Committee on Public Safety: 20-year Analysis

A 20-year analysis of agenda items from Chicago’s Committee on Public Safety reveals a lack of oversight of policing structures.

Summary:

The Committee on Public Safety plays a vital role in overseeing and managing the accountability systems in place for disciplining officers in the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Any City Council legislation or proposals relating to agencies like the CPD and the Police Board must be passed by the Committee on Public Safety before the full council can vote on it. The committee has the power to oversee and create independent accountability agencies and task forces. Because the Committee on Public Safety, and the Alderpersons on it, have great oversight powers, it is important for the residents of Chicago to understand how they have used their regulatory abilities. This is true now more than ever as people are becoming increasingly aware of how broken our policing systems are.

Given the Committee on Public Safety’s ability to oversee and regulate agencies related to policing, the Chicago Justice Project (CJP) analyzed the agenda items of the committee over the past twenty years, as recorded in their meeting agendas. This report covers 489 agenda items taken over 186 committee meetings from January 2000 through July 2020. 

This study examines the types of agenda items taken by the Committee on Public Safety as they relate to oversight of policing structures. We aim to find how many times the committee actually used their regulatory powers, organizing their agenda items by their potential to create meaningful change to policing structures. We label agenda items that could lead to meaningful change as “Oversight.” Agenda items labeled “Easy Oversight” indicate that there was a potential for meaningful change but committee members defaulted to the mayor’s wishes instead of pursuing alternatives. In order to understand what or who may have prompted Oversight and Easy Oversight, our study analyzes the overall twenty years of agenda items, seminal events that may have prompted oversight, and levels of oversight by terms of the chairperson of the committee.

Some agenda items may have been omitted due to the committee’s improper or incomplete recordings of their meetings. These agendas are the only public records detailing their meetings as a committee. For example, the creation of the Independent Police Review Authority in 2007 was not mentioned in the agendas. We have attempted to create an exhaustive record of the Committee on Public Safety’s agenda items by filling in omitted items where we could confirm their details using media sources.

We found that levels of meaningful oversight by the Committee on Public Safety remain relatively low and stagnant over the last 20 years in the wake of corruption scandals, shootings, and other incidents of brutality and misconduct by CPD officers. This committee has allocated the vast majority of their meetings to donations and other non-oversight related matters, as recorded in their agendas. Approximately 80% of the total agenda items over the last 20 years did not relate to oversight. Similarly, the vast majority of agenda items are unrelated to policing agencies. Additionally, the most oversight done by any chairperson was Williams Beavers with 15 actions over his four-year term. This is ironic because he is one of the two alderpersons who chaired this committee in the last 20 years who has been to prison.

CJP believes that with changes to the City Council and more community involvement in oversight of Chicago’s policing systems, meaningful action is possible.

Introduction:

According to the government of Chicago, the CPD’s purpose is to protect the lives, property, and rights of all people, maintain order, and enforce the law impartially. To ensure that the CPD is acting in accordance with their mission, and make changes if not, a proper accountability system is key.

Given the powers of the Fraternal Order of Police, it is especially important to understand how the legislature interacts with structures of police oversight. Because the government has ceded some ability to shape police departments to the police themselves, it is important to understand how the government is using its legislative powers to promote accountability and oversight. Relying on police officers to hold themselves accountable has failed historically. How effective has the legislature been?

The Committee on Public Safety, composed of Alderpersons on the Chicago City Council, plays a vital role in overseeing the accountability system of the CPD, as detailed further in the next section. Thus, it is important to recognize what powers the Committee on Public Safety has, how they have historically exercised their power, and to what extent they have made meaningful changes to produce more accountable systems of policing.

To allow the public a better understanding of the CPD’s accountability system and the effectiveness of the Committee on Public Safety’s oversight functions, CJP has conducted a study of the past twenty years of agenda items by the committee. This examination of twenty years of agenda items will provide insight into what the Committee on Public Safety has done to bring oversight to the CPD and police accountability system as a whole.

The City Council and Committees:

The City of Chicago has 50 wards, each of which is represented by an alderperson. The 50 alderpersons comprise the Chicago City Council, which is presided over by the Mayor of Chicago. The City Council generally meets once a month to vote on proposed loans, grants, bond issues, land acquisitions, sales, zoning changes, mayoral appointees, and so on. It currently has 19 committees that work with individual departments on city activities, proposed ordinances, resolutions, and orders before the full council can vote on them.

