Police reform is failing in Chicago. Mayor Lightfoot must fix that.
More than three years into the consent decree, the city continually fails to make key reforms. The federal monitor’s most recent report found that CPD has fully complied with less than 5% of the decree’s requirements.
After the Chicago police official leading the Office of Constitutional Policing was fired last week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot incorrectly dismissed the entire affair as “palace intrigue.”
Confronted by questions about whether the firing would slow the pace of police reform, the mayor assured the press and public that the city would continue to meet all of its obligations under the 2019 federal consent decree reached after the murder of Laquan MacDonald.
The mayor’s words ignore the reality that the city already is failing at anything that meaningfully can be called police reform. The reason is not just personnel decisions; the real issue is that the mayor, and Chicago Police Supt. David Brown, are focused on patching holes in a sinking boat rather than doing the hard work to right the ship in the long term.
Their focus must change.
As a candidate, Lightfoot spoke of transforming the Chicago Police Department. Responding to an American Civil Liberties Union questionnaire about police reform, she promised to take transparent accountability measures “over and above the monitoring” required by a federal consent decree designed to address patterns of police violence against people of color and people with disabilities.
‘Over and above the monitoring’
Lightfoot’s actions in office have not lived up to these lofty campaign promises. More than three years into the consent decree, the city continually fails to make key reforms. According to press reports, the top reform official was terminated for notifying leadership that his staff would be unable to comply with certain training requirements — including providing courses on gender-based violence, responding to individuals in mental health crisis, and bystander intervention — because Brown instead wanted to transfer the training officers to unproductive foot patrols.
For the past three years, the court-appointed monitor overseeing the consent decree has issued reports showing that CPD has missed most of the deadlines agreed to in the consent decree.The monitor’s most recent report found that CPD has fully complied with less than 5% of the decree’s requirements.
Despite this, the mayor insists that progress is being made. But evidence of such progress is difficult to see for many, including people in Black and Brown neighborhoods, who consistently call for increased public safety and better relations with police.
Rather than seek and incorporate input from impacted community members, the mayor and the CPD have pursued counterproductive policies such as a widely-criticized quota for so-called “positive community interactions” that could lead officers to waste time conducting a prescribed number of interactions with people — even if those people don’t want to speak to the police — instead of investigating shootings.
Lightfoot’s approach to public safety reform increasingly appears to be performative rather than substantive. In the wake of a tragic incident of violence or crime downtown, she, along with Brown, holds a press conference and acts unilaterally— for example, banning young people from Millennium Park or pursuing a regressive civil asset forfeiture policy —despite knowing that splashy short-term steps, some of questionable legality, are not true reform.
These announcements may make headlines for a day but they do not make neighborhoods safer, nor improve policing across the city.
Reform to ensure safe, effective and constitutional policing is challenging. But reform cannot be achieved by making public pronouncements in moments of public embarrassment and then stiff-arming reform in the courtroom, the Legislature, and the back chambers of City Hall. Real reform needs to be driven by community members who have suffered police violence and police abuse over many years and have insight into needed changes.
The consent decree remains the best opportunity in a half century to improve policing for all Chicagoans. But this opportunity is being wasted.We are at a crisis point. It is time for the mayor and Brown to take the court-mandated reforms in the consent decree seriously and make long-term investments in the people, processes and priorities that will help CPD regain trust and legitimacy in the city.
Alexandra Block is senior supervising attorney for policing and criminal legal system reform, ACLU of Illinois.
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