District Councils: A New and Hopeful Experiment For Police Reform

 /  Sept. 5, 2023, 3:22 p.m.

Jeanette Ward for the 20th Ward City of Chicago Aldermanic Candidates Press Conference to Support Civilian Police Accountability Council


Jeanette Taylor for the 20th Ward City of Chicago Aldermanic Candidates Press Conference To Support Civilian Police Accountability Council

Content warning: This article includes mentions of police brutality. 

In 1991, Coston Plummer’s brother was beaten and forced into a confession over a 39-hour period under the supervision of Jon Burge, a commander known for torturing more than one hundred Black men into confessions in the 70s and 80s. Forcibly signing a confession, Plummer’s brother was sentenced to life imprisonment in jail. He remains incarcerated to this day. 

This Spring, when Plummer ran for Chicago’s second police District Council, the race was personal. Plummer is a husband, a father of five, and a community organizer. And now he’s just completed the first race for Chicago’s second police District Council. His message was centered around a commitment to learning from and representing his community on the Council. He spent days collecting signatures and urging people to vote in the upcoming election, even if it wasn’t for him: “You know, my goal is even if they don't sign my petition, I want to alert them to let them know that this is around the corner in February and that we will have power to be able to make changes that we never could do before,” Plummer said in an interview with WBEZ.

Police reform efforts like Plummer’s stem back hundreds of years, from the Black Panther Party to the Warren Court, the Detroit Black Power Movement to Stonewall. Chicago’s personal history with police reform came to a head when Rekia Boyd was killed by an off-duty police officer in 2012. Groups like the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA) and the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR) immediately organized victims of police violence, who worked to pass the Empowering Communities for Public Safety (ECPS) ordinance after years of advocacy in 2021. This ordinance created the Community Commission for Public Safety & Accountability—a board of seven appointed members who set police department policy, review the police budget, and promote community engagement—as well as the District Councils.

After New York City, Chicago, IL has the largest police force in the United States. However, Chicago’s large and growing police force has not translated to safer communities or policing. Chicago has the tenth-highest national police shooting rate with an average of 43 shootings per year since 2013. And on a ranking of 500 U.S. police departments, Chicago ranked last. Departments that ranked higher used less force, held police officers more accountable, and spent less on policing. 

“When you look at the history of Chicago police,” Oswaldo Gomez—vice president of the City of Chicago Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability—said, “it’s just filled with terrible, terrible tragedies, scandal after scandal from Summerdale to McDonald. Policing [is] something that hasn’t served the citizens.” 

Alongside previous agencies like the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) and community organizations like GAPA and CAARPR, the Police District Council will attempt to remediate these issues of police violence and accountability. 

The District Council is comprised of 66 people. This February, three people were elected to each of the city’s 22 policing districts. Their key roles will include building connections between the community and police at the district level, developing and implementing community policing initiatives, holding monthly public meetings, and collecting community input. While anyone is encouraged to participate in District Council work, to run one cannot have been employed by CPD, COPA, or the Police Board since May 2020 and must be free of any felony charges. The Councils are, more broadly, an attempt to give a voice to those that are directly affected by Chicago’s police and bring community ideas into policing—whether that be simple ideas like handing out air tags to civilians to prevent car thefts or a broader, community-grounded push to defund the police. In this most recent election, 19 out of 22 elections were competitive.

People from all backgrounds were on the ballot. From activists like Coston Plummer to former state troopers like Juan Lopez, who fired six shots into his ex-girlfriend's home, community organizers and former police officers alike battled for the limited positions. With interest groups attempting to capture seats, many voters worried about regulatory capture—the process in which “agencies may come to be dominated by the industries or interests they are charged with regulating.” COPA, an agency of CPD meant to investigate police misconduct and make policy recommendations to the CPD, has suffered heavily from regulatory capture. 

When asked about how District Councils would avoid the capture other agencies would face, Gomez explained, “That’s the question as old as democracy,” but noted that “plurality makes it harder for a single interest group to coopt the entire process.” 

66 positions—one-third comprising the smaller board that nominates members to the citywide Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability—meant that, hopefully, no one group would hold excessive power over Chicago’s police districts as a whole.

