Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Friday signed an “agreement in principle” to negotiate a consent decree — culminating in the appointment of a federal monitor — to ride herd over the sweeping police reforms recommended Friday by the U.S. Justice Department.
But the consent decree might never happen.
That’s the fear of police reformers and the hope of Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police.
“Consent decrees are traditionally very expensive for cities like Chicago. If they can work to resolve issues without paying a federal monitor hundreds of thousands of dollars and they can accomplish the same thing, that’s a good practice to save citizens money,” Canterbury said Friday.
“I’d much rather do that. When you have a federal mandate and you’re paying somebody from outside of Chicago hundreds of thousands of dollars, where is the incentive for a monitor to ever see a consent decree come to an end?”
Just dealing with the investigation has been costly: through November, the city spent $3.8 million on outside lawyers and consultants assigned to aid with the DOJ probe. That total includes nearly $1 million to the Washington D.C. law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering & Hale and more than $2 million to Taft Stettinius & Hollister, a national firm with offices in Chicago.
Local FOP President Dean Angelo said he initially looked at the report “in a more favorable light” because of its heavy focus on training, technology, equipment and promotional reform.
But, he soured quickly when he heard about the allegations of “systemic violations of civil rights and abuse by the police” that, he believes, mirrors the “anti-police” narrative carried by Emanuel’s Task Force on Police Accountability.
“Anything that was positive in the report will be over-shadowed by the negative,” Angelo said.
“It’s an anti-police platform that politicians have been carrying for far too long. … This has got to stop. They’ve got to get the anti-crime platform back on their agenda. Their constituencies deserve it. Our neighborhoods deserve it — not just in Chicago but across the country. This is something that … needs to be addressed before things continue to spiral more and more out of control.”
President-elect Donald Trump campaigned, with support from the national FOP, on a promise to take the shackles off police officers. His nominee for attorney general, U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), favors punishing the “bad apples” in police departments over sweeping consent decrees. He said so earlier this week during his confirmation hearing.
That’s what worries police reformers.
“I’d be a fool if I wasn’t concerned about Jeff Sessions … given what he said at his confirmation hearing about not being a believer in systemic police misconduct but thinking it’s an occasional bad apple. He may … undo the work of the Obama civil rights division and, in Chicago, not carry forward with the agreement the Justice Department has made with the mayor,” said attorney Flint Taylor, who represented victims tortured by former Area 2 Commander Jon Burge.
“I’m also concerned about the will in the mayor’s office … to actually make the fundamental changes in the culture of the Police Department to deal with the systemic racism if the Justice Department doesn’t own up to its end of the agreement after Trump takes over. The mayor has been compelled at every turn by the community and public outcry to do what he’s done on police reform. I don’t think it’s been sufficient. Left to his own devices, the most fundamental of the changes will not be accomplished.”
The 1.5-page agreement in principle signed Friday by the mayor and the Justice Department, includes a commitment to “good faith” negotiations towards a court-enforced consent decree. But, it also states, “The superintendent of CPD, who is answerable to the Mayor of Chicago, will always retain full authority to run CPD in accordance with the law.”
“The settlement agreement will include reforms of CPD’s use of force practices and accountability mechanisms, as well as it training, community policing, supervision, data collection, transparency, officer wellness systems and promotion practices,” the agreement states.
“An independent third-party monitor will be selected to assist in determining whether the settlement agreement is being implemented and whether the goals … have been achieved.”
A similar agreement in Baltimore was nine pages long and included a deadline to close out negotiations.
Sheila Bedi, a clinical associate professor of law at Northwestern Law School and an attorney for the MacArthur Justice Center, said the agreement Emanuel signed “does not have the power of a federal court order” and “the city or the Department of Justice could potentially walk away.”
“I’m deeply concerned about what will happen with this report,” Bedi said, calling a consent decree a “powerful tool” that provides accountability and gives the community access to information.
Stephen Rushin, a University of Alabama law school professor who has studied police consent decrees extensively, said the Chicago agreement seems fairly weak.
“I don’t see where this really binds anyone to do anything but negotiate in good faith,” Rushin said.
“If Attorney General Jeff Sessions said ‘we bargained in good faith, and we don’t think you need us to do anything,’ is Chicago going to say, ‘No, we need you to make us do more?’ Would Chicago be able to go to a judge with that?”
Emanuel was asked Friday what he would do if Trump and Sessions take the Justice Department in a different direction and never pursue a consent decree. The mayor said he “doesn’t make it a practice to answer hypotheticals.”
“We’ve got to be honest: Nominee Sessions gave his views. I can speak for myself. We’re gonna work with the incoming administration. …We are gonna negotiate with the earnest of trying to reach an agreement,” the mayor said.
“We are also gonna do what’s in our interest to do what’s necessary to make the changes that are important for the professionalization and pro-active police department. … I can’t negotiate for … the nominee of Donald Trump. I can negotiate on behalf of the city of Chicago and speak for Chicago, as I have … with my signature today and every day since the task force report.”
The mayor’s signature and public pledge was good enough for Police Board President Lori Lightfoot, who co-chaired the mayor’s Task Force on Police Accountability.
“We have to take the mayor at his word when he said, ‘We’re not gonna go backwards. I’m committed to the reform. We’re gonna move forward regardless of what happens in the negotiations,’ ” Lightfoot said.
If the Justice Department walks away and the mayor falters, Lightfoot noted that civil rights groups could file a lawsuit to compel Emanuel to implement the reforms.
The MacArthur Center for Justice is one of those groups. But, Bedi said, “Such litigation is incredibly difficult. There are significant barriers.”
Contributing: Jon Seidel, Andy Grimm