by Monique Dixon, Former LDF Deputy Director of Policy and Senior Counsel
It is no secret that trust between the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and the city’s residents, especially residents of color, is broken. The U.S. Department of Justice shared this conclusion on the first page of its 2017 report on the CPD, an exhaustive document that described a decades-long history of unconstitutional practices that violated residents’ civil rights, undermined public safety, and eroded morale within CPD. The report left no doubt that the department needed meaningful and far-reaching changes, and that the process of rebuilding relationships between CPD and the people of Chicago would be a long and arduous one.
During the Obama Administration, the Justice Department often followed reports like this one by reaching a court-enforceable reform agreement, known as a consent decree, with local officials consent decrees have helped address unlawful policing practices and improve public safety in places as varied as Seattle, Washington, Los Angeles, California, and East Haven, Connecticut. By setting clear goals and placing a federal judge in charge of evaluating whether an agreement is being met, consent decrees are a powerful and effective tool for bringing local law enforcement agencies into compliance with civil rights laws.
Since the Trump Administration took office, however, the Justice Department has largely abandoned consent decrees as a tool. Behind this about-face is Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions has long been an outspoken opponent of consent decrees, which he has falsely blamed for limiting police effectiveness and causing crime increases.
Even without a willing partner in Washington, however, residents and leaders in Chicago continued seeking the reform their city so badly needs. Last month, after almost a year of negotiations, the City of Chicago and the Illinois Attorney General’s Office agreed on a draft consent decree, which is now pending approval before a federal judge. As our letter in support of the proposed consent decree stated, although far from perfect, the proposed decree would be a significant step forward for the entire Chicago community.
This breakthrough was apparently intolerable for Attorney General Sessions, however. Soon after state and local leaders reached their agreement, the Justice Department filed a statement of interest in federal court opposing the consent decree. In other words, while the attorney general is not willing to use the power of his office to promote local reform, he is willing to use it to undermine such efforts.
This is a shocking instance of federal overreach. With the statement of interest, the Sessions DOJ is inserting itself in a state and local process not to protect civil rights – as it has the constitutional responsibility to do – but to undermine them. Having foresworn any role in helping foster change in Chicago, Sessions should have stayed out.
Predictably, the statement of interest tries to cast DOJ’s opposition not as a heavy-handed intervention, but as an attempt to preserve local control. In support of this astonishing claim, it raises four main concerns about the decree, none of which hold up to scrutiny. On the contrary, they reveal the ideological foundations of Sessions’ hostility to police reform efforts at any level.
First, the statement of interest (which bears Sessions’ name) claims that the agreement will result in “micro-management of police department procedures and policies,” which will in turn result in increased crime. As evidence, he pointed to a study claiming that a 2015 consent decree between CPD and the ACLU led to a violent crime spike in Chicago. But that study has been widely criticized by criminal justice experts, who reject the notion of a tradeoff between constitutional policing and effective law enforcement, a false choice favored by “law-and-order” conservative opponents of civil rights like Sessions.
Second, the Sessions DOJ claims that the consent decree’s monitor would have almost dictatorial power to reshape the CPD. But this is a gross mischaracterization of how consent decrees actually work. They are in fact collaborative processes, ones that draw upon the input of residents, police leadership, and officers themselves to advance reforms that will benefit the entire city. Yes, the monitor has some discretion to help advise police departments on how to comply with the reforms detailed in the agreement But he or she is subject to the oversight of a federal judge, and to suggest, as Sessions does, that the monitor or judge effectively replace the police chief for the duration of his or her tenure, is simply misleading.
Finally, Sessions claims that the process will be excessively long and costly. It is true that consent decrees often last for years. On this last point, former U.S. Attorney Zach Fardon, who helped lead the DOJ investigation of CPD, has been clear: the changes Chicago needs are so broad, the department is so large, that any meaningful reform process must be a years-long endeavor. As for cost, the reforms required by consent decrees can be expensive. But what of the cost of failing to protect the constitutional rights of Chicago’s residents? Indeed, the city paid out over $280 million to resolve police misconduct lawsuits from 2011-2016. In the long run, it seems clear that failure to implement a decree will be far costlier.
Whether the Justice Department’s cynical intervention will undermine the consent decree remains to be seen. But it’s clear that Chicago’s future is much brighter with an agreement than without it.