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Chicago Police Board Decisions Are Often At Odds With Department Firings

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A Chicago police officer who shot and killed a 15-year-old boy six years ago will be returned to duty. That is even after his own boss tried to keep him off the force. The Chicago Police Board made that decision. It is a group of civilians appointed by the mayor and city council. They get final say on police discipline. It's one of many civilian police boards in this country. Police do not always like civilians peering over their shoulders this way, but this civilian board routinely blocks the department from firing officers. WBEZ's Miles Bryan reports.

MILES BRYAN, BYLINE: Until recently, Panzy Edwards was feeling hopeful that the officer who killed her son would face serious consequences. In 2012, Chicago police officer Brandon Ternand fatally shot Dakota Bright on the city's South Side. Ternand says he saw the teen carrying a gun, but no gun was found on his body. Last year, an official investigation finally found the shooting to be not justified. And the police superintendent moved to fire Ternand. But earlier this month, Chicago's Police Board voted to reject that conclusion. Edwards says she had no idea it was coming.

PANZY EDWARDS: It's hard because it's like - I'm thinking, like, maybe my baby is going to get some justice.

BRYAN: In a written opinion, the police board said it found Officer Ternand to be credible when he said Dakota Bright made him fear for his life. Edwards says the decision was particularly painful to take because in a closely watched trial just a week earlier, a jury voted to convict Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke for the murder of another black teenager, Laquan McDonald. Standing on the residential block where her son was killed, Edwards says boys her son's age just don't have the luxury of trusting the police.

EDWARDS: They have no chance in this city with the police. You have no rights. You are nothing when it comes to the police.

BRYAN: The Bright case is not unusual. From 2005 to 2015, the Chicago Police Board voted almost 60 percent of the time to allow officers the police superintendent wanted to fire to keep their job instead. Brian Corr heads the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. He says while lots of cities have civilian oversight groups, the Chicago board's ability to overrule the police department's wishes makes it stand out.

BRIAN CORR: For a civilian oversight agency to have that power - of the many oversight agencies around the country, it's relatively unusual.

SHEILA BEDI: In short, it's due process run amok.

BRYAN: Sheila Bedi teaches at Northwestern Law School and is an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center. She says the police board, which was created in response to a police scandal in the '50s, has a reputation for protecting officers from discipline. According to a Department of Justice investigation released last year, the information that board members get to see about a case is unfairly skewed in the officer's favor. And the board members are political appointees who investigators say generally have had no background in policing or accountability.

BEDI: It's not set up to try to root out police officers who are engaging in excessive force, who are racist and who use these tactics indiscriminately. That's not what the system's set up to do.

BRYAN: Chicago officials are considering a number of reforms to police oversight. One proposal would scrap the police board entirely, replacing it with an elected body. But that's little comfort for Panzy Edwards who's still angry as she grieves the loss of her son.

EDWARDS: My son, people in Chicago - like, nobody means nothing. Like, they send their lynchmen (ph) to kill us, and they stand behind them.

BRYAN: The Chicago Police Board wouldn't make any of its voting members available for an interview, but the board's executive director says it weighs its own evidence and makes decisions case by case. For NPR News, I'm Miles Bryan in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOHIDEA'S "OBSIDIAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.