Editorial: At last, the path to a consent decree on Chicago policing


Editorial Board

Chicago’s problems with police brutality and misconduct have run so deep that reforms will never take hold until a federal judge intervenes to play the role of enforcer. This is the “consent decree” approach to oversight that aggrieved residents want. We want it, too. Mayor Rahm Emanuel? He’s run hot and cold on the idea.

On Tuesday, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan went to U.S. District Court to pursue that approach, suing the city over the Chicago Police Department’s pattern of abuse that disproportionately targets African-Americans and Latinos. The lawsuit seeks a judge’s order to require the city to put the right policies in place to fix CPD and appoint an independent monitor who would oversee the process and prevent foot-dragging.

Madigan didn’t telegraph the filing of her lawsuit, but here’s the really surprising part: While Chicago is the defendant, Emanuel says he will be Madigan’s partner in this endeavor. He and the attorney general say they agreed on this path and will negotiate terms of a consent decree. That will include details on a plan to fix CPD and the naming of an independent monitor with expertise in police reforms.

If this arrangement causes a double take, it should, because this isn’t how big-city consent decrees involving police accountability normally work. Madigan’s office is playing a role that the U.S. Department of Justice customarily plays.

The crux of what Madigan asserts, and what the mayor appeared to endorse Tuesday (since he shared the stage with Madigan at a news conference) is stated on page 4 of the state’s 35-page filing: “After decades of attempts to reform, a court order mandating effective, lasting changes is the only way to restore the badly broken trust between Chicago’s residents and CPD and increase safety for residents and police officers.”

Madigan’s lawsuit, similar to one filed in June by several civil rights organizations, is either a direct challenge to Emanuel or the friendly nudge he needed to take this step. We’re not sure because he’s skipped around on the issue of accepting federal court oversight.

In the waning days of the Obama administration, the Justice Department released a blistering report on Chicago’s bad policing record as a first step in obtaining a consent decree. Emanuel was on board. But then President Donald Trump took office, freeing Chicago of that obligation because new Attorney General Jeff Sessions wasn’t interested. Since then, Emanuel has insisted Chicago can fix its problems without a pesky judge watching every move. He’s been negotiating a Justice Department agreement that would not involve court supervision, but it’s not clear Sessions was even interested in that idea. Now the mayor sounds like he’s back on the side of using the courts.

Here’s what we know for certain: This city has a long history of bad policing, from crooked cops and violent cops to poorly trained ones. Nothing has worked to fix that culture. Not the shock of individual cases of brutality (see: former Cmdr. Jon Burge, who allegedly tortured suspects) and not the many efforts at internal reform. It was public outrage over the release of video showing a white Chicago police officer shooting black teen Laquan McDonald 16 times that led to the Justice report and this round of angst over CPD.

The legacy of police misbehavior has an impact every day on the safety of all Chicagoans, including officers. The breakdown in trust in the police hurts neighborhoods. There’s a financial impact, too, as the lawsuit notes: From 2004 to early 2016, Chicago paid out $662 million in settlements over police misconduct. Outrageous.

Madigan’s been on record in support of a consent decree. Emanuel clearly feels pressure on all sides: to cooperate on the negotiations, to assure CPD members he’ll look out for their interests and to avoid tying the city to an expensive, decadeslong process.

So now comes the hard part: negotiating a comprehensive deal that will provide officers with the training, supervision and equipment required to create a professional, effective police force that is also trusted by the public. The only way for that to happen is to give seats at the table to all stakeholders, including residents and civil rights groups.

There’s an obvious road map to follow: the 2017 Justice Department report on Chicago policing lays out all the troubles that need to be addressed. So does the city’s Police Accountability Task Force report. If Emanuel and Madigan are serious about finally solving those problems, they’ll have well-thumbed copies of both reports with them as they talk to Chicagoans, and listen to Chicagoans, about what kind of police force this city deserves.




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