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Mayoral aides explain why Emanuel never sought court oversight of CPD

Edward Siskel will become Mayor Rahm Emanuel's next corporation counsel.

Edward Siskel, Chicago's Corporation Counsel. | Courtesy of WilmerHale

Mayor Rahm Emanuel never sought court oversight of the Chicago Police Department because a consent decree was a non-starter with President Donald Trump’s U.S. Justice Department, top mayoral aides said Thursday.

“You’ve got the Justice Department in Baltimore taking the position that they don’t want to move forward with a consent decree. Then you’ve got the Justice Department in discussions with us saying, `Let’s look at alternative models . . . for achieving real reform,” said Corporation Counsel Ed Siskel in his first public comments about the mayor’s plan.

“The discussions started from the standpoint of a consent decree not being on the table. . . . The new leadership of the Justice Department has made it very clear — both publicly in statements from the attorney general and in discussions with the city — that they have very serious concerns about . . . the idea of a federal judge running a local police department.”

Even without the DOJ as a willing partner, Emanuel could have joined forces with local police advocates in petitioning for federal court oversight of the Chicago Police Department.

On Thursday, Siskel was asked why that option was not pursued.

“Rather than spending a bunch of time in court with lawyers spending resources on litigating issues, we are putting those resources to implementing reform and having this process start immediately as soon as the agreement is finalized,” he said.

Noting that collaborative reform worked well in Washington, D.C., Siskel said, “We focused on . . . how to move forward quickly to continue the process of reform through a tried and tested mechanism for achieving those results.”

The American Civil Liberties Union and Vanita Gupta, former head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, have accused Emanuel of breaking the promise he made in January to enter into “good faith” negotiations towards a court-enforced consent decree.

The ACLU has argued that anything short of federal court oversight was “hostile to police reform” and doomed to failure given the magnitude of the problems laid bare in the scathing indictment of the Chicago Police Department triggered by the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

Gupta agreed that  given the “severity of the accountability and use of force problems thoroughly documented” in the report she helped craft, federal court oversight was the only way to prevent “yet another set of recommendations . . . that will have no teeth.”

Siskel and Walter Katz, Emanuel’s chief deputy for public safety, beg to differ.

They pointed to the mayor’s “track record” of pursuing police reforms that include training all Chicago Police officers on a new use-of-force policy altered in response to public input and to Emanuel’s decision to expedite the distribution of body cameras to all officers.

“We have put our money where our mouth is in terms of moving forward with very real and ambitious reform efforts in the meantime rather than waiting for any kind of agreement,” Siskel said.

The city’s top lawyer said he’s confident the agreement ultimately negotiated with the DOJ will restore public trust shattered by the mayor’s handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.

That’s because it will make a “significant commitment of resources” toward implementing police reforms over multiple years and detail specific changes Emanuel promises to seek to a police contract that, according to his Task Force on Police Accountability, turned the “code of silence into official policy.”

“We have set this up in a way to have an independent monitor with real credibility who is holding our feet to the fire and issuing regular public reports so that the community can hold our feet to the fire,” he said. “And with yet another backstop of a provision that allows the Department of Justice to go into court and enforce the terms of the agreement if we are breaching an agreement.”

Police Board President Lori Lightfoot has warned the memorandum of agreement cannot be “unilaterally negotiated by the mayor himself.”

She has argued the agreement would have “zero legitimacy” without input from the same police reform stakeholders with whom the city negotiated before abolishing the Independent Police Review Authority and replacing it with a Civilian Office of Police Accountability.

Former Washington and Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey, who ran both cities’ police forces during DOJ investigations, has also advised Emanuel to “keep it transparent” by releasing the memorandum of agreement and by appointing an oversight group comprised of academics, community and business leaders.

Katz acknowledged the need for public buy-in. He and Siskel promised to release the memorandum of agreement as soon as it is finalized.

“Credibility is key. We are very aware of that. The selection process [of the monitor] will be credible,” Katz said.