In praise of a messy police reform process / by Jamie Kalven

In December, Mayor Rahm Emanuel addressed the City Council in the aftermath of the political implosion precipitated by the Laquan McDonald case. In a remarkable speech, he acknowledged the institutional conditions that give rise to police abuse and committed his administration to a sustained process of reform.

Addressing a shaken city, he evoked a crisis of the civil order that demands we break with business as usual. What is required, he suggested, is that we undertake a process of becoming a different kind of society—one, as he put it, in which a black child would be treated no differently by police than the mayor's own children.

Since uttering those words, the mayor has not always projected effective leadership. Frequent wobbles and pivots often have left him looking reactive and defensive. And he has not been good at telling the story of reform in such a way that the public can clearly see particular moves as elements of a coherent larger strategy.

Yet the city has in fact made significant progress over the last 10 months. The mayor's task force on police accountability proved independent and exceeded expectations with a report that was searching in its diagnosis and detailed in its prescriptions. Civil society groups—religious, legal, grass-roots—have entered vigorously into the process. And the walls of official secrecy that have long impeded effective police reform have continued to crumble.

The process has been messy and raucous, free-form and ad hoc, as citizen energies animated by outrage over the Laquan McDonald case have sought to find their footing in the public forum and to establish a robust, inclusive democratic process of policy formation.

That dynamic arrived at a critical juncture this week, as the City Council held hearings on Emanuel's proposed ordinance for replacing the Independent Police Review Authority with a new agency to be called the Civil Office of Police Accountability.

Replacement of IPRA was a central recommendation of the police accountability task force, which called for the creation of a new agency that would investigate police misconduct complaints with rigor, transparency and civilian oversight.

At first, the mayor balked. Then he embraced the recommendation. At the same time, moving on parallel tracks, several citizen groups set to work crafting designs for a new investigative agency. The upshot is that there are four draft ordinances, including the mayor's, that offer legislative blueprints for replacing IPRA.

When the proposed ordinances are arrayed against each other, several open issues emerge. These include whether the agency will have secure funding insulated from political pressures, whether it will have its own independent legal counsel (as opposed to relying on the City Law Office), how transparent it will be and by what mechanisms citizen oversight will be realized.

These issues are not details; they are not loose ends. If not adequately addressed, each has the potential to subvert an otherwise well-designed plan. They demand the full attention of the City Council, lest we repeat the history of IPRA being created by ordinance in 2007 to replace the discredited Office of Professional Standards—a "reform" that proved little more than a change in acronyms.

Assuming the mayor currently has the votes to enact his ordinance, business as usual at this juncture would be for his aldermanic allies to shepherd it through to a vote with as little debate as possible. We must insist on another kind of process—one that allows for a full assessment of the relative merits of different approaches to the open issues.

Only a process that itself exemplifies the qualities we seek to institutionalize—transparency, accountability, rigor—will generate legitimacy for the institutional reforms it yields.

As important as it is that we get the design of the new investigative agency right, this occasion has implications beyond itself. If we are to realize the historic opening for fundamental change born of the Laquan McDonald tragedy, then we must renew our democratic practices. In a very real sense, process is reform.


— Jamie Kalven