PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday July 6th, 2016, 5:08pm

Chicago Aldermen Back Calls For Greater Public Engagement On Police Reforms

Chicago aldermen expect additional hearings will be held in communities across the city to gather greater public input on the issue of police accountability reforms.

Calls for a broader community engagement process around Chicago police accountability legislation apparently did not fall on deaf ears in the city council Wednesday. 

The Chicago City Council's Budget and Public Safety Committees held the first of two planned "subject matter hearings" Wednesday afternoon on proposed police-related reforms, including a mayor-backed plan to abolish the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) and replace it with some type of civilian agency.

At today's thinly attended hearing, which lasted about an hour-and-a-half, representatives from the Chicago Urban League and several other community and civil rights groups urged aldermen to put the breaks on a police accountability overhaul until a more thorough public engagement process is completed. 

Speakers said Chicagoans received insufficient notice of the hearings being held Wednesday and Thursday after the Fourth of July holiday. Community leaders argued that the timing and City Hall location of the hearings made it difficult for Chicagoans, especially those who work during the day, to participate. They pressed aldermen to hold additional hearings in communities across Chicago before legislation is drafted to revamp the city's police accountability systems.

After today's hearing adjourned, aldermen said they heard the speakers' concerns.

"We would like to see (hearings) as well held in the community," Budget Committee Chairman Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) told reporters. 

"In order to draft the ordinance, we need to hear from everyone," she said. 

Public Safety Committee Chairman Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th) added, "It sounds like we may be taking it to the neighborhoods, from what I'm hearing through discussions of our colleagues. So I think it may be the right thing to do at this point in time."

Reboyras said an expanded public engagement process could take two to three months, adding that aldermen expect to discuss the matter further after the second hearing is held Thursday at 10 a.m. Reboyras said an ordinance involving police accountability reforms could be proposed sometime in early fall after additional hearings are held. 

Members of the council's Progressive Reform Caucus also endorsed the push for greater public engagement on the issue.

"Rushing through legislation this important at this critical juncture in our city's history without full community engagement would be a serious error," Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd), a Progressive Caucus member, said in a statement after today's hearing. "A series of public meetings in various parts of the city, where we can hear from constituents as well as subject matter experts, is a vital component in this process that cannot be skipped over."

The mayor's office responded to concerns about the public input process in a statement Wednesday.

"We've been committed to a full public process on this important issue, and the mayor has worked to ensure that meaningful public engagement continues to be a priority in shaping the city's police accountability system," the statement said. "The Police Accountability Task Force themselves held a series of public hearings prior to releasing their report. The City Council is holding public hearings today. And there will be additional opportunities for public engagement, reflecting the importance of public input throughout the process."

Overall, Reboyras called Wednesday's hearing "very productive," though he said he was surprised by the light attendance. 

"We'll see what happens tomorrow" when the second committee hearing is held, Reboyras said. "It may be more effective out in the community. We'll see."

The council hearings come after Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel delayed the introduction of a plan to abolish IPRA and replace it with a civilian agency, a recommendation made by the mayor's Police Accountability Task Force. 

Emanuel had planned to introduce the proposal at the June 22 Chicago City Council meeting. But, following concerns from aldermen about the measure, a pair of city council subject matter hearings were scheduled for this week to gather public input.

Some Chicagoans expressed frustration at Wednesday's hearing. 

"To us, these hearings are a farce," said Mike Elliot with the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR). "All these hearings are revolving around some more appointed bodies, and we know they have all failed."

Elliot's group is pushing for "community control of the police" through the creation of an elected Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC). The civilian-led council would investigate and prosecute claims of Chicago police crimes.

"We know CPAC ... is the way to gain community control of the police," Elliot said. "If you're not talking about community control of the police, you're wasting our time."

Other speakers with a 12-group coalition of community and civil rights groups asked aldermen to pass the so-called Fair Cops ordinance. The proposal, introduced by Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) in April, would establish a deputy inspector general of police oversight within the city's Inspector General's Office to investigate claims of police brutality.

Ervin called the Fair Cops ordinance, crafted by the Community Renewal Society (CRS), an "excellent starting point for us to begin the conversation around police accountability."

Samuel Paul with CRS said the Fair Cops ordinance "represents police accountability" and "reform." 

"It represents community oversight, and it is more than necessary," he said of the Fair Cops ordinance.

Other police accountability activists with #TheBluestLie Collaborative used Wednesday's hearing to denounce a separate city council proposal seeking to expand Chicago's hate crime law to protect police, firefighters and paramedics.  

"We know that police officers and first responders are not marginalized people," Camesha Jones, a police accountability activist with the collaborative and BYP 100, said during a press conference before the hearing. "The police do not deserve to have further protections under the hate crimes legislation."

The proposal, introduced last month by powerful Ald. Ed Burke (14th), a former police officer, would also increase maximum fines for hate crime violations from $500 to $2,500. Violators of the hate crimes ordinance, co-sponsored by aldermen who are former police officers or firefighters, could also face imprisonment of up to six months.

Burke said it is important to extend "every possible protection" to first responders.

"Each day police officers and firefighters put their lives on the line to ensure our well-being and security," Burke said in announcing the legislation last month. "It is the goal of this ordinance to give prosecutors and judges every tool to punish those who interfere with, or threaten or physically assault, our public safety personnel."

But Jones called Burke's measure "a slap in the face to black and brown organizers who have been rallying and protesting and demanding" greater Chicago police accountability for years.

"If this hate crimes legislation passes, then it will be harder to hold police officers accountable," she said before testifying at the hearing.

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