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Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a crossroads on police reform

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 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.

The mayor essentially has four options as he seeks to regain the trust of African-American voters he lost by concealing the Laquan McDonald shooting video.

He can dig in his heels and fight the lawsuit tooth-and-nail — and risk having Madigan jump in — while aligning himself with President Donald Trump’s U.S. Justice Department.

He can follow through on his January commitment to seek a consent decree and force U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who opposes court oversight over local police departments, to play the bad guy.


He can continue seeking an independent monitor without court oversight, but start negotiating the terms, deadlines, financial commitments and selection process with the same stakeholders with whom he bargained endlessly before abolishing the Independent Police Review Authority.

Or the mayor could join forces with Madigan, lawsuit plaintiffs and other police reform advocates in petitioning for federal court oversight, even without the DOJ as a willing partner.

Hours after the lawsuit was filed, Emanuel refused to tip his hand. He would only reiterate that there is “more that we agree on than disagree,” including the need for reform to “gain the respect and trust of the public”; an independent monitor to ensure reforms happen; and frequent reports by the monitor to make certain the public is “informed all the way so we neither get weak-kneed or fall off course.”

“Obviously, there was an election that changed the Justice Department,” said Emanuel, who was scheduled to meet privately with Madigan late Wednesday. “It doesn’t change what we’re committed to getting done.”

All four options have potential pitfalls for the mayor, who is deciding whether to seek a third term after surviving months of protests and demands for his resignation after a judge ordered the city to release the video of white police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times.

“This is the test for the mayor. Is he sincere about police reform in Chicago or is this just the same old story: Another political crisis, another scandal, another report, another backroom deal,” said University of Chicago Professor Craig Futterman, lead counsel for the plaintiffs.

Fraternal Order of Police President Kevin Graham countered that Chicagoans and their police officers “cannot afford any more undo influence of the powerful anti-police movement in public policy.” He noted that five police officers have been shot in the last month and several more have been shot at in a city “mired in violent crime.”

“We will oppose the imposition of policies backed by this movement in every instance, and we believe that elected officials have an obligation to the public and our officers to do the same,” Graham said in a statement.

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, is more concerned about the impact on beleaguered Chicago taxpayers if reforms recommended by the Obama Justice Department and the mayor’s own Task Force on Police Accountability are overseen by a federal judge.

“If we do what those reports recommended, what role would the judge play — other than adding another layer of bureaucracy and encumbering the city with millions and millions of dollars in more reporting, more monitoring?” O’Connor said.

In joining the call for federal court oversight, Madigan warned that “even very detailed plans for change bump up against resource constraints and it’s necessary to have a federal judge to keep it moving.”

O’Connor countered by accusing the plaintiffs of “looking for a blank check” from the city at a time when state aid to Chicago is months behind.

“We have to recognize that the pocketbooks of the city of Chicago are not bottomless,” he said.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, voiced similar concerns, even as he urged Emanuel to stop negotiating secretly with the Justice Department.

“I don’t like court-enforced monitors. It’s another layer of patronage. We pay millions for monitors, and they’re interested in staying. They’re getting a check and pretty big one,” Sawyer said.

“How long were we in Shakman 30 [or 40] years? How many millions of dollars did we have to pay out? I don’t want to get into that again,” he added.

Police Board President Lori Lightfoot, who co-chaired the Task Force on Police Accountability, noted that lawsuits “can take years” to resolve and, therefore, “should be a last resort.”

A “better result” would be a “convening of responsible stakeholders” to reach a “negotiated resolution” to systemic problems in the Police Department, she said. “We also need a commitment of appropriate resources to fix the problem, which means realistically tens of millions of dollars every year for the forseeable future.”

Lightfoot urged Emanuel to “take heed of the criticism” that has come from all sides about a process for negotiating a memorandum of agreement with the Justice Department she called “exclusive — not inclusive.”

“A process that is not open, inclusive or transparent will fail,” she said.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), former longtime chairman of the City Council’s Police Committee, argued that Emanuel made a big mistake by breaking his promise to negotiate federal court oversight.

“I understand that Jeff Sessions has said he doesn’t agree with consent decrees. But with the climate here in Chicago, we should have fought our case before throwing in the towel,” he said.

Charles Ramsey ran the Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia police departments during DOJ investigations of those agencies.

“No matter which way you go, you’re gonna get some resistance. You’ve just gotta work through those things, talk to folks and see if you can come to some understanding,” Ramsey said.