Police board elections in Chicago: Decisive step toward real community control

Some 60-plus Chicagoans were elected Tuesday not just to oversee the Chicago Police Department but to help forge real community control over police behavior and to influence department policy overall. An overwhelming majority of those elected ran on platforms of curbing police violence and racism.

“This is not just a review board,” said Frank Chapman, chair of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. His group was part of a literal uprising of the people in Chicago following years of racist police violence and killings. The residents of the city battled for—and won, he noted—what is thus far one of the most significant victories for community control of the police anywhere in the United States.

“These are not just review boards. They are three-person elected bodies that are part of the process of running the police department in this city. Although they don’t represent total community control of the police they are a decisive step in that direction, a step we celebrate,” Chapman said.

Beginning in May, each of Chicago’s 22 police districts will function under a three-person elected body with the power to hold hearings and take action to stop police activity that is harmful to the community and put forward policies for the police to implement.

The notorious police violence in Chicago had resulted in court orders requiring the city to overhaul the way it runs the police department. The Chicago Alliance and other organizations and community groups stepped in to push for and formulate the plans for the boards to which people were elected last Tuesday.

Although some of the people elected were backed by the fascistic Fraternal Order of Police, the overwhelming majority of the candidates elected were the community activists and progressive leaders backed by Chapman’s organization and others fighting alongside it.

Once the 66 members of the police district councils take their seats they will nominate seven people to be confirmed by the mayor and the Chicago City Council to run the entire city police department with the power to set citywide policy.

The sweeping change represented in these developments follows many cases of abuse by the police department, particularly the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald.

“This was a grassroots, poor people’s campaign that delivered a resounding defeat to the Fraternal Order of Police, who did their best to undermine these elections,” said Frank Chapman of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. “This result represents a very decisive victory for the people of Chicago, particularly for Black and Brown communities who have suffered the brunt of police crimes.”

Only in two of the 22 police districts did it appear at the end of the day Wednesday that the police union had eked out victories for control of a district. In the 16th Police District, which stretches from Portage Park to O’Hare Airport on the Far Northwest Side of the city, two candidates backed by the police union won seats on the district council, giving them a majority. Two candidates backed by the police union also won seats on the 22nd Police District Council, overseeing the Far Southwest Side of the city, including Beverly and Morgan Park.

The police union’s political fund reported spending $15,410 on a flyer supporting Dan Richman, who appears to have narrowly lost his bid for the 19th Police District Council, which will oversee the area around Lakeview.

However, all three candidates backed by the police union in the 25th Police District lost their races, including Pericles (Perry) Abbasi, a lawyer who represented the police union in its unsuccessful bid to prevent candidates backed by progressive groups from running as a slate. The cops paid Abbasi $25,000 for that work.

Defeating Paul Vallas in the April 4th runoff is crucial because he is backed by the Fraternal Order of Police. The commission has the final say on policy for the Chicago Police Department, but the mayor can veto its decisions. However, the mayor’s action could be overridden by a two-thirds vote by the City Council.

The commission will have the power to hire the head of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, known as COPA, which is the agency charged with probing police misconduct.

In addition, the commission will conduct a search for a new police superintendent when that position becomes vacant and fill empty spots on the Chicago Police Board, which disciplines officers.

The commission will also have the power to pass a resolution of no confidence in the superintendent and any member of the Chicago Police Board with a two-thirds vote. That could trigger City Council action.

The Fraternal Order of Police worked hard to prevent this new reality in Chicago from even getting off the ground. “We defeated those efforts by going direct to the people,” Chapman said. “They know we have a racist police department and they were looking for ways to end that system and replace it with a better one. That is how we overcame the opposition of the Fraternal Order of Police, by going to the people.”

The Fraternal Order of Police hired election lawyer Perry Abbasi to run in the 25th District and legally challenge slates of progressive candidates in the 19th, 20th, and 24th Districts to get them removed from the ballot.

Those were mostly north side and largely white districts, but Abbasi lost his efforts to remove the progressive candidates, with each and every one remaining on the ballot. Each district elects three members.

The challenges flopped, with all these slates—made up largely of progressive activists—to remain in the running. Abassi lost his own contest in the 25th district, another white district. “We won all these fights by canvassing, by going door to door and talking to people face to face,” said Chapman, “with no fear of reaching out to everyone, regardless of racial or ethnic background.”

Saúl Arellano, one of the victorious candidates in the 25th District who was backed by CAARPR, is a 24-year-old student at Northeastern Illinois University. An immigrants’ rights advocate himself, he is the son of immigration activist Elvira Arellano, who in 2006 drew national attention when she sought shelter from ICE agents in a Chicago church.

“I am just a vessel fighting for social justice, and I’m just an instrument here to serve the community,” Arellano told Bolts on Tuesday after his win. “The people in the communities are the ones that are in charge of the decisions that are being made, and that we’re not doing no backroom deals, but that this is transparent and this is for and by the people.”

Rev. Dr. Marilyn Pagán-Banks, the director of the nonprofit soup kitchen A Just Harvest and a founding member of the Coalition to End Money Bond, won a seat for the 24th District. She too defeated a candidate endorsed by the FOP.

Pagán-Banks told Bolts, the digital online publication in Chicago, that during the campaign she had to fight off some voters’ anxiety that FOP-backed candidates would do well. She did not want “that just becoming an excuse to just throw it all away,” she said. Instead, she added, that concern created “the urgency behind making sure that we got the right people in place.”

As mentioned earlier, the Fraternal Order of Police candidates won in only a minority of the races. Seven of their 17 candidates were the only winners, according to clear totals thus far, and those seven were spread out in Chicago Lawn, Deering, Jefferson Park, and Morgan Park, giving them a majority in none of those neighborhood precincts.

Unfortunately, Lee Bielecki, whom Chapman identified as “one of the worst cops,” picked up a seat in the 25th District. He has been charged more than 20 times with carrying out acts of racist police violence.

Chapman says that the victory in Chicago for community control of the police is only the beginning of a long struggle that must continue. “By the time next elections roll around we will move to give the full power to the people and remove the ability of even the city council and the mayor to step in and reverse some of the things they can now still reverse,” he said.

He urged that people go all out in the mayoral race to insure that Paul Vallas, the candidate of the Fraternal Order of Police, does not win his runoff fight against Brandon Johnson, the community activist who has the support of much of the labor movement, including the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU.


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