What is a consent decree?


Lisa Madigan, Rahm Emanuel and Eddie Johnson stand at a press conference on the draft of the consent decree in Chicago, IL on July 27, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

A consent decree is a “court order that establishes an enforceable plan for sustainable reform.” They often include requirements and deadlines for action, according to the site for the decree.

The prospect of enacting one in Chicago stems from the release of the 2014 death of Laquan McDonald who was shot 16 times by officer Jason Van Dyke. It took a little over a year for the dash cam footage of the shooting to be released, prompting a federal investigation of the Chicago Police Department that found “reasonable cause” that the department engaged in a pattern of excessive force and racially discriminatory behavior.

Stephen Rushin, an assistant professor of law at Loyola University’s School of Law, said the city’s proposed decree is a rare case — consent decrees are contractual agreements between a police department and the Department of Justice normally to implement a number of policy changes and reforms to eliminate a pattern of misconduct, Rushin said.

The possibility of such agreements between the Justice Department and police departments began in 1994, when former President Bill Clinton signed the crime bill into law. The bill contained a measure to allow the Attorney General to investigate and sue to eliminate any pattern or practice of misconduct within police departments.

The first decree came in 1997 in Pittsburgh, PA.

The proposed consent decree between the state and the city would change use of force policies for the department, a move spurred by the shooting death of McDonald.

Rushin said that while “every city is a little bit different, in broad strokes, it’s consistent with what you see in other cities.” He also pointed to Los Angeles as a blue print for Chicago.

“It’s the most effective tool to reform a police department,” Rushin said. “It’s not perfect — we have concerns about the costs, whether or not they stick longterm and whether or not police stick with them — but they’re the best mechanism we have to implement reform, and by and large they’re successful.”


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The proposed language aims, in part, to prevent potential evidence of police misconduct — particularly in the form of body cameras and dash cams — from being withheld from the public. It’s no coincidence that this language was crafted in the years after dash cam footage of McDonald’s shooting, which was released over a year after McDonald was killed.

The draft decree, which was unveiled in July, would also bring reforms to nearly every aspect of policing, most notably to the department’s use of force and community policing policies.

In terms of use of force, the department will have to “conduct an annual review of its use of force policies consistent with accreditation requirements of the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.”

The department will also have to “establish and maintain clear channels” for community members to provide input on the police department’s use of force policies and offer revisions to those policies.

The decree would also implement a new foot pursuit policy, require the use of “verbal de-escalation,” prohibit the use of Tasers when people are only fleeing and discourage their use in schools. An independent monitor would be appointed to make sure the department meets deadlines and requirements.

Similar consent decrees for police departments have been enforced at the federal level in Ferguson, MO, New Orleans, Los Angeles — which no longer has a consent decree — Baltimore, MD and Cleveland, OH.

The decree drew concern from both the Fraternal Order of Police and law groups and activists, like the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and Black Lives Matter Chicago, who say the reforms don’t go far enough. Fraternal Order of Police President Kevin Graham called it “illegal and invalid” and wholly unnecessary.

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