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In A Major Step For Chicago Police Reform, Civilians Gain Oversight Of Department

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Chicago, the city council has approved a plan that, for the first time, will give civilians direct oversight of the city's police department. It's part of a years-long push to make police officers more accountable to the residents whom they serve. And it could make Chicago a model for what independent community-based police oversight looks like. From member station WBEZ in Chicago, Claudia Morell reports.

CLAUDIA MORELL, BYLINE: Civilian oversight of the police department represents a major step in Chicago police reform. It was sparked in part by the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager shot 16 times by a white police officer. City Hall settled that case quietly, but in 2015, a judge forced the city to release the dash cam video. And that led to citywide protests and charges of a cover-up. And it was now Mayor Lori Lightfoot, then president of the city's police board, who first suggested that civilian oversight could restore trust. At a council meeting this week, she stressed that again.

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LORI LIGHTFOOT: If the communities do not trust them because they are not legitimate to them, they will not be effective in their most core mission, which is serving and protecting every single resident of the city.

MORELL: It took six years for activists, alderman and two different administrations to hammer out the details. There had been numerous stumbling blocks along the way. How much power should this oversight board have? What role should it play within the existing system of police accountability? And how do you maximize its independence from City Hall? Alderman Leslie Hairston said one thing was certain - people could no longer trust the department to reform on its own.

LESLIE HAIRSTON: They wrote the rules. They broke the rules and then rewrote the rules, all biased against the communities that they serve.

MORELL: Under the compromised plan approved by the city council this week, the city will create a two-tiered system of civilian oversight - a seven-member board appointed by the mayor and city council, and 22 police district councils, each with elected representatives. Both the commission and the councils will help draft policy for the police department.

Alderman Derrick Curtis is a former police officer and is concerned that this new layer of oversight will make it harder for police to do their jobs, especially at a time when crime rates are soaring.

DERRICK CURTIS: Right now, I feel that the city is out of control, and we need to grab control of it before we look into civilian oversight.

MORELL: Chicago will become one of seven cities across the country with a civilian oversight board. Maria Ponomarenko is co-founder of the Policing Project at New York University. She says the broader role in Chicago will differ than that of other cities.

MARIA PONOMARENKO: The difference with this commission is they're really focused on setting policy. They're not getting into the nitty-gritty of second-guessing what any one individual officer did. Chicago can really, I think, be a model for what a thoughtful, you know, community-focused approach to oversight looks like.

MORELL: Ponomarenko and others expect more cities to follow Chicago's lead as they grapple with how to keep their police departments more accountable to the residents they serve.

For NPR News, I'm Claudia Morell in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.