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Forget about Sessions and keep pushing Chicago police reform

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. | Getty Images file photo

Follow @csteditorialsThe feds are bailing out. It is on City Hall alone now to push ahead and fearlessly reform the Chicago Police Department.

On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made it clear that the U.S. Department of Justice has no interest in working to reform local police departments across the country, regardless of how seriously a department might tread on civil liberties. This is a man who dangerously believes effective policing is in conflict with constitutionally sound policing.

But if the pressure is off from the feds, it is not off from the people of Chicago. Long before the Justice Department in January issued a scathing report, 13 months in the making, calling for department-wide improvements in police training, supervision and accountability, Chicagoans already were marching in the streets demanding reform.

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Something happened in our town on Nov. 24, 2015, when City Hall finally released a video showing a police officer shooting a teenager, Laquan McDonald, 16 times, for no apparent justifiable reason. Decades, even generations, of complaints about the Chicago Police running roughshod over the civil liberties of ordinary Chicagoans — especially if they were black or brown — were instantly validated in a way that no longer could be denied. CPD finally had to change, and it still must change, even if Sessions has decided to see and hear no evil.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel knows this. He has been trying to get out in front of the public outrage since even before the McDonald video was released. He fired one police superintendent and hired another, appointed his own task force on police reform — which released its own scathing report — pledged to hire hundreds of additional police officers, and vowed to reinvent the culture and practices of CPD regardless of what the Justice Department might do.

So far this year, the mayor’s office has taken steps to improve minority hiring by the police, announced it will hold three town hall meetings to gather ideas for better community policing, begun work to improve how the police work with the mentally ill, and submitted for public comment a second draft of a new policy for police “use of force” — when and how cops should use their guns.

But while Emanuel vows to keep pushing reform, Sessions just made that promise harder to keep. The truth is that without outside pressure in the form of a court-monitored federal consent decree dictating what must be done and when, even when it gets expensive and politically painful, it is less likelihood that CPD will be transformed as fully as necessary. Everybody needs a push.

Now that the feds have backed off, we urge the mayor and the City Council to appoint an independent monitor of their own — somebody of the skills and integrity of a Lori Lightfoot, who headed the mayor’s task force on police accountability — to oversee and report to the public on the city’s efforts to reform CPD.

A favorite talking point of the mayor’s is that more effective police work and more professional police work are “heads and tails of the same coin.” Jeff Sessions doesn’t buy that, as made clear by the very title of the memo he issued Monday ordering a review of all consent decrees with local police departments — “Supporting Federal, State, Local and Tribal Law Enforcement.” The implication of the memo’s title is that “supporting” good police work intrinsically is in conflict with standing up for civil liberties.

But we do buy it. We fully embrace — and we believe most Chicagoans fully embrace — the view that a Chicago Police Department held to the highest standards of professionalism and accountability also will be a more powerful crime-fighting machine. Community trust, the first prerequisite of effective policing, inevitably will grow.

Chicago is on its own. We must push forward.

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