CHICAGO - A City Council committee on Thursday delivered a symbolic but temporary message underscoring its commitment to police reform and accountability.
Over strenuous objections from the Fraternal Order of Police and its Council allies, the Committee on Workforce Development voted 10-5 to reject an independent arbitrator’s ruling that would allow Chicago police officers accused of the most serious wrongdoing — and recommended for firings or suspensions over one year — to bypass the Police Board in favor of an arbitrator who might be more sympathetic and would hold proceedings behind closed doors.
Before voting on that, however, the committee approved a two-year Chicago Police Department contract extension.
Mayor Brandon Johnson and outgoing Police Board President Ghian Foreman, who spoke Thursday, led the charge in urging the committee to reject the ruling that independent arbitrator Edwin Benn has affirmed and reaffirmed.
They were joined during the public comment period by Anthony Driver Jr., president of the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability; Craig Futterman, director of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago; and social worker Anjanette Young.
Young received a $2.9 million settlement from the city after being forced to stand naked while an all-male team of police officers mistakenly raided her home in 2019.
She told alderpersons her story "would have been swept under the rug" had officers involved in the raid been free to "hide behind the doors" of arbitration.
Driver said he was "unequivocally against arbitration" because it "makes a mockery of transparency." He called it a "slap in the face" to the Council, the civilian oversight commission and to the people of Chicago.
"Arbitration is part of a broader backlash against a movement for community-driven police oversight. This Council needs to stand up for that movement because it took us five decades to get here, and we will not go back," Driver told alderpersons.
The committee vote to defy Benn was the easy part, requiring just eight votes of the 15-member committee.
Next week’s full Council vote will be harder. It requires a three-fifths vote — 30 members — to defy Benn yet again. And even then, it would only send the matter back to Benn, who has made it clear he would reach the same conclusion.
"If you reject this proposal, and the Council then rejects it on Wednesday, all you are doing is postponing the inevitable. This is protected in labor law. … It’s a fight you will not end up winning, and you are subjecting … our members to needless torment," FOP President John Catanzara told alderpersons.
During an interview with the Sun-Times earlier this week, Catanzara predicted a judge would uphold "a collective bargaining right that cannot be weakened."
"If there’s that many aldermen who want to take it to court, then I guess we’re going back to war time like we did with [former Mayor Lori] Lightfoot. There’s no need for it to get ugly. But if enough aldermen want to fight, we’ll certainly give ’em a fight," he said.
Under questioning at Thursday’s hearing, Chicago’s veteran labor negotiator Jim Franczek said it would be a "steep hill to climb" for the city to win an FOP court challenge.
But Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) said he was willing to take that chance to avoid "gutting the Police Board to the point of nonexistence."
So was Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), who reminded his colleagues there were "118 victims" of the Jon Burge torture era.
"We are a city of an ugly past and an ugly present of police misconduct," Ramirez-Rosa said.
Noting that police misconduct settlements have cost Chicago taxpayers $710 million since 2011, Ramirez-Rosa said, "We will pay so much more if we gut our city’s efforts toward civilian oversight."
Ald. Peter Chico (10th), a Chicago police officer, said officers are prohibited from going on strike and should be allowed to choose arbitration given "what we go through every single day as a Chicago police officer on the street."
"We get things thrown at us. People yell at us. People attack us. We don’t have the ability to strike. We don’t have the ability to take a step back," he said.
Ald. Silvana Tabares (23rd), one of the police union’s staunchest Council supporters, said the arbitrator’s ruling is "not a matter of granting a new avenue to police officers" but about "correcting a wrong based on the fact that Chicago has been using a disciplinary process for police officers for years in violation of state law."
"When the city of Chicago created the Police Board, it did so in violation of the Illinois Labor Relations Act," she said.
"Every police officer who has had his or her career impacted by a decision by the Chicago Police Board has been subjected to an illegal process set up by the city to impede their rights as a worker just because he or she is a police officer."
Given the pyrrhic and possibly temporary nature of Thursday’s vote, senior mayoral adviser Jason Lee was asked what rejecting the ruling accomplishes, beyond giving political cover to alderpersons who also voted to sweeten and extend the police contract Johnson negotiated.
"We have to send a signal to the public about what’s important, what our values are and what the standards should be. … The commitment from the city and the City Council has to be to transparency and public involvement in accountability mechanisms for law enforcement," Lee said.
"We need to give ourselves an opportunity to potentially have some adjustment to, either the ruling or some other avenue that we might be able to pursue. But it starts with the rejection," he said. "If you don’t reject it, you foreclose any opportunity to rectify or adjust the ruling or get the ruling changed. There’s no guarantee that this step will ultimately deliver the outcome that we all seek. But we must try."
Even though it handed the FOP a defeat, the Committee on Workforce Development gave the police union an important split decision by approving the two-year contract extension with higher pay raises and operational changes that could help solve murders and reduce CTA crime.
The agreement ratified by voice vote calls for doubling the annual pay raise that rank-and-file police officers were scheduled to receive in 2024 and 2025 — from 2.5% to 5%. During the two year-extension that ends on June 30, 2027, police officers will receive annual pay raises in the 3%-to-5% range, depending on the cost of living.
Instead of giving officers with 20 years’ seniority the annual $2,000 retention bonus awarded by an independent arbitrator, the agreement gives a one-time $2,500 retention bonus to all officers, regardless of seniority. There’s also a cash incentive to help fill the crucial, but historically-difficult-to-fill role of field training officer.
For Johnson and his newly appointed Chicago Police Supt. Larry Snelling, there is a key operational change that could help boost Chicago’s dismal homicide clearance rates.
The police department won the right to create Los Angeles-style rotating teams of homicide investigators working 10-hour days. Each team would get all of the murders in a given area during a one-week period, then spent the next five weeks trying to solve those homicides without being assigned more cases.
The proposal was the city’s "major ask" during contract talks, according to Catanzara.
Yet another operational change could help reduce violent crime on the CTA. It would reduce — from 80% to 50% — the share of officers assigned to the mass transit detail on the basis of seniority.