The long-awaited consent decree mandating historic reform of the Chicago Police Department may be “weeks away” from federal court approval, Vanita Gupta declared last week.

Then comes the hard part.

In January 2017, Gupta, then head of the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department, came here to announce the results of its investigation of policing in Chicago.

The report was birthed from the outrage over the release of the dash-cam videotape that captured the police murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Its recommendations for sweeping change in policing informed a consent decree negotiated by the city of Chicago, the CPD and the Illinois Attorney General. The proposal is now awaiting federal court approval.

OPINION

Police Officer Jason Van Dyke has been convicted of the second-degree murder of McDonald. Three other officers are now on trial on conspiracy and misconduct charges in the case.

But real reform won’t come until the 236-page decree is made real by the masses of officials, experts and ordinary citizens who helped create it.

It received input of “hundreds of police officers and close to a thousand residents” and many more Chicagoans, Gupta told me last Wednesday night. I interviewed her at a dinner hosted by the Joyce Foundation, which supports work on criminal justice policy, research and education.

Gupta left the Justice Department at the end of the Obama administration and is now president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. She has worked on police accountability policy and litigation across the nation.

Chicago has “one of the most comprehensive consent decrees that I have ever seen,” she told the audience of public officials, foundation and non-profit executives, business leaders and community activists. Among them were staunch police reform advocates Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and former U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon.

Still, she offers “caution” to those who would say, “‘Well, OK, the consent decree, we take out the champagne and we toast each other. The work is done.’ The reality for the city of Chicago is that when this consent decree gets filed, it’s a whole new bunch of work now that will start.”

“This is a process that takes years. And it’s painstaking.”

It will take “vigilance,” she added. “On the ground, continued engagement from all of the stakeholders is going to be really, really important.”

What about President Donald J. Trump’s Justice Department, until recently headed by Jeff Sessions, which is an avowed opponent of court-ordered police reform?

By refusing to participate in the Chicago negotiations, the Justice Department “completely abdicated their responsibility,” Gupta replied.

In October, the department filed a response to the Chicago proposal. It “asks the court not to enter the proposed consent decree but, rather, to allow state and local officials — and Chicago’s brave front-line police officers — to engage in flexible and localized efforts to advance the goal of safe, effective and constitutional policing in Chicago.”

“Not a single legal precedent was mentioned in the filing,” Gupta said. “It is a joke and should be entirely ignored, and we hope that the federal court will ignore it. And see it for what it is.”

Some community activists are also unhappy, arguing the decree doesn’t go far enough to address systemic abuse.

“Look, it’s a negotiated document,” she said.  “And it isn’t everything that everyone wants. And it doesn’t mean that there can’t be work outside the four corners of this decree.”

Hard work that will continue for years to come.

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