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Ramsey says police reform monitor can be ‘as good’ as court oversight

Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. | Associated Press photo

An independent monitor overseeing Chicago Police reform can be “as good” as court oversight, but only if the U.S. Department of Justice is party to the agreement and Mayor Rahm Emanuel remains committed to the five-year process, a policing expert said Tuesday.

“If you get a department that’s resistant, doesn’t think anything’s wrong, they’re fighting it, then you’ve got to go to court. But that’s not the case here. That’s why I think something like this can work,” said former Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., police chief Charles Ramsey, a former Chicago deputy police superintendent.

“I don’t think consent decrees are always needed. I really like collaborative reform. … You can make the kinds of changes you need. It can be as transparent as you want it to be. And you can get the same result. … Everything is there with the exception of reporting directly to a federal judge.”

Ramsey is in a unique position to pass judgment on Emanuel’s plan.

Not only was he paid $350 an hour and $36,490 over four months to help guide the Chicago Police Department through the federal civil rights investigation triggered by the police shooting of Laquan McDonald, but he also ran the Washington and Philadelphia police forces during DOJ investigations of those agencies.

In Washington, that culminated in a seven-year memorandum of agreement and the hiring of an independent monitor similar to the one that Emanuel has proposed in Chicago.

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Police reform in Philadelphia is “95 percent complete” after a process Ramsey described as “collaborative reform with no independent monitor. … Just us and the DOJ.”

All of that experience leads Ramsey to believe that Emanuel’s model can work every bit as well as court oversight.

“I’m deputy monitor now in Cleveland, which is operating under a consent decree. And most of the interaction we have is between the monitor and the Department of Justice,” he said.

“We keep the judge apprised. But so far, the judge has not had to intervene in anything because the department, and Justice and the monitor — we get on the same page … without the court actually having to weigh in. They’re always there in the event there’s a problem that can’t be resolved. But my experience has been that a good monitor can resolve most things.”

Earlier this week, Emanuel argued that he’s not backing away from his January commitment to negotiate a court-enforced consent decree with the Justice Department.

He’s simply recognizing political reality; when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided to retreat from police reform agreements nationwide, it left the Chicago Police Department on the dance floor without a partner.

“The model that we’re looking at — a memo of agreement — is just exactly what Chuck Ramsey did with Washington, D.C. You have an outside monitor, an independent set of eyes, that will help us implement the very principles that we negotiated with the Obama Justice Department,” the mayor said.

On Tuesday, Ramsey said he remains “concerned” about whether a Sessions-led Justice Department will even be a party to Emanuel’s proposed memorandum of agreement.

“You’ve got to have a third-party. … It can’t be the monitor and the city because the monitor would be working for the city. And that doesn’t make sense. DOJ has to be involved. Justice can’t just hold up their hands and say they’re gonna do nothing,” he said.

Police Board President Lori Lightfoot has warned that the memorandum of agreement cannot be “unilaterally negotiated by the mayor himself.”

She has argued that the agreement would have “zero legitimacy” without input from the same police reform “stakeholders” with whom the city negotiated before abolishing the Independent Police Review Authority and replacing it with a Civilian Office of Police Accountability.

Ramsey agreed. He advised Emanuel to “keep it transparent” by releasing the memorandum of agreement and by following Philadelphia’s lead by appointing an oversight group comprised of academics, community and business leaders.

“Part of what will make it legitimate in the eyes of the public is to have a group of individuals who don’t have an agenda other than wanting to see a better police department and a better city. Not people who have a beef or a gripe and all that kind of stuff because that just gets in the way,” Ramsey said.

“Having that group there that the monitor would also keep abreast of everything that’s going on—it keeps the whole process as transparent as it can be. And it holds people accountable.”

Lightfoot is pushing for a process to resolve “breaches” of the memorandum that includes arbitration. She has argued that a Justice Department that “doesn’t like consent decrees” is unlikely to take Chicago to court, even if there is a dispute.

Ramsey said he’s “not a big fan of arbitration,” adding, “My experience with arbitrators has not always been that good.”

But, he said, “Having some way of being able to resolve disputes should it be one that’s really critical that the monitor cannot resolve, then you do have to have some way of being able to resolve it.”

Pressed on what that resolution process should be, he said: “Normally in a consent decree, that would be a court. So, I guess you would have to use some kind of arbitration process.”

But, he added: “When you’ve got a voluntary involvement in this sort of thing — which I had both in D.C. and Philadelphia — there wasn’t a single thing we couldn’t resolve” without going to court.