The Chicago City Council on Wednesday approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to create a new agency to investigate police shootings and misconduct allegations even as critics — some on the council — say it's not strong enough to closely watch a police force long dogged by a reputation for brutality and covering up misdeeds of officers.
Over the objections of some aldermen and several people in the audience who angrily shouted their displeasure, the council voted 39-8 to form a new agency to investigate the police force called the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and create a new deputy inspector whose job will be to monitor the department.
"Obviously, Chicago ain't ready for reform," said Alderwoman Leslie Hairston, who voted against the plan after complaining that it won't have enough funding and independence from City Hall.
She said the new agency is "not what many community organizations and activists want" and that it's not any more transparent than the Independent Police Review Authority, which was discredited by long delays in completing investigations that almost always sided with officers.
But Emanuel echoed several aldermen, saying the plan is not perfect but a significant step in a city where faith in the Police Department was shattered last year by a video showing a white police officer fatally shoot black teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014 and allegations that officers tried to cover up what happened.
"I consider this to be the beginning of a journey, not the end," said the mayor, who fired Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy in the wake of the video that showed 17-year-old McDonald being shot 16 times.
Emanuel, who is now waiting for the U.S. Department of Justice to finish investigating the Police Department, credited the move with being the latest example of the city's willingness to reform the department. He pointed to changes in officer training, officers being equipped with body cameras and a policy that calls for the release of videos like the McDonald one, which the city refused to put out until a judge's order.
The new agency will investigate shootings, incidents when officers used stun guns, allegations of physical and psychological coercion of witnesses by officers, as well as allegations that officers conducted improper searches or denied access to attorneys for people suspected of crimes. And the agency would have to complete its investigations within six months or offer an explanation to the mayor and others.
The agency can't hire anyone who has been a Chicago police officer within the last five years as an investigator — an effort to satisfy reform advocates who worried that people who were recently on the force might not aggressively investigate officers.
Critics also singled out a part of the plan that calls for the new agency to hire attorneys from a list of at least five law firms previously approved by the city's law department.
Hairston wondered how attorneys who owe their jobs to the law department could be trusted to do work that is not influenced by the law department.
Activists had harsh words for Emanuel's decision to put off the creation of a new civilian board that would help select a new head of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability. Emanuel and others said more community input is needed and that an ordinance for the board will go before the City Council next year.
The vote for the new police accountability agency comes as other cities around the country — also often under pressure — deal with creating or strengthening similar agencies. But while it is too soon to say if it will be effective, Samuel Walker, who teaches criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and has researched police oversight boards nationwide, said he was impressed with some components of Chicago's new accountability structures.
Walker praised Chicago for following Los Angeles in setting up a deputy inspector or inspector general post dedicated to police accountability, saying that's crucial.