According to the Chicago City Council rules, the City Council has the power to determine placements of alderpersons, chairs, and vice-chairs of each committee. However, the mayor has generally appointed council committee chairs. Committees chairs have the power to call meetings of their committee, submit summaries of committee proceedings, recommended action to the City Council, sign vouchers and payrolls, determine chairs and vice-chairs of subcommittees, and determine which proposed ordinances will be on the agenda to get a vote the full City Council.

Previously named the Committee on Police and Fire, the Committee on Public Safety has jurisdiction over matters relating to policing, firefighting, and emergency city services. Legislation under the jurisdiction of the Committee on Public Safety must first pass the committee for the full City Council to vote on it. This process can include hearings, deliberation on proposals, and recommendations to the City Council.

The Committee on Public Safety currently has legislative jurisdiction over the Chicago Police Department (CPD), Police Board, Fire Department, Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC), Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), Deputy Inspector General for Public Safety (DPSIG), Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), the Office of Professional Standards (OPS), and the Community Commission. Following this is an explanation of each of these agencies.

  • Chicago Police Department: The CPD is the second-largest municipal police department in the U.S., with approximately 13,000 officers and a 2021 budget of about $1.7 billion. The CPD aims to “attain the highest degree of ethical behavior and professional conduct at all times” to provide quality police service to the communities of Chicago.
  • Fire Department: The Chicago Fire Department aims to promote fire safety, provide emergency care, and extinguish fires. It employs over 5,000 people and with a yearly budget of over $700 million in 2021. 
  • Police Board: The Police Board is an independent civilian-run agency that adds the voices of residents to the decisions of disciplinary cases involving CPD officers. The nine members of the Board are private citizens appointed by the Mayor with the advice and consent of the City Council. Over $500,000 was allocated to the police board in Chicago’s 2021 budget.
  • Office of Emergency Management and Communications: OEMC was created in 1995. Its current responsibilities includes coordinating emergency responses between citizens and the police, fire, and medical services. It also works with the CPD, Fire Department, and other agencies to operate public safety communication systems. Over $100 million was allocated to OEMC in Chicago’s 2021 budget.
  • Office of Professional Standards: OPS was created in 1974 in response to increasing allegations of police brutality. OPS was meant to act as an independent investigating agency that dealt with police misconduct and disciplined officers. OPS acted as part of the police department but employed civilians.
  • Independent Police Review Authority: In 2007, IPRA was created to replace OPS after the agency drew criticism for inaction and failure to discipline officers. IPRA was tasked with similar duties to OPS, mainly investigating cases of police misconduct and recommending discipline if it was found to be necessary. Unlike OPS, IPRA was a standalone agency.
  • Civilian Office of Police Accountability: Replacing IPRA, COPA was created by the City Council in 2016 in response to the murder of Laquan McDonald by CPD officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014. COPA is responsible for conducting investigations of police misconduct (including use of force), identifying and addressing patterns of police misconduct, and making policy recommendations to improve the CPD. COPA was allocated over $13 million in Chicago’s 2021 budget.
  • Deputy Inspector General for Public Safety: The position of the DPSIG was also created in 2016, alongside COPA. The DPSIG is responsible for monitoring and reporting on patterns of conduct and operations of the CPD.
  • Community Commission: The idea for the Community Commission occurred around the same time that COPA and DPSIG were created. In 2016, the City Council enacted details for the first two parts of the reform structure but has deferred creating a Civilian Oversight Commission to give community groups time to submit their own proposals. It is supposed to assist in overseeing the operations of the CPD, COPA, and related agencies. While the commission still has not been created, community groups are united in their vision after 5 years of work. Several months ago Mayor Lightfoot stepped away from the negotiating table and has announced that she would be introducing her own version. This comes after extensive work by community groups and after candidate Lightfoot promised to pass the Commission in her first 100 days.

Methods:

The Chicago Justice Project used publicly available meeting agendas of the Committee on Public Safety from 2000-2020. The committee had 186 meetings with 489 agenda items over the twenty-year period. It is important to note that the Committee on Public Safety was called the Committee on Police and Fire prior to its 2011 name change. Additionally, some agenda items by the committee may have been omitted due to improper or incomplete recordings of their meeting agendas. We have aimed to create an exhaustive record of the Committee on Public Safety’s agenda items by filling in omissions where we could confirm their details using media sources. One such agenda item was the creation of IPRA, which was not included in the agendas but is included in this analysis. 

