would be allowed to hire two deputies for each district, who would be paid the same salary as a police officer and who would conduct the investigations of all police misconduct cases in each local district, eliminating the role of an independent apolitical investigative body as we now have in COPA. This raises a serious concern that outcomes in police investigations could vary from police district to police district. The system we have now needs significant reform, but this idea is neither uniform nor transparent. It would inevitably lead to a lack of trust in the fairness of the system.

These and other concerns that I have with the CPAC ordinance are shared by other Aldermen, including many from the South and West sides. At a hearing regarding both CPAC and GAPA, national experts in police accountability agreed with these concerns and stated that currently there is not a CPAC-type model in any city in our country.


In our Ward, we depend and work well with our police. But we know that this is not true in many other parts of our City. Many state that the key problem is a lack of trust between the police and the community. The best way to earn trust is to be trustworthy. 

Integrity is not simply honesty; it is something built into the fabric of a department, in the same way that a building that falls can be said to lack “structural integrity.” Almost all of the criticisms of the CPD arise from a fundamental lack of integrity in the structures, policies and practices of the force.

I decline to believe that the criminal justice system is so faulty that the police cannot do their jobs without placing a thumb on the scale of justice.  As a former federal prosecutor, I know from personal experience that I never felt hamstrung by Supreme Court cases that required me to hand over evidence that tended to show the defendant’s innocence.  

Rather than “restore trust,” which carries with it the implication that the Department and its critics must make some leap of faith (“trust me” often implies such a meaning), the department should maximize those processes and procedures that contribute to integrity and eliminate those that do not.

As the system itself gains more integrity, trust by the community will follow – without any leaps of faith.

I hope we can pass the GAPA ordinance soon and start to put this new Civilian Commission in place. There is much more to do: as you know, I’ve been writing on the juvenile justice system and will be proposing changes soon. I thank all of you who have contacted my office in recent weeks. I look forward to working with all of you to improve the administration of justice in our city.

Michele Smith
43rd Ward Alderman
43rd Ward Virtual Office Hours: M - F 9 AM - 5 PM 
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