“I never really noticed the police accountability issues until my sister Rekia Boyd was killed, and then it opened up my eyes to a whole other world,” Martinez Sutton, whose life was irrevocably altered after Chicago police detective Dante Servin fatally shot his sister, told Rewire in an interview.
In March 2012, unarmed Black 22-year-old Rekia Boyd was hanging out with friends in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood when Servin opened fire on the group, hitting Boyd in the back of the head. Servin, who was off-duty at the time of the shooting, was cleared of all criminal charges related to Boyd’s death, and allowed to resign from the police force while remaining eligible to collect his pension.
“Me and my family were trying to fight for justice, to bring her killer to face time, and they did a ‘not guilty’ verdict. That really woke us up right there. And along the way, for over four years, it has been a struggle,” Sutton continued.
Boyd’s story is just one example of the Chicago government’s failure to effectively place basic accountability measures on the Chicago Police Department (CPD). The fight for justice in her case has been a central focus for groups combating anti-Black police brutality in the city.
In response to building pressure, in August Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed a new Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), which the city council approved on October 5. While Emanuel claims that COPA will allow for greater civilian oversight of the CPD, activists on the ground are not convinced the new office will produce meaningful change.
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“COPA will be a lot more of politics as usual,” said Maxx Boykin, organizing co-chair for Black Youth Project 100’s Chicago chapter. “They put ‘civilian’ in the name, but they will still be appointed by the mayor. There is no true accountability to the community from what we have seen.”
In December 2015, amid calls for Emanuel’s resignation, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into the Chicago Police Department’s use of force. The ongoing investigation was in large part prompted by video footage of the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, which the city released in November 2015, over a year after his death occurred. The mishandling of his case prompted calls for improved police accountability mechanisms.
COPA will replace the widely criticized Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), but many see little difference between the two. COPA’s budget will be $14 million, $2 million greater than IPRA. Control over COPA’s appointments may remain with the mayor, and for now Emanuel has appointed current IPRA Chief Administrator Sharon Fairley to lead the office. Details of how—or whether—the new office will receive any form of independent civilian oversight have not yet been made public. Following criticism, Emanuel revised his original proposal for COPA so that former CPD officers and employees of Cook County’s State’s Attorney’s Office cannot work for the office until they have been out of their position for five years. This means that once they are five years out of their tenure, former officers and prosecutors can serve in the new office.
The similarities between the two offices are alarming given that IPRA has come under fire by the media and civil liberties advocates alike. According to an investigation by the Chicago Tribune, excluding light punishments for accidental weapons discharges, IPRA has upheld allegations in just 125 of the nearly 8,000 cases it has seen in the last four years—or 1.7 percent.
At the same time, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois found that Chicago police officers were conducting stop-and-frisks at four times the rate of New York City during its peak use of the tactic. Seventy-two percent of those the police stopped were Black, even though they make up 32 percent of Chicago’s population. In the summer of 2014 alone, over 250,000 of these stops led to no arrest, and in around half of the stops examined the officers failed to document “legally sufficient reasons to establish reasonable suspicion.” Racially biased stop-and-frisks—which have been a contentious topic in this election—violate Fourth Amendment protections from unwarranted and unreasonable searches and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
COPA will differ from IPRA in that the office can consider officer complaint histories in reaching its decisions, and faces restrictions on its use of the mediation process (which is similar to plea bargaining and, according to advocates, has often been responsible for light punishments of officers who commit misconduct). The ordinance also creates a new deputy inspector general to oversee COPA and police conduct more broadly. Activists, however, see these changes as surface level—keeping control of police accountability with City Hall and failing to give power to actual civilians.
Instead of replacing IPRA with another institution run by City Hall, Boykin and other local activists support creating an office that serves those most vulnerable to police violence—including people of color and those with disabilities—in a truly independent manner. Their proposal, the Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC), would instate an elected civilian police review council, with representatives from each of Chicago’s police districts. This council would review cases of police misconduct, control the police budget, and give victims of police violence and their loved ones an autonomous body to report to. Proponents of CPAC attended the City Council’s Public Safety Subcommittee meeting on October 4 to advocate for their proposal, but the committee ended up passing the ordinance to approve COPA in spite of their protests.
In addition to a democratically elected police review board, Boykin believes the city should redirect resources to “things that actually keep communities safe and healthy.” This includes greater investments in public education, food access, jobs and housing for youth, social workers and trauma care, and mental health services. He pointed to the Movement for Black Lives’ policy recommendations around divesting from law enforcement agencies and investing in Black communities as relevant to the Chicago context. As Chicago has closed public schools and withdrawn resources from marginalized communities on the city’s South and West Sides, the government has continued to ramp up spending on police, which accounts for around 39 percent of the city’s budget.
Activists also emphasized that police accountability mechanisms should consider the experiences of Black individuals particularly vulnerable to police violence whose stories are often missing from mainstream dialogues on the problem. Since cis and trans Black women are disproportionately vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault at the hands of law enforcement, Boykin argued that “they need spaces where they can go and report this without feeling like they’re then going to have to deal with repercussions from police.”
Rebecca Cokley, executive director of the National Council on Disability, emphasized in an interview with Rewire that “as we have conversations about police review boards, it’s imperative that people with disabilities be at the table.” According to a Ruderman White Paper on police brutality and disability, around half of those killed by police in the United States have a disability, yet this is rarely mentioned in media coverage of these stories. To remedy this erasure, Cokley argued that police forces should be required to collect data on police misconduct that is disaggregated by measures including race, gender, income, and ability status, so that solutions can take into account the scope and nuances of the problem.
With COPA, Emanuel has failed to provide a solution to the far-reaching lack of accountability between Chicago’s police force and residents of the city. “The message that I’m getting is that you can join the police department and do anything you want without consequence,” Sutton reflected. “There is a lack of respect for the families of those that were killed. I take it as a slap in the face.”
Those directly affected by anti-Black police brutality will continue their fight to fundamentally change the way policing is carried out in Chicago. A central component of this fight will be measures that hold law enforcement agencies accountable to those they are supposed to serve and protect.