Each agenda item was labeled in accordance with the organization it relates to (CPD, COPA, PB, etc.) and classified by the content of the agenda item (Oversight, Easy Oversight, Donation, Other). For example, an ordinance requesting donations of fire fighting equipment to “less developed nations” in a 2002 meeting was labeled “Donation,” “Fire Department.” Additionally, we also recorded for each agenda item the date of the meetings, sponsor, related municipal code, and whether the item passed the committee or was held. 

The category of “Oversight” is defined as an agenda items that can be reasonably construed to lead to meaningful changes to the CPD and related police accountability systems. This includes appointments to the CPD and related policing and accountability agencies. Some examples of Oversight include the creation of IPRA in 2007 and the creation of COPA in 2016. We define the police accountability system as being made up of the following agencies & offices within the Chicago government during our 20-year time period:

  • Office of Professional Standards (OPS)
  • Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA)
  • Citizen Office of Police Accountability (COPA)
  • Police Board
  • Deputy Inspector General for Public Safety (DPSIG)

“Easy Oversight” is defined as agenda items that had the potential to create meaningful change if taken seriously, but the committee instead defaulted to the mayor’s instruction. These are items in which alderpersons take their direction from the mayor and vote without question. This doesn’t mean that some alderpersons will not make comments about the quality of the choice in the committee for the media, but the passage of the ordinance is assured behind closed doors before the hearing takes place. One significant example of these routine actions is appointments and reappointments to the Police Board. While it seems from an outsider’s perspective that this is meaningful oversight, the committee has never voted down an appointment or reappointment to the Police Board.

In addition to an overview of twenty years of oversight, we seek to have a deeper understanding of what events or alderpersons may have prompted Oversight and Easy Oversight. To accomplish this, we have compiled a list of seminal events from various media sources and collected data on the terms of each chairperson of the Committee on Public Safety. Chair terms were collected through records of inaugural city council meetings under the Journal of Proceedings. “Seminal events” encompass high-profile corruption scandals, police shootings, and brutality incidents relating to the CPD and accountability structures. For example, included in seminal events are the murder of Laquan McDonald by officer Jason Van Dyke, the conviction of Jon Burge, and the beating of Karolina Obrycka by officer Anthony Abbate.

20-year Overview:

We aim to understand what the Committee on Public Safety has done over the last 20 years to improve Chicago’s systems of policing. Because the Committee on Public Safety is tasked with overseeing the second largest municipal police department in the U.S., it is expected that much of their meetings are devoted to oversight of policing agencies. 

With 492 agenda items total, 48 were classified as Oversight, 53 as Easy Oversight, 100 as Donation, and the remaining 291 did not fall under any of these categories, labeled Other. Figure 1 demonstrates the breakdown of the total 20 years of agenda items by type. This indicates that the Committee on Public Safety overwhelmingly dealt with non-oversight agenda items in the past 20 years of their meetings. Approximately 80% of its agenda items were not related to any type of police oversight.

A total of 51 agenda items related to the OEMC, 75 for the CPD, 1 for OPS, 4 for IPRA, 8 for COPA, 42 for the Police Board, 6 for DPSIG, 117 for the Fire Department, 2 for the Community Commission, and a remaining 186 that did not relate to these agencies, labeled None. Figure 2 displays the percentages of the total 20 years of agenda items by the agencies that they relate to. This demonstrates that the Committee on Public Safety has dedicated the vast majority of its meeting time to issues unrelated to policing agencies. Only approximately 15% of the agenda items relate to the CPD and only 28% relate to policing agencies overall. It is important to note that the creation of COPA, DPSIG, and the idea for the community commission occurred in 2016. Still, less than 5% of the committee’s agenda items were related to police accountability agencies (OPS, IPRA, COPA, DPSIG, and the Community Commission).

In addition to this 20-year overview, the following sections will more closely examine the levels of oversight by seminal events and committee chair term in hopes of understanding what or who may have prompted reform. 

