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This story was co-published with the Chicago Reader.

At a forum on Police District Council races hosted on January 22 by the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR) at CTU headquarters, dozens of candidates stood in lines that wrapped around a dais at the front of Jacqueline Vaughn Hall, waiting their turn to explain why they’re running. 

Nearly all of them are seeking office for the first time in their lives, but they spoke clearly and with conviction about the trauma they’ve experienced at the hands of police.

Many have family members who were brutalized or killed: Cynthia McFadden’s father escaped white supremacist terror in the South by coming to Chicago during the Great Migration, only to be shot and killed by police at 47th and King Drive on the day he arrived. Coston Plummer’s older brother was tortured for 39 hours and forced to falsely confess to murder by officers under notorious commander Jon Burge when he was just 15 years old, and remains in prison today. When Craig Carrington’s sister was brutalized and arrested for protecting her children from police in 2004, he promised her that if he ever could, he would do something about it.

They talked about running for Police District Council in order to heal—not just themselves and their families, but entire communities whose relationships with public safety have long been fractured.

“The amazing thing about these candidates who are running for district council is that they are overwhelmingly Black and Brown, overwhelmingly working class, and there’s also a lot of poor people in the ranks,” Frank Chapman, a CAARPR field organizer and a leader of the movement that ushered in the Police District Councils, told the crowd. “This is who is running. So just on the basis of that, this election on February 28 will be the most democratic election that this city has ever seen.” 

Of the 112 candidates running in the newly-created Police District Council races, 63 used resources provided by CAARPR to file election paperwork. These 63 candidates support police accountability: overwhelmingly, they want Chicago Police Department funding to be redirected to violence prevention and transformative justice programs, for care workers to accompany police to mental health crises, and for their churches, block clubs, and community organizations to be included in public safety. Despite what they have personally endured at the hands of police, only a few want to totally defund or abolish CPD.

They described knocking on countless doors in Chicago’s coldest months to discuss that opportunity with voters. Meridth Hammer, a candidate in the Fourth District, was hoarse from talking about public safety with voters day in and day out. They are ordinary people whose resilience carries them as they fight for a seat at the table.

Ordinary people have always been at the center of this struggle. The movement for community control of the police, or CCOP, was led by revolutionaries, but it has always been carried onward by neighborhood people.


In Chicago, CCOP was first conceived by the Black Panther Party and Chairman Fred Hampton in the 1960s. A charismatic visionary, Chairman Fred built a Rainbow Coalition of Black, Brown, and working-class white residents who, fed up with police violence, gentrification, and not-so-benign neglect of their communities, became revolutionaries. 

Neutralizing revolutionary coalitions was at the top of the FBI’s list of COINTELPRO goals, and the Cook County State’s Attorney Office and Chicago Police Department conspired to assassinate Hampton on December 4, 1969. His murder only spurred the Panthers and Rainbow Coalition to redouble their efforts for control of police. Within four years, they built a citywide campaign for elected civilian police boards in every police district. Ultimately, Mayor Richard J. Daley’s political machine repelled the effort. The movement regrouped and found other inroads to power as revolutionaries ran for office. 

Over the ensuing decades, elected officials made several attempts to establish oversight of the police. Following a series of police brutality incidents, U.S. representative Ralph Metcalfe (IL-1) convened a Congressional blue-ribbon panel in 1972 that led to the creation of the Office of Professional Standards (OPS). Comprised of civilian members of CPD, it became notorious for stifling misconduct investigations. After a brutality incident was caught on camera in 2007, the City Council voted (with Mayor Richard M. Daley’s approval) to replace OPS with the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA). Moving oversight out of the department did little to increase accountability. Following the CPD murder of Laquan McDonald, the City Council (with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s blessing) replaced IPRA with the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which investigates misconduct and makes recommendations to the Police Board, in 2016.   

Through it all, Chicago police continued killing and brutalizing people. The victims’ families never stopped fighting for justice. Many have been doing so for decades, often on their own, wandering the wilderness of a city that took police harassment, torture, and murder of its residents for granted. The best most could hope for was a cash settlement. The price of police violence was shunted onto Chicago’s residents as the City’s payouts for police misconduct ballooned to more than $50 million a year.