As race day approached, The Institute of Politics’ subcommittee, Chicago Style, hosted an event with Isaac Troncoso and Oswaldo Gomez, interim commissioners on the Community Commission on Public Safety and Accountability. Troncoso and Gomez encouraged students, faculty, and community organizers to vote, expressing that the future of the District Councils was uncertain but hopeful. 

“I’m not here to sell you the system,” Gomez said, “I’m here to tell you to vote because we took a gamble that people would care about this. And hopefully, that gamble pays back for the people of Chicago.” The pair noted that the positions are an experiment but one that they hope will pay off by increasing the representation of community ideas and values in policing practices. 

In the leadup to race day, Plummer continued to rally for votes, taking to social media to show support for other races like Desmon Yancy for 5th ward alderman and Brandon Johnson for Mayor of the City of Chicago. Plummer even seemed to form an alliance with fellow competitor Alexander Perez, the two hosting Zoom information sessions and creating joint promotional pamphlets. On the day of the election, Plummer wrote a Facebook message saying he was “amazed and proud to see people working so hard to make Chicago a better place,” and “[honored] to just be a part of this moment in history.” In spite of his loss, support filtered through the comments. One user called Coston a “symbol for this movement.”

In the end, local activists fared well. 42 out of the 66 incoming members were backed by the Empower Communities for Public Safety coalition. Police-affiliated candidates also won a number of seats. In Mount Greenwood, a district known for housing many police officers, firefighters, and union workers, the three candidates out of five who had direct connections to CPD—Patrick Kennedy, Carisa Parker, and Lee Bielecki—won. Patrick Kennedy, is an active police officer named in two misconduct lawsuits that cost a total of $102,649. He has 10 use-of-force reports against him, 94% more than other officers. Carisa Parker is the Co-founder of Moms for CPD, which seeks to create better interactions between the police and the community. Finally, Lee Bielecki, a former CPD sergeant with 26 complaints against him ran “to listen and help give community members a voice [and] to give the police input as well.” However, as Troncoso noted, police tend to concentrate themselves in certain districts. So while regulatory capture remains a concern, because of this concentration, police affiliates will have less citywide influence.

As for Chicago’s second police district—UChicago’s district—Ephraim Lee, Alexander Perez, and Julia Kline came out successful. Each holds differing opinions on policing and funding. Lee, a former Navy reserve and member of the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, advocates for an increased number of police officers. Perez, a past director of community engagement for West Aurora School District, says police funding and numbers should remain stagnant. And Kline, a former CPS teacher turned voting activist and community organizer, supports reducing police funding and increasing medical professionals in police response. Plummer did not make the top three. But with low voting rates and only four candidates, the race was close. In Chicago as a whole, only 35.85% of registered voters turned out for this election. Lee received 9,766 votes, Kline, 9,454, Alexander Perez, 8,260, and Plummer, 7,194. 

With so few people running for council and many voters skipping the District Council box completely, Oswaldo and Troncoso say that success for the newly formed District Councils will look like more candidates and more competitive races. They want people who care about policing in Chicago to see the District Councils increasing safety in their communities, holding more than one mandatory meeting, and creating advisory boards. If these positions are effective, they believe we’ll see more competitive races with candidates from all backgrounds who believe in the impact of their positions.

“It’s probably the vaguest role on the ballot,” Troncoso said, “and it will really be defined by the people that occupy it and every single district will do it very differently.” 

The District Councils are an experiment in a long list of police advisory and reform boards. The effects will not be immediate. It will take time to see how these positions play out, and whether communities with more engaged councils become safer. After COPA, the Commission, and the Community Policing Advisory Panel (CPAP), the District Councils may just be another government organization, vulnerable to regulatory capture and inaction and attempting to patch up a broken system. Or, they could be a vessel for community input, inspiring activists to run in the next election and pushing policing policy toward progressive change. 

“So much change can be made literally the distance that you could throw a stone,” Troncoso offers, acknowledging the force of and need for local activism. When policing wields such an impact on individual communities, perhaps council members that pull directly from their own communities will truly be able to impact policing. These are elected, not appointed, positions with candidates who have made promises to their constituents. Consequently, the council has a unique toolset to create change for and by the community. And though some activists like Coston Plummer may not have won their election, community organizers are making their voices heard in this new manifestation of an ongoing fight to make policing more equitable and collaborative.

The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License. No chances were made to the original image, which was taken by Charles Edward Miller and can be found here: 


Camille Cypher


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