Chicago Passes Union-Backed Bill For Civilian Oversight Of Violent Cops

Above photo: The law reflects increasing public scrutiny about how the police function. A civilian commission will be empowered to pick the head of the police investigatory body and change the rules and policies under which the police operate. Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.

In July, Chicago’s city council passed a modified version of police accountability legislation that activists have spent years fighting for, backed by major public sector unions and Black labor leaders.

Though stripped of some of its stronger measures, the new law is one of the most prominent pieces of police reform legislation to pass since last year’s uprisings after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. A civilian commission will now be empowered to pick the head of the police investigatory body and change the rules and policies under which the police operate.

In Chicago, the law reflects increasing public scrutiny about how the police function. The city has seen a string of high-profile revelations of police killings, brutality, and general misconduct targeting Black and Latino people. One group of detectives known as the “Night Crew” used mock executions and electrocutions to force Black men to confess to crimes they did not commit; activists eventually forced the city to set up a reparations fund exclusively for their victims.

Only months after the August 2014 murder of Mike Brown in Missouri gained national attention, Chicago police killed Laquan McDonald and then covered up the murder, sparking public outrage. Soon activists and community groups were calling for the mayor (at the time, Rahm Emanuel) to rein in the department.

And in this changing climate, powerful public sector unions have begun taking on the police department and the mayor.

Broken hearts

The first union to support the precursor to the recent legislation was Service Employees (SEIU) Local 73, which represents many public workers in the city, including in the schools, the parks department, and the public hospitals. The union took this stance in large part due to members speaking up about their own experiences.

Regina Russell has worked at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) for 24 years; she’s a longtime steward and serves on the union’s executive board. But a union meeting several years ago was the first time she connected her union work to another painful dimension of her life.

A Local 73 retiree, Amanda Shackleford, was given time to speak at a union meeting about her family’s ordeal. Shackleford’s son had been convicted of murder after being tortured into confessing. At the time he was still in prison (he was released this year, after 29 years).

Unplanned, Russell got up to speak about her own experience. “My son was wrongly convicted,” said Russell. “They tortured him, held him for 19 hours, didn’t let him call an attorney, and didn’t let him go to the bathroom or eat or drink.” Her son Tamon has been incarcerated for 20 years.

Then other members got up to tell their own stories and those of their families. “I always thought I was the only one,” said Russell. “My heart was broken every day. I had dealt with lawyers, other organizations, and I wasn’t getting anywhere. I had finally found some people who were going through the same thing I was going through.”

Members got together to form a Social Justice Committee. According to Russell, “most of the people on the committee have someone in their family that was brutalized or tortured or wrongly convicted.” They met with the union’s new president to talk about what they had experienced and heard from other members.

A new climate

Meanwhile, many Chicago families and organizers had coalesced in the mid-2010s around the demand for com-munity control of the police and legislation that would create a Civilian Police Accountability Council, an elected body with the power to fire police officers and change police rules.

Local 73 was the first union to sign on to the legislation, after dozens of members from UIC brought it to a membership meeting. The Chicago Teachers (CTU) and another SEIU local, Health Care Illinois Indiana (HCII), followed.

By 2020, the political landscape had further changed. Emanuel had declined to run for reelection after the cover-up of McDonald’s killing. CTU’s oppositional stance to Emanuel and new mayor Lori Lightfoot had helped open up more political space for other unions to do the same. Chicago’s city council had an increasingly strong progressive wing. And nationally, millions were in the streets in the wake of Floyd’s murder.

Police accountability proposals that activists had been pushing for years now looked like they could have a chance of passing. Two coalitions, which had been pushing for different versions of legislation in Chicago, came together and created a new bill: Empower Communities for Public Safety (ECPS).

Local 73 and others contacted members to encourage them to call their aldermen to support the legislation. And as ECPS moved forward and gained support among politicians, a group of Black labor leaders from different unions in Chicago came together and released a statement supporting it.

Deborah Cosey-Lane, secretary treasurer of ATU Local 308, which represents public transit workers on Chicago’s “El,” was one of the signers. She had been ready to take this stand for some time. Mike Brown was her cousin’s stepson, and she got involved in the protests after his death in 2014. “I’m so sick of reading what needs to happen,” she said. “I’m ready to see the change happen. It’s good for us to take our signs out, shout and scream, but when we come home, nothing has changed.”

Police violence is a clear issue for her union, Cosey-Lane says, because so many of the local’s members are Black: “It could be one of our members in a situation the police deem to be violent, and the police could shoot and kill them.”

In July, the city council passed one piece of the legislation, while tabling a second. The new law created a civilian commission that has the power to change police rules and policies, as well as to choose the head of the police investigatory body.

New civilian oversight

For example, one rule change that activists have suggested is to ban foot chases, which have led directly to deaths at the hands of the police.

The commission’s members will be chosen by the mayor—rather than directly elected, as activists had demanded—though the mayor must select from a pool of candidates who will be locally elected to new three-member bodies set up in each of Chicago’s 22 police districts.

SEIU HCII President Greg Kelly called ECPS “the most progressive and groundbreaking civilian police over-sight ordinance in the entire country.”

Organizers are still pushing for the second part of the legislation: a ballot referendum to make the commission members directly elected by Chicago residents. The unions backing the coalition have committed to continuing the fight.

Joe DeManuelle-Hall is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.