Illinois Officials Ask Courts To Order Changes In Chicago Police Policies : The Two-Way The U.S. Justice Department reported in January on police patterns and practices that often violated the civil rights of residents, but the Trump DOJ has not pursued legally binding overhauls.
NPR logo Illinois Officials Ask Courts To Order Changes In Chicago Police Policies

Illinois Officials Ask Courts To Order Changes In Chicago Police Policies

Illinois' attorney general has filed a lawsuit against the city of Chicago in an effort to enforce changes to a police department plagued by systemic racism, unnecessary use of force and a lack of accountability.

Joining state Attorney General Lisa Madigan in announcing the lawsuit, was Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, reversing his position on whether the city needs strict federal court oversight to make significant changes in the troubled police department.

The U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report in January outlining policing patterns and practices that often violated the civil rights of residents, including a culture of racial discrimination that often resulted in officers using excessive force, and a blue wall of silence which protected officers, many of whom rarely faced discipline for misconduct.

"Chicago has a long history fraught with tragedies followed by failed attempts at reform," said Madigan. "The result is broken trust between communities and the police."

"To combat violence and rebuild trust, we need true police reform and accountability," Madigan continued. "The only way to achieve real, lasting reform is through a consent decree that specifically addresses the problems identified in the Justice Department's report."

Under President Obama, the Justice Department negotiated consent decrees with Cleveland, Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and other cities where investigators found a pattern of police abuses and racial discord.

But since coming into office shortly after the Chicago report was released, the Trump administration has taken a more hands-off approach. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has expressed skepticism of such legally binding efforts to reform departments and improve police-community relations. Both Sessions and Trump himself have been sharply critical of Chicago's relatively high rate of shootings and homicides, as well as the city's lawsuit against the DOJ to protect its "sanctuary city" status.

Emanuel's administration nonetheless spent months negotiating a "memorandum of understanding" spelling out changes to police officer training and departmental policies aimed at improving accountability, trust and relations with residents.

The mayor insisted such an agreement, rather than a potentially costly consent decree, would be sufficient to ensure meaningful change.

But a draft plan drew sharp criticism from community leaders, activists and their legal advocates. Several groups, including Black Lives Matter, filed a lawsuit in June seeking to halt the tentative agreement in an effort to gain federal court oversight to enforce the deal and to include community involvement in the pact.

Madigan, too, had been critical of Emanuel's efforts to reach a deal with the Department of Justice, saying earlier this summer it is "ludicrous" to negotiate with an administration that "fundamentally does not agree with the need for constitutional policing."

Since then, the mayor says the Sessions Justice Department walked away from the deal and abandoned further talks. "It became clear they are disinterested in reform," Emanuel said.

Madigan says the state of Illinois is "stepping into the shoes of the Department of Justice ... shoes that the DOJ has abandoned."

Her lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago Tuesday seeks extensive oversight by a federal judge. With the Justice Department abandoning the usual role of overseeing police department changes, the lawsuit asks the court to appoint an independent monitor who would regularly report to the judge about whether the city was meeting benchmarks for reform.

Chicago's police union is criticizing the move toward a consent decree. Local Fraternal Order of Police President Kevin Graham calls it "a potential catastrophe for Chicago" that will make the already difficult job police officers even harder. This consent decree will only handcuff the police even further," Graham said in a statement.

The Illinois State FOP President Chris Southwood says the legal action "has added more divisive fuel to the fire regarding police reform in Chicago. By asking a federal judge to oversee that reform, Attorney General Madigan is characterizing police officers as the problem, when in fact those same officers put their lives on the line every day to try and make the community safer in these increasingly dangerous times."

But police reform advocates applaud Madigan's move. Craig Futterman, founder of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago says the mayor's decision to work with Madigan "is a recognition that the Chicago Police Department cannot rectify the systemic deficiencies that have led to the department's racist and violent practices without judicial oversight."

He adds that "this can't simply be a deal among politicians." Futterman says community groups need to be included in the process. "The people who have been most hurt by police abuse must also have ... a formal seat at the table," he says.