A federal civil rights probe of the Chicago Police Department has already cost the city $1.4 million, city law department records indicate.
The seven-figure tally covers just the first four months of a “pattern-and-practice” investigation of the CPD launched by the U.S. Department of Justice in December, and it’s likely just a taste of the high price of reforming a police department plagued by problems decades in the making.
The DOJ investigation will determine whether CPD policies and day-to-day operations led to systematic abuses of civil rights, and it’s expected to last at least another six months, according to DOJ officials. It began in December, just weeks after the city released 2014 video footage of Officer Jason Van Dyke firing 16 shots into 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. That fatal shooting led to a $5 million settlement with the teen’s mother.
Judging by more than two dozen similar investigations from New York to Ferguson, Missouri, the Chicago probe likely will lead to a Justice Department lawsuit that would put the CPD under the oversight of a federal judge, who could enforce an agreement for wide-ranging reforms that could cost the city millions more.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, battling the most powerful political headwinds of his career in the wake of the McDonald video’s release, has said legal fees are a necessary cost of reforming the CPD.
“The Department of Justice investigation is a critical part of our work to restore trust in the Police Department and improve our system of police accountability,” Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey said in a statement.
“Working with experienced outside counsel is saving millions of dollars by accelerating the completion of the DOJ’s investigation and the implementation of policing reforms, both of which will have a positive impact on the residents of Chicago,” he said.
The bills paid to date have gone to a pair of law firms and two consultants with expertise in federal investigations of police departments, including former Chicago cop and Washington, D.C., Police Chief Charles Ramsey. Ramsey collected $25,590 before the city cut ties with him in April — a break that came two months after Emanuel defended Ramsey’s $350-an-hour rate for helping guide reform efforts as “worth every penny.”
Ramsey’s bills comprise the smallest share of the $1.41 million the city had paid out toward DOJ-related expenses, according to invoices provided to the Chicago Sun-Times in response to public records requests.
And the meter still is running for Chicago-based law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister, which has billed the city for $803,000 since it was hired in December.
City Hall sources in March said the fees charged by Taft were “front-end loaded” and would decline after the time-intensive work of dealing with the early phases of the DOJ probe. However, the firm’s monthly billings have climbed each month, to a peak of $309,000 for March. The Loop law firm has had at least two attorneys logging 40 hours a week, sometimes more, on DOJ-related work for the city in January, February and March, according to invoices submitted by the firm.
Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, a Washington-based law firm, also billed the city $453,990 through March, including a 10 percent discount offered by the firm. Washington, D.C., consultant Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department lawyer turned consultant, billed the city for $129,300.
What the two law firms have been doing for the city was not clear. The city Law Department blacked out all invoice sections other than dates, hours billed and attorneys’ names, citing exemptions under Illinois public records laws. Whether they’ve been revising policies, or just fulfilling — or fighting — DOJ queries is hard to tell.
To date, Justice Department lawyers made multiple requests for city and police department records, ranging from statistics on use of force and police and civilian injuries to files related to lawsuits alleging police misconduct.
And a portion of Bromwich’s invoices indicate he has been reviewing policies on police use of force in Cleveland and Seattle; both police departments operate under federal oversight. Emanuel and CPD brass in January announced the department would adopt training for officers on “de-escalating” potentially violent encounters, based on a program created by the Seattle Police Department.
Given years of media reports on problems with the CPD and its oversight agency, the Independent Police Review Authority, as well as the damning conclusions of a Police Accountability Task Force appointed by Emanuel in December, most experts consider it a foregone conclusion that DOJ investigators will find ample evidence the department needs sweeping reforms.
Typically, city officials will negotiate with the Justice Department well before any lawsuit is filed, and the settlement agreement — called a consent decree — is entered the same day the lawsuit is filed, said Jonathan Smith, former head of the DOJ’s Special Litigation Section.
In the last 20 years, the Justice Department has reached similar consent decrees with police departments in New York, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, though Chicago’s 12,000-officer department is the largest police agency investigated by the DOJ.
Reforms often include hiring more officers or installing expensive computer systems. A federal judge also commonly appoints a team of experts to give guidance and monitor progress toward the goals of the agreement.
Such monitoring teams are costly. According to a report by the Police Executive Research Forum, Los Angeles entered an $11 million contract that was to cover five years of oversight. New Orleans has paid out roughly $2 million a year for its monitoring team, while Oakland was charged $1.68 million for its first two years of monitoring.
The bills for those expert teams come on top of other expenses, such as the multimillion-dollar cost of body cameras. Seattle estimated their consent decree cost the department $40 million, including $6 million or more per year to hire more sergeants to improve the ratio of supervisors to cops on the street.
Emanuel has said those are worthwhile costs, and Smith, the former DOJ lawyer, agrees. In the last decade, the city has paid about $500 million to settle lawsuits with people hurt or injured by police in questionable circumstances. Ultimately, Smith said, better training and policies for officers can reduce the number of lawsuits and save the city cash.
“When you look at the costs of having things continue on as they have in Chicago, there are some pretty large costs to that,” Smith said. “There is the cost in terms of human life. There is the cost of people not having trust in their police department . . . and there are the hundreds of millions that the city has paid out to settle lawsuits when they get sued for police misconduct.”