Emanuel says there’s no turning back on road to police reform

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel talks about the Department of Justice report at Union Station. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Thursday there is no turning back on the road to police reform, but he would not promise to turn the agreement in principle he intends to sign with the U.S. Justice Department into a consent decree.

One day before joining U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch in unveiling results of a scathing federal investigation that found the Chicago Police Department violated the civil rights of minority citizens, Emanuel said there is a big difference between Chicago and Baltimore, where a consent decree was announced on Thursday.

“If you look at Baltimore, they got their report over a year ago….It’s taken to this point to get to a consent decree. There’s a lot of intricacies involved. That’s true about Cleveland. It’s true about Seattle…There’s 20-plus….cities that have gone through some agreement with the Justice Department to get to a consent decree that has some oversight. It’s a very intricate process you just can’t be flippant about,” the mayor said.

“You obviously know where the incoming attorney general is. We’re gonna work with the new administration. But we’re also gonna do what’s in our interest…The report is gonna tell us where we have challenges and problems and also the steps that are necessary to correct them….I don’t know what the next administration’s interests are. I do know what our interests are.”

President-elect Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to take the handcuffs off rank-and-file police officers. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, is on record as opposing consent decrees. He reaffirmed that skepticism at his confirmation hearing this week.

Three times, the mayor was asked whether he would agree to a consent decree mandating reforms similar to the one that culminated in the appointment of a federal monitor who rode herd over city hiring for nearly a decade after the city hiring scandal.

Three times, the mayor refused to make that commitment. He argued that there is no turning back on the road to reform that began with the Task Force on Police Accountability he appointed on the day he fired Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy.

But he refused to commit to reforms that undermine the role and confidence of rank and file police officers who have been in a defensive crouch since release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video fearful of being caught on the next YouTube video.

“My outlook is like on the task force. Embrace what they say. Make the changes that I think are in our self interest. One of the things officers want is not just training to become a police officer, but ongoing training. That’s in our self-interest,” the mayor said.

“I want to be clear about something. This is not being done to the police. I’m not gonna participate in us, them, you. We want to give our officers certainty in maintaining and achieving the highest professional standards because that is how we also ensure that they’re pro-active and engaged in public safety. If it is interpreted like it has in other cities and ends up in a reactive mode, we’re not gonna get the public safety.”

RELATED STORY: On eve of DOJ report, McCarthy criticizes feds’ views on policing

After embracing a federal civil rights investigation he once called “misguided,” Emanuel has spent the better part of a year trying to stay one step ahead of the investigation triggered by McDonald’s fatal shooting.

The Chicago Police Department is training veteran officers in de-escalation tactics and a new use of force policy and equipping officers with Tasers and body cameras.

With the murder rate soaring and the feds certain to demand more police supervision, Emanuel has promised to fill hundreds of vacancies and still hire 970 additional police officers over and above attrition.

The two-year police hiring surge will only return a depleted police force to the levels Emanuel inherited. Nevertheless, it marked a stunning about-face for a mayor who has relied on police overtime – to the tune of $116 million a year – in a failed attempt to get a handle on gang violence.

After a blistering 190-page report from the mayor’s Task Force on Police Accountability IPRA as so “badly broken” it needed to be abolished, Emanuel abolished the Independent Police Review Authority and took the first steps toward building a new and better-funded system of police accountability.

The mayor also embraced the task force recommendation about releasing video and audio tied to police-involved shootings and serious injuries suffered in police custody “no more than 60 calendar days after” the incident occurs.

On Thursday, Emanuel insisted that, “I don’t know anything in the report. I don’t [know] one section of the report.”

But he argued that there is no turning back on the road to police reform.

“We know we have some things that have to get done to make changes. It’s in our interest. There is no going back to a day when we’re not gonna do that,” the mayor said.

“The view though is, it’s not to be done to the police. The police officers are part of the solution to solving and achieving public safety.”

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