Chicago Police Board choice shows Emanuel deaf to building trust, critics say

Andrea Zopp

UPDATE (11/21/17, 1:32 pm): The full Chicago City Council approved Andrea Zopp’s appointment to the Chicago Police Board on Nov. 21. Alderman Danny Solis said of the appointment, “If you would have appointed Jesus Christ, you couldn’t have done better.”

A key Chicago City Council committee voted unanimously to appoint former deputy mayor Andrea Zopp to the Chicago Police Board, the civilian body that decides disciplinary cases of police misconduct.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel had named Zopp deputy mayor after she lost the Democratic Senate primary last year to Tammy Duckworth, and last month he named her to be the chief executive officer of World Business Chicago, a private-public partnership to spur economic development.

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Zopp, also a former head of the Chicago branch of the Urban League, is considered by many to have strong credentials. She is a former federal and county prosecutor whose cases included prosecuting a congressman for sexual abuse and a former FBI agent for police misconduct.

But there is significant opposition to her appointment, focused on her close ties to the mayor and on the speed with which the public safety committee sought to consider her nomination and send her name to the full council for approval. The police board includes nine members, who have independent authority to decide on discipline in serious cases of misconduct and who recommend candidates for superintendent, the police department’s top post, to the mayor.

The police department and police accountability structures have struggled to earn community trust as the city works toward the latest efforts to reform them, kicked off by massive protests after the November 2015 release of the video of police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting a teenager, Laquan McDonald, 16 times as other officers watched.

A police task force in April 2016 concluded that “[t]he lack of trust between the police and the communities they serve—especially communities of color—is one of the most significant issues facing CPD today.” In January, the Department of Justice concluded its own investigation that highlighted just why that trust is so broken. Harshly critical of the department, its report found a pattern or practice of unconstitutional use of force that hit the South and West Sides hardest, severely deficient training procedures, and poor accountability.

Mayor Emanuel pledged to enact reforms, with or without a court order. It is against that backdrop that community and advocacy groups are closely watching whether Emanuel’s reform efforts are significant and swift enough, and whether he is adequately involving the community to build trust necessary for reforms to succeed.

The public safety committee originally sought to vote on Zopp’s nomination on Friday, just two days after the meeting was scheduled. That brought sharp criticism from a coalition of police reform advocates, including the ACLU of Illinois, the Cook County Public Defender’s office, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and the Chicago Council of Lawyers, that on Thursday called for the meeting to be delayed to allow time for public comment on Zopp’s appointment.

Only two committee members showed up on Friday, and Alderman Ariel Reboyras, the committee chair, recessed the meeting until Monday morning.

The weekend delay did little to appease those who thought the process was moving too quickly. Aneel Chablani, Advocacy Director of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, who testified at Friday’s meeting, was unchanged in his assessment on Monday: “What concerns us about the Committee’s rushed approval of this appointment is that it stands as another example of a process that shuts out meaningful community input.”

Chablani added, “We have a serious problem right now with public confidence in the City’s commitment to comprehensive police reform, and the City should be making every effort possible to engage communities most impacted in the reform process. This is not about questioning Ms. Zopp’s credentials, it is about a rushed approval process of a close mayoral ally that represents the loss of another opportunity to begin rebuilding community trust in the independence and effectiveness of this critical police oversight board.”

Pulling together a quorum did not appear any easier after the weekend, either. The committee meeting began more than twenty minutes late, and a few aldermen trickled in even later, with at least two missing Zopp’s comments before the committee entirely.

“You want to fast-track appointment to the board, but you will not fast-track reform,” Karl A. Brinson, president of the Chicago Westside Branch of the NAACP, said to committee members. “If we’re serious about reform in Chicago, we have to do better than this. We can’t continue to keep putting people in places who do not have the trust of our community, not having community input on what we’re doing out here… How does it look like reform when we still have the same people sitting on these same boards?”

The aldermen present, just over half of the committee’s nineteen members, seemed not to share these misgivings, taking turns praising Zopp and saying they looked forward to working with her. Only Alderman Harry Osterman asked her a question, inquiring whether she believed she could be independent on the board.

Zopp described concerns about her independence as unfounded, saying, “My history of work on the topic of police accountability long preceded my even knowing who Rahm Emanuel was, much less working for him… I have a passion for the work of the board, more importantly I have the experience to do it well. So, I have no questions about my independence.”

Once appointed by the full City Council, Zopp would begin her term immediately and continue through Aug. 10, 2022.