In 2012, one police killing, of Rekia Boyd by off-duty CPD officer Dante Servin, became a flashpoint around which the scattered survivors of police violence coalesced. The Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA) and the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR) spent a decade painstakingly building a movement rooted in the communities. In 2020, the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police set off rebellions around the country. Amid the uprisings, GAPA and CAARPR formed a coalition and, with their allies in City Council, passed the Empowering Communities for Public Safety (ECPS) ordinance in 2021 despite Mayor Lightfoot’s objections.

At a forum on Police District Council races hosted on January 22 by CAARPR at CTU headquarters, dozens of candidates stood in lines, waiting their turn to explain why they’re running. Photo by Jim Daley // Chicago Reader
At a forum on Police District Council races hosted on January 22 by CAARPR at CTU headquarters, dozens of candidates stood in lines, waiting their turn to explain why they’re running. Photo by Jim Daley // Chicago Reader

The district councils that the ECPS ordinance created will not have the kind of direct oversight powers the Panthers initially sought for district-level boards in the CCOP movement, like hiring and firing police and setting department policy. However, they will have the right to engage with district commanders and recommend restorative justice and other alternative approaches to safety. Among other duties, they’re also charged with helping community members request investigative information from COPA and CPD. The councils’ effectiveness at serving and engaging with the community will most likely vary by district. 

Each of the 22 three-member councils will send one representative to meetings where they will nominate the citywide Community Commission on Public Safety and Accountability (CCPSA). It is in that commission that ECPS achieves civilian power—in a layered, not direct, manner—over the degree to which police are held accountable. The CCPSA can hire and fire the chief administrator of COPA. It can also hold hearings about the police superintendent and take a vote of no confidence that triggers City Council hearings and a vote to retain or fire the superintendent. 

The hope of the ECPS organizers is that the CCPSA will exercise these powers should COPA or the superintendent fail to hold officers who brutalize or kill accountable. 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her allies initially resisted the proposals brought forth by organizers, and it took grueling negotiations between organizers and the mayor’s office before the City Council passed the ECPS ordinance. Then, the mayor and her allies slow-walked its implementation. Lightfoot’s floor leader, Alderperson Michelle Harris, delayed the opening of applications for the interim CCPSA for months. And although the ECPS ordinance required the mayor to appoint members to the interim CCPSA by January 2022, she waited until August to do so. At that point, it was too late for the CCPSA to review the mayor’s police department budget and recommend changes to the City Council, one of their key duties mandated by the ordinance. 

The police are aware of the ramifications of reform. Just as the machine poured its efforts into thwarting the CCOP ordinance 50 years ago, the Fraternal Order of Police and its allies have organized to undermine ECPS. 

The FOP has spent at least $25,000 to get their people on the ballot and try to knock progressive candidates off, and they gave the green light to one of their election attorneys, Perry Abbasi, to run in the 25th District. In Northwest-Side districts like the 16th and Southwest-Side districts like the 22nd, where neighborhoods like Galewood and Mount Greenwood are home to many police, nearly everyone running has ties to the FOP. 

In the Fifth District, Thomas McMahon, a former police lieutenant who has 21 misconduct allegations, is running. He hired his own attorney to challenge the ballot petitions of Robert McKay, a candidate in the same district who helped usher in reform to the CFD in the 1990s; the reformer is now running as a write-in candidate. Lee Bielecki, a retired sergeant who has 26 allegations of misconduct, is running in the 22nd District. In the 12th, Juan Lopez, a former state police trooper who was fired and charged with seven felonies for firing six shots into his ex-girlfriend’s home after seeing her with another man, is running. Lopez was acquitted of the felonies, for which he was facing 26 years in prison, and convicted of a misdemeanor. 

But the block club members, teachers, and pastors who stood at the microphones at CTU headquarters know the stakes of this race better than anyone. They want the opportunity to ensure that the radical proposition they fought for and won—a chance for the community to have a say in creating public safety and holding police accountable—is borne out. According to Chapman, that opportunity is revolutionary.

“These people are running out of dedication to a cause,” Chapman said. “And their dedication is that it’s time, in this city, to hold the police accountable for the crimes that they commit against that community.” For these candidates, it is time indeed.


is the news editor for the Chicago Reader.