On July 21, the Chicago City Council passed the Empowering Communities for Public Safety (ECPS) ordinance with a 36-13 vote to create an elected civilian oversight board of Chicago residents to oversee the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA). Mayor Lori Lightfoot also backed the ordinance, which will go into effect in 2023. 

The ECPS coalition behind the ordinance is made up of more than 100 organizations that were directly involved in the decades-long campaign for civilian oversight of CPD. The campaign gained momentum after the release of the video of former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014, but received even more visibility as calls for police accountability and reform picked up more steam during the 2020 summer uprisings.

So, what is ECPS? And what does it mean for Chicagoans?  

The ordinance creates a seven-member commission that will respond to the public safety needs and concerns of the community, engage in community outreach, make recommendations on police policy and more. 

Most important of the commission’s powers is the ability to pass a resolution of no confidence in the superintendent, any member of the police board and COPA chief administrator with a two-thirds vote, according to WTTW. The commission can recommend candidates for police superintendent and the police board, but the mayor still retains the power to hire and fire the police superintendent. However, the commission does have the power to hire and fire the COPA head. The seven-member commission will be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council. 

The ordinance also creates three-member district councils for each of the city’s 22 police districts. Members of the councils will be elected by residents who reside in the district during the 2023 municipal elections. District council members will work directly with the police district and report their findings to the commission. 

After the historic vote, The TRiiBE spoke to Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR) national director Frank Chapman, Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (CDSA) co-chair Diego Morales and #LetUsBreathe Collective co-director Damon Williams about the ECPS ordinance and what it means for a city like Chicago with a long history of police misconduct and abuse.

“I don’t think this should be promoted as something that will make our community safer or end police violence, but what it could do is activate a lot of people to engage in political processes that could lead to that type of work,” Williams said.

Chapman and Morales are members of the coalition that developed the ordinance. Here is what all three organizers had to say. 

(These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity).

What does this vote mean to the city of Chicago?

Frank Chapman (CAARPR): For the first time in the history of the city, public safety in Chicago will center the community in the way policing happens. In other words, at last, we have gotten the decisive words to say who polices our communities, and how our communities policed. 

Do you consider the passing of the ECPS ordinance a win for the movement?

Frank Chapman, CAARPR:  It’s a win. We didn’t get everything we wanted; we didn’t get everything we asked for. There’s gonna have to be a continuing struggle because we want more power than we got. We want more power to have a say in the budget. Everything that concerns policing in the city, we think should be under civilian control. That’s our position. 

This [ECPS ordinance] doesn’t create that civilian control entirely, but it opens up the door. It gives us a pathway to achieving it by giving us a decisive voice in policymaking. And it’s not about restoring trust. It’s about having policymaking power. We need to change the whole nature and character of policing in the city and [July 21, 2021] was a critical step in that direction.

Damon Williams, #LetUsBreathe Collective: “[I] don’t want to diminish the work of folks [in the coalition], but I can speak for folks who are interested in a more transformative approach to societal violence and the issues of policing. I will say that [the ECPS] ordinance is not going to actually stop police violence.

I hesitate to call it a win, but I think it is an important effort of community organizing and an experiment — which we need — on how inside and outside strategies can work together. The coalition that worked behind this can provide valuable information and lessons. I don’t think this should be promoted as something that will make our community safer or end police violence, but what it could do is activate a lot of people to engage in political processes that could lead to that type of work.

Diego Morales, CDSA: There’s still portions of this fight, of what these coalitions have been fighting for, that we need to address and follow up on. For example, the referenda*. The bill is still in the Rules Committee. That would make this thing look more like real community control, something that would get us closer to the situation that would be positive.

* The bill Morales is referring to is a binding referendum that would appear on ballots in the primary election in 2022 with City Council approval. Chicago voters would be asked if the city should give the civilian oversight commission authority over CPD’s department budget, hiring or firing of the police superintendent and members of the police board, and negotiating police and union contracts. If approved by voters, this would also expand the commission to 11 members instead of seven. Nine of the 11 commissioners would be elected by voters and two would be appointed. 

Is the passage of ECPS proof that Mayor Lightfoot kept her campaign promise to reform the CPD?

Diego Morales, CDSA: The mayor has made a lot of promises during her campaign that she has consistently turned about-face on and has been fighting against when it comes to police accountability. It is not just in this instance, but that has been the case across the board. It wasn’t too long ago that there were specific scandals in which the police needed to be held to account for their actions, say in the case of Anjanette Young. The mayor was caught lying about her knowledge of that case. And that scandal was so big, she ended up shifting the blame onto her commissioners, and one of them [Sydney Roberts] had resigned as a result of that. But we know, on record specifically, that the mayor was complicit and a part of trying to cover up that specific scandal.

Damon Williams, #LetUsBreathe Collective: We should be hesitant or skeptical of any messaging that comes out valorizing or thanking the mayor. This is not something that she wanted. I think the attempt to dilute this ordinance to create a counter space and a counter ordinance needs to be documented and some of this political performance and inconsistency needs to be highlighted and she should be questioned. 

Similar to her inconsistencies around Anjanette Young [and] to her inconsistencies around the cop academy, I think she has been proven to be a dishonest actor, a political performer, that makes bizarre choices, and this [ECPS ordinance] is opportunism. This is a thrust towards re-election and wanting to make sure that institutional media is framing her as someone who is keeping her campaign promises. I believe that her political framework is counter to the liberation of black people.

#LetUsBreathe Collective's Damon Williams speaking at Freedom Square in 2020, where organizers demanded #DefundCPD and the closure of Homan Square police site. Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE
What does the community think about the ordinance?

Diego Morales, CDSA: A lot of the rhetoric that you saw in city council was out of touch, and not in line with what you see historically. The reality is that oversight boards do not change the relationship to the police. They do not build trust. 

One of the ideas behind COPA was to [rebuild trust between community and police] and you’re seeing a similar sort of conversation happening in Minneapolis with their oversight board. The fundamental relationship is the same. The police is still an oppressive institution that does not contribute to public safety. [Police] only makes people less safe. [Policing] traumatizes [people and] impoverishes them. People saw real accountability come from mass movement, [for instance] in the case of Laquan McDonald and the court case against his killer. It wasn’t until people saw that we were taking the streets, that we were expressing political power, that we were being uncivil until we pressured that system in that way, people saw real results. People saw something happen. That’s where real accountability comes from.

Damon Williams, #LetUsBreathe Collective: The people I talked to are very committed to redistributing the resources away from the police and reducing their power. We stand in solidarity and alignment with the organizers and with the communities that put their energy into this [ECPS ordinance] effort. But we think that this should not be seen as a way to stop having the conversation about divesting from policing and investing in community. 

What can be valuable about it is, it will allow a lot of people to be disillusioned. So participating in the system [of policing and government] is not, you know, bad or harmful within itself because it allows a lot of people to see the ways in which cover-ups happen, how things are dishonest in the way in which bureaucracy works, and how anti-democratic Chicago politics is. So I think the closer people are [to participating in democracy with respect to this ordinance], they will have an idea of how institutions of power operate.

is a multimedia producer for The TRiiBE.