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Crusading for Chicago Civilian Police Accountability

Chicago Civilian Police Accountability

Photo caption: CHIEF JUDGE TIMOTHY EVANS leads a ceremony for the new members of the citywide district councils for the Community Commission on Public Safety and Accountability (CCPSA). (Photo by Kavin Jagnarain)

On Tuesday, May 2, 2023, veteran Chicago reform advocate Frank Chapman sat in the packed auditorium of the Bronzeville-based Harold Washington Cultural Center at 47th & King Drive, filled with an excited, energized standing room only crowd of enthusiastic city residents, local leaders, public and elected officials. Chapman shook his closed raised fist with pride and wiped away tears in his eyes as he and hundreds of families, friends, supporters watched the Inaugural ceremony for the city’s first-ever, civilian-focused, citywide district councils for the Community Commission on Public Safety and Accountability (CCPSA).

It was a day Chapman, who leads the Chicago Alliance Against Racism & Political Repression, fervently fought for and prayed for longevity to see it come to fruition.

The running sarcastic commentary is that ‘Chicago ain’t ready for reform…’  Well, the good news is – police reform has arrived. In early 2023, this vision of civilian oversight finally turned into a civic reality. During the Feb. 28 city primary elections, Chicago voters elected 66 candidates to serve on twenty-two police district councils across the city, each of whom will serve four-year terms.

“This represented successfully crossing a key bridge of public service achievement over rivers of blood, sweat, struggles, tears, and years of endurance by thousands of impacted Black Chicago residents. And it signified realizing a component of Dr. King’s dream. I was happy, honored and rendered speechless,” stated Chapman.

The morning CCPSA Inaugural program featured an opening welcome by HWCC’s executive director Jimalita Tillman. Prayerful invocations from Rev. Colleen Vahey, 3rd Unitarian Church, were followed by inspiring congratulations from 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell, and stirring, foot-stomping Gospel and Black National Anthem renditions by vocalist Dorothy Hill.

The CCPSA was a long time coming.

Over the last several decades, countless Chicago community advocates have continuously confronted Chicago’s public safety issues, highlighted incidents of police misconduct and brutality, and petitioned for greater community influence over policing in their local neighborhoods, by organizing, marching, protesting, praying, meeting with elected officials, and supporting legislative initiatives advocating the implementation of swift, fair, and comprehensive police reforms across the city.

The Chicago police reform movement mirrored nationwide big city urban trends, originating in the late, tumultuous 1960s by activist groups such as the Black Panthers and others committed to developing improved criminal justice equity for minority and underserved communities. Over the years, cases involving disturbing reports of police torture, false confessions and wrongful convictions against low-income, Black defendants has continually been a persistent occurrence in the court system, and even today still exist.

Adds Chapman, “The immediate challenges facing CCPSA District Council members -selecting and submitting CPD Superintendent candidates to Mayor-elect Johnson; the federal Consent Decree; and actively engaging local residents on the processes as the ‘voice of the people’ are all achievable, with the spirit of mutual respect, communication, and collaboration.”

These innovative safety approaches gained incremental success over the ensuing years as a series of oversight agencies were created. First, the Office of Professional Standards (OPS) was created in 1974 within the Chicago Police Department. Next, the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) was substituted in 2007, which nearly ten years later was eventually replaced by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA)

Each of these previous agencies were established thanks to the tireless efforts of ordinary Chicagoans who demanded positive policing change. However, none of the people serving on these were democratically elected – all appointed by Mayors of the previous governing City administrations.

In July 2021, after years of rancorous, often divisive civic debate, the Chicago City Council passed legislation to establish the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, (CCPSA).

The once controversial concept had gained high-profile urgency and credibility following the local and national outcry sparked by the widely reviled delayed video release and attempted coverup of the police slaying of 17-year-old Chicagoan Laquan McDonald, who was shot seventeen times in the back, despite posing no threat and not carrying a firearm.

Another CCPSA Inaugural program highlight was the exciting appearance by Chicago Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson, whose encouraging words energized and uplifted the audience. Johnson also introduced the Interim Commission and Commission President Anthony Driver, who profoundly thanked everyone for their continued involvement and support.

As the seven-member Interim Commission solemnly stood on stage, the 66-member citywide District Council was dutifully sworn in by the Honorable Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans, who commended the group for their commitment to advancing ‘new forms of civic public safety collectivity.’ The program closing Prayer of Peace administered by Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein continued the positive tone for the day.

Rev. Damon O. Smith, M.Div., Deputy Director for District Councils, Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability (CCPSA) confirmed: “All appearances indicate that the CCPSA is off to a great start. We made history and inaugurated an assorted group of Chicagoans who are now District Commissioners who’ve exhibited a history of dedicated service, strong yet flexible leadership, community engagement, and perhaps most important in this role, those with an ability to work collaboratively with a diverse range of individuals, organizations, and public/private agencies.”

The CCPSA plays a vital role in selecting and removing the Police Superintendent, the head of the Civilian Office of Policy Accountability (COPA), and members of the Police Board. CCPSA also reviews the annual CPD budget prior to Council approval. Following theirs, and the upcoming installation of Chicago’s new Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson and 50 Alderpersons, the Commission is required to provide three names for Mayoral consideration by July 2023.

Desmon Yancy is one of those activists who elevated his sights on directly impacting public policy as an official – especially now that his significant progressive political action has turned him into one of Chicago’s newest Alderpersons.

One of the key prominent leaders of the successful campaign to create an elected board for civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department,  Yancy evolved his game, successfully ran a spirited, movement-oriented crusade, won the recent April 4th  runoff race, and on May 15, 2023 will be officially sworn in as the next elected Alderman of the 5th Ward.

Desmon Yancy co-founded and previously served as the spokesperson of the former Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA) and the subsequent Empowering Communities for Public Safety (ECPS) coalitions. This South side Chicago native is the proud son of a Chicago policeman and has long championed policy-related initiatives and ‘on the ground’ neighborhood work around police accountability and public safety.

“Today more than ever, my story chronicles the possibilities and contradictions of today’s highly-divisive climate. However, our unified coalition work in this arena has laid a solid foundation for transformational policy change,” remarked Yancy.

Many believe Chicago and the United States are experiencing another period of quasi-revolutionary fervor, as a reaction to address critical social issues in what’s becoming one of our nation’s most contentious decades.

Further, in light of the tragic fatal South Side shooting this week of young CPD officer Aréanah Preston while returning home following her night-shift duty, Alderman-elect Yancy expresses his concerns and hopes for the future:

“What happened to police officer Preston is just unacceptable, like wrongful actions on citizens by police.  It also highlights continuing disparities in police response times in many neighborhoods. Therefore, we must strive to work in partnership across the city to embrace equitable public safety policies, initiatives and strategies which connects city residents with the CPD to improve trust and collaboration, which uplifts, protects, and empowers everyone.”

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