Chicago survived three tumultuous years with the topic of police reform front-and-center — years that saw a federal investigation of its police department and the prosecution of one of its officers for murder.
Now, a federal judge has taken a historic step in a city where relations between the police and community have long been strained. U.S. District Judge Robert Dow approved Thursday a long-awaited consent decree meant to govern police reform.
And he ended his order with three striking words: “Let us begin.”
“The court is under no illusion that this will be an easy process,” Dow wrote. “It took a long time to get to this place, and it may take a long time to get out of it.”
The new consent decree is the result of a 2017 lawsuit filed by then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan against City Hall. The judge called it “the culmination of an enormous undertaking by the parties and the thousands of others who have participated in the wide range of opportunities for community input.”
But it is also the culmination of years — decades, really —of police misconduct controversies.
Dow even said the $2.85 million annual price tag of a yet-to-be-chosen monitoring team is dwarfed by the legal cost Chicago has suffered in the last 15 years.
“Indeed,” Dow wrote, “had a monitoring team been billing the city at the rate of $2.85 million per year since 1790, when Jean Baptiste Point du Sable first set up camp at the mouth of the Chicago River, the total bill of $652.65 million would not equal the city’s litigation-related payouts in civil rights actions since 2004.”
Dow’s next step will be to choose the monitoring team. He said the consent decree will become effective the day he makes his choice —something he expects to do by March 1.
The four candidates for the job are the Coar Monitoring Team led by retired U.S. District Judge David Coar; the Police Foundation Monitoring Team, led by Sacramento County Inspector General Rick Braziel; the Schiff-Hardin-CNA Monitoring Team, led by former Illinois Executive Inspector General Maggie Hickey, and the StoneTurn Monitoring Team, led by former federal prosecutor Katherine Lemire.
“In the coming weeks, months, and years, the court will work closely with the monitor, the parties, and the people of Chicago to secure and maintain compliance with the terms of the decree with an eye toward ultimately terminating the decree upon a finding of substantial compliance,” Dow wrote.
The proposed consent decree has been sharply criticized by Chicago’s police union, which has continued to fight to intervene in the lawsuit even after Dow and the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it waited too long to get involved.
Dow also noted that, “many supporters of the decree think it does not go far enough, but they recognize that there will be opportunities to reshape the decree in the years to come.”
In a joint statement, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson praised the judge’s order. Emanuel is set to leave office soon after the consent decree goes into effect.
“This is a historic day for Chicago and a step towards significant, lasting change,” they said.
Madigan, who left the attorney general’s office in January, also called it “hopeful.”
“Many people have worked and waited a lifetime to see real change that will make them and their families safe,” Madigan said. “I thank them all for their efforts and sacrifices.”
Madigan pushed for a federal investigation of CPD after the court-ordered release in 2015 of video depicting the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Officer Jason Van Dyke, who was charged with the teen’s murder.
In January 2017, then-U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch came to Chicago to announce the Justice Department’s finding of widespread constitutional abuses by police. Though she and Emanuel agreed to seek a consent decree, the political winds were changing.
President Donald Trump took office later that month and installed a new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who made dismissive comments about the Chicago investigation performed under his predecessor. Eventually, Emanuel joined forces with Madigan, and they pursued a consent decree through the lawsuit.
The two sides revealed a draft of the consent decree last summer, after roughly a year of negotiations. A few months later, a jury found Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder in McDonald’s death.
Dow also held a two-day hearing last fall to take public comment about the proposal in the ceremonial courtroom on the 25th floor of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in the Loop. The judge heard from Chicagoans from all walks of life — from Black Lives Matter activists to Chicago police officers to ministers.