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Mayor Rahm Emanuel, speaking at the City Club of Chicago luncheon Wednesday, will not pursue a consent decree with the Justice Department to reform the Chicago Police Department. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Don’t send no federal judge nobody asked for

SHARE Don’t send no federal judge nobody asked for
SHARE Don’t send no federal judge nobody asked for

Within the next year or so, a monitor appointed by City Hall, rather than by a federal judge, will oversee an effort to reform the Chicago Police Department.

The monitor had better be superb, a person of unquestionable expertise and integrity, if the department hopes to earn or regain the trust and support of every Chicagoan.

Key to success will be how the monitor is chosen. The process must be open and inclusive, building in a heavy role for community leaders and criminal justice reform advocates, or it will lack the necessary credibility.

EDITORIAL

It is not enough to reform the ways of the Chicago Police Department, putting an end to a long and sorry history of civil rights abuses. The public must feel confident the reforms are real, substantial and lasting.

Over the weekend, regrettably, Mayor Rahm Emanuel backed off a commitment to submit Chicago’s police reform effort to federal court oversight. A consent decree, hashed out with the U.S. Department of Justice and monitored by a federal judge, would have had more heft and bite than what the mayor has opted for instead, a simple “memo of agreement.”

The mayor’s office says it would have been futile to pursue a consent decree with the Justice Department now that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is in charge. Sessions has made it clear he dislikes consent decrees and any other effort by Washington to tell local police departments what to do. The mayor’s office also insists that a memo of agreement, though overseen by an appointed monitor instead of a judge, can be equally effective.

Here’s our problem with that: Emanuel apparently never directly asked the DOJ for a consent decree, so we’ll never know whether Sessions might have gone along with it. And, looking back on Chicago’s history, we don’t buy the argument that a memo of agreement works as well.

Chicago has learned from submitting to other court-ordered reforms, such as the Shakman Decrees against patronage hiring, that nothing compels City Hall to get things right like a federal judge who is on top of an issue at all times and prepared to bring down the hammer.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the National Law Enforcement Conference on Human Exploitation in Atlanta on Tuesday. | Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the National Law Enforcement Conference on Human Exploitation in Atlanta on Tuesday. | Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

The appointed monitor, to be paid by the city, will derive his or her power from a single source: The ability to generate bad headlines for the mayor and police chief. The monitor will issue regular public reports in which he or she can call out the city for failures to carry out the reforms laid out in the memo of agreement.

All legal power to enforce the agreement, however, will rest with the Department of Justice, which will be free to go to court to prod the police department along. As a general matter, we are told, that seldom is necessary. As a practical matter, Sessions’ lawyers might not even bother. Time will tell.

We would love to know the specifics of the memo of agreement, but City Hall says it could be months before the particulars are worked out. There is no doubt, however, that there has been a shift in power from the Justice Department to the mayor’s office.

Given Sessions’ views on local autonomy, you can be sure the Justice Department won’t negotiate hard for an agreement that includes necessary but difficult reforms. It will be up to the mayor, working with local reform advocates, to make sure the reforms laid out are substantial all the same.

And given that Sessions doesn’t much care, it will fall to the city to carry out those reforms all the same.

It is impossible to overstate the importance in all this of a skilled and aggressive independent monitor. Nothing moves reform along better than a little public shaming.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com

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