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Mayor Emanuel’s only credible option for police reform: consent decree

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is at a crossroads now that a lawsuit and a rare public rebuke from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan have racheted up the pressure for federal court oversight over the Chicago Police Department. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel can’t dance away this time. The mayor, once trained as a ballet dancer, is a superb political spinner. Now, he is pirouetting away from real and lasting policing reform.

Chicago’s historic movement for healing police-community relations is in the zero hour. After 50 years of chronic dysfunction, Chicago Police Department policies and practices must change.


Every community, civic and political voice that matters demands it. Chicago, especially black Chicago, will settle for nothing less.

There is no bigger threat to Emanuel’s governing power and future political viability. If he harbors any hope of a third term, he must get it right.

Yet, he is slipping and sliding.

Not this time.

Back in January, President Barack Obama’s Justice Department issued a scathing indictment of policing in Chicago and called for a court-ordered consent decree that would mandate and monitor change. Emanuel stood with DOJ officials and vowed to make it happen.

Then came a new president. Donald J. Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are hostile to consent decrees and, it seems, even the notion that policing in Chicago needs comprehensive reform.

Now, after months of talks with the Justice Department, Emanuel appears to be spinning away from his promise and toward an agreement that would keep reform out of the courts.

Not so fast, says Black Lives Matter and an array of other civil rights groups. Last week they filed a federal, class-action lawsuit seeking court oversight of police reform.

“The city of Chicago has proven time and time again that it is incapable of ending its own regime of terror, brutality and discriminatory policing,” the complaint alleges.

Not so fast, says Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

“The fact that the city is now negotiating police reforms with a Justice Department that fundamentally does not agree with the need for constitutional policing is ludicrous,” she wrote in a recent opinion piece.

“The only way Chicago can rebuild the broken trust between some of its citizens and the police is through a transparent reform process that include community advocates who have pushed for reform for years,” she adds.

The courts must be involved. “The city can agree to a federal court process that avoids the unnecessary expense of legal wrangling and instead focuses on getting to the right results.”

She has not ruled out filing a lawsuit to ensure that happens.

Emanuel may be fleet-footed, but there is not enough trust left to carry him past this crisis.

The Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman laid out some options. The mayor could “dig in his heels,” she wrote, and fight reform advocates and the courts. He could continue to work with an uncooperative Justice Department.

Or he could live up to the spirit of his January vow by teaming up with Madigan and other reform advocates, bypass Sessions and request court oversight.

Chicago has suffered decades of brutality, paid hundreds of millions of dollars in police misconduct settlements and witnessed the 16 shots that took the life of Laquan McDonald.

If Emanuel harbors any hope for a winning re-election bid, or even a legacy, he must get this right.

That means creating and enforcing a comprehensive, tough plan with heavy community input, hard-and-fast deadlines, and a court’s imprimatur.

To restore trust in his police department, Emanuel needs backup  — from the community and the courts.

Emanuel can’t dance alone.

Email: lauraswashington@aol.com

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