Nearly three years after its founding, the Citizen Police Review Commission struggles to find footing on tricky terrain


Daily file illustration by Grace Wang

The Citizen Police Review Commission, approved in 2020, reviews Evanston Police Department’s investigations into complaints. But the nine-member commission does not review use of force incidents.

Saul Pink, Assistant City Editor

When Juneitha Shambee applied to join Evanston’s new Citizen Police Review Commission in 2020, she wanted to address community members’ growing mistrust in police departments — an issue that sparked national protests after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police.

“I initially believed that because we were creating this commission, people will see that Evanston is doing something right,” said Shambee, a criminal defense lawyer who has represented clients who feel police officers have violated their rights. 

But two-and-a-half years after its formation, CPRC still struggles to find its footing. City Council approved two new commission members Monday after four of CPRC’s 11 meetings this year were canceled due to lack of a quorum or agenda items. 

A watchdog without much direction

City Council approved CPRC in November 2019 and tasked the nine-member commission with reviewing the city’s Office of Professional Standards’ investigations into complaints of police misconduct.

However, Shambee said the commission has received fewer complaints than she expected.

“There’s been such a distrust in police departments, not only with Evanston but nationwide,” she said. “People have gone unheard for so long that they believe even with creating this new entity, their complaints would still not be heard.”

CPRC is also not authorized to review some of the most complex complaints — including those involving use of force, according to Cmdr. Ryan Glew, the staff liaison for the commission. EPD and outside law enforcement agencies conduct investigations into incidents “involv(ing) force beyond mere restraint,” according to EPD’s annual 2021 report. 

At its November meeting, CPRC reviewed a complaint about comments made after a teenager was hit by an off-duty officer driving a personal vehicle.

In 2019, EPD internally investigated 35 use of force incidents, 12 complaint registers and three departmental inquiries, according to EPD’s 2019 Annual Report. EPD stopped including  complaint registers and departmental inquiries under CPRC in its annual reports after 2020, but there were 33 use of force investigations in 2021 and 14 so far in 2022.

Use of force complaints are originally filed with OPS before being reviewed by the Use of Force Review Board, according to Glew. The investigation is then sent to an outside agency, typically the Illinois State Police. 

Sharon Fairley, a University of Chicago law professor and former chief of Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability, said many civilian oversight agencies review use of force incidents.

“Use of force is kind of the bread and butter of why these entities are created,” she said. 

Douglas Whitmore, a former Illinois state trooper on the commission, said it would be difficult for citizens to review use of force complaints, because they don’t understand the officer’s perspective. 

Whitmore said that as a Black man and former police officer, he brings “both sides of the coin.” He added that  he’s “still searching” for CPRC’s main goal.

“We make recommendations to (OPS) and based on what we find, they may review it or it doesn’t change,” he said. “Maybe it makes them take a deeper look at what needs to be done.”

From committee to commission

CPRC is not Evanston’s first police oversight body. From 2008 to 2019, the Citizens’ Police Advisory Committee reviewed EPD investigations.

In 2017, the city formed another temporary committee — the Citizen Police Complaint Assessment Committee — to review EPD’s complaint process. That committee recommended CPRC be created.

According to Matthew Mitchell, the chair of the complaint assessment committee, CPAC did not have specific procedures and made decisions by consensus rather than majority vote. 

Unlike CPAC, CPRC members have access to primary documents including interview transcripts and body camera footage. Commissioners read the OPS report and other materials prior to meetings and review video in closed-door sessions. 

“If we have made this multimillion dollar investment in transparency …  it’s important for CPRC to have video available for them for every single case,” Glew said.

The temporary committee also recommended in 2018 that the city hire an independent police auditor to oversee civilian complaints and “​​protect against appearance of conflict of interest of police department investigating police misconduct.” The city did not hire a police auditor.

Karen Courtright, another member of the complaint assessment committee, said CPRC is different from its predecessor.

“More people are willing to ask the hard questions and to send it back to EPD to say, ‘No, your investigation was not thorough,’” Courtright said.

New members, same challenges

At Monday’s City Council meeting, the council unanimously approved two new CPRC members to fill seats that have been vacant since earlier this year.

Samuel Jones, a professor and associate dean at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law, is one of the new members. He has researched police accountability and testified about police use of force in front of the Illinois state legislature in 2020. 

“I sincerely hope to add to the vitality and diversity of thought on the commission so that we optimize our capacity to serve the citizens of Evanston and bridge any gaps in trust between our law enforcement professionals and the public,” Jones wrote in an email to The Daily. 

Betty Ester, the founder of local police accountability group Citizens Network of Protection, said she sees no difference between the old and new commissions. 

CNP is pushing for an independent review board that would review civilian complaints, as well as appoint the police chief. 

Fairley said Evanston’s system looks at mistakes police have already made.

“More cities are now starting to focus on front-end oversight, meaning having more direct say at the policymaking stage to prevent things from happening at the back end,” Fairley said. 

Police Chief Schenita Stewart, who assumed the role in October, told The Daily this month she hasn’t met with CPRC. 

Shambee said she “absolutely” wishes CPRC had more power to hold the police department accountable. But she recognizes that the commission serves to show residents that their complaints will go outside of the police department walls.

“The problem is that a lot of citizens believe that we have more power than we actually have,” Shambee said. “We’re just oversight.” 

Elena Hubert contributed reporting.

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @saullpink

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