Oversight and Seminal Events

In this section, we seek to understand to what extent the Committee on Public Safety has brought oversight to systems of policing in the wake of seminal events. Seminal events encompass high-profile corruption scandals, police shootings, and brutality incidents relating to the CPD and its accountability structures. In a world where oversight and accountability structures operate as they ought to, we would expect to see oversight-related agenda items occurring more frequently in response to these high-profile scandals and acts of misconduct. 

The figure below displays a timeline of agenda items and seminal events from 2000 to 2020. Agenda item types per year are organized in the bar graph. The overlaid black line represents the number of seminal events in that year. By clicking on the number of seminal events occurring in any given year, the visualization will display what those events were. Additionally, by clicking on the boxes next to “Seminal Event Topics,” the figure will show a timeline of events relating only to those topics. 

As shown in the previous section, approximately 80% of total agenda items by the Committee on Public Safety dealt with donations and other actions unrelated to oversight. The figure below also shows that actions unrelated to oversight dominated the agenda of the Committee on Public Safety every year. One exception is in 2007 when the number of donations matched the number of non-oversight actions. Additionally, the frequency of oversight and easy oversight-related agenda items are not shown to be linked to the frequency of seminal events. This indicates that the Committee on Public Safety was not motivated to act even after misconduct and corruption scandals.

Oversight and Chairperson

This section analyzes how much oversight occurred under each chairperson of the Committee on Public Safety over the last 20 years. Figure 4 summarizes this information by organizing the type of agenda items by the term of each chairperson. 

It is important to note that Aldermanic terms begin every May in the same year that they are elected, which is why terms appear to overlap in some years. It is also important to note that Alderman Isaac Carothers’s second term is a year short because he resigned in February of 2010 after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges. Alderman Anthony Beale was named by Mayor Richard Daley to take Carothers’s place as chair for the remainder of the term. 

Continuing the trend of the previous sections, it is clear that this committee has primarily dealt with donations and non-oversight actions. Another alarming trend is that recent chairs seem to be taking fewer overall actions than their predecessors. The first three chairpersons averaged 9 oversight actions per term while the last three average 7 per term. While levels of Easy Oversight appear to be higher under more recent chairs, levels of substantive change, as indicated by Oversight, are still minimal. The most oversight done under a single term was by Williams Beavers with 15 Oversight actions. In addition to Carothers, Beavers spent time in prison for tax evasion.

Recommendations

This report reveals that the legislative body which has the power to oversee the CPD, Police Board, and COPA, to name a few, has primarily focused on non-oversight and non-policing related issues for the past 20 years. It is alarming that in the wake of events like the Chicago Police Torture cases and the murder of Laquan McDonald that the levels of meaningful oversight from the Committee on Public Safety remain minimal and stagnant. 

This may be unsurprising to some given the general history of policing in the U.S. and Chicago’s reputation for corruption (two out of the six chairpersons in this report served time in prison). However, this does not mean that Chicago’s police accountability structures are unchangeable. CJP recommends the following actions for improving the operations of police accountability mechanisms:

  1. Pass the Police Settlement Transparency and Accountability Ordinance. This ordinance would ensure Alderpersons will be provided with the facts of the case before voting on police misconduct litigation settlements, mandate that a meeting is held by the Committee on Public Safety on settlements and judgments every month that includes a settlement for city council approval, and that the committee holds meetings twice a year solely focused on the CPD and its accountability structure.
  2. Support the Empowering Communities for Public Safety (ECPS). This ordinance combines the community proposals of the Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) and Community Commission of the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA) to finally create the community-led Community Commission that Chicagoans were promised five years ago.
  3. Pass the Anjanette Young Ordinance. The ordinance would make the superintendent or designee directly responsible for signing off on every search warrant. The warrant must include a detailed plan which protects children and other vulnerable people inside the home.
  4. Create a robust Police Accountability Database. Chicago citizens need a publicly available database of misconduct complaints filed against Chicago police officers. While one was proposed by Mayor Lightfoot, it would only make a fraction of the complaints public.

Lauren Cole is a third-year studying political science and human rights at the University of Chicago and will begin pursuing a master’s in public policy at the Harris School of Public Policy this autumn. Lauren has been immersed in local and state politics since moving to Chicago, with involvement in local campaigns and legislative advocacy organizations. She joined the Chicago Justice Project this spring to conduct public policy research.

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