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EDITORIAL: Consent decree is nothing but a beginning of real Chicago police reform

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson and Mayor Rahm Emanuel announce on Friday the completion of a draft federal consent decree to reform the Chicago Police Department. | Colin Boyle /Chicago Sun-Times

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson and Mayor Rahm Emanuel announce on Friday the completion of a draft federal consent decree to reform the Chicago Police Department. | Colin Boyle /Chicago Sun-Times

Getting a federal consent decree to overhaul the Chicago Police Department was such a tough job that it began to feel like the ultimate end in itself.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel balked at it. Attorney General Jeff Sessions wanted nothing to do with it. The cops’ union, the Fraternal Order of Police, decided the whole notion of outsiders questioning the brilliant work of the police was positively evil.


So it was a win for Chicago, a historic moment, when Emanuel and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan on Friday unveiled a draft of a consent decree that calls for changes in every aspect of police work, from hiring to training to the use of guns to community relations to mental health counseling.

It felt like victory.

Then we read the draft, all 232 pages, and reality crept back in:

Oh, my, we are just beginning.

The draft consent decree is highly specific on many points, especially when it comes to setting deadlines for putting reforms in place. It is less specific and more aspirational when it comes to how certain reforms should be carried out.

The decree is terrific, for example, in laying down a rule that the public be able to view and track online the status of all complaints against police officers by 2020. It is more general, though, in its call for more clinical counseling services for officers battling alcoholism, addiction and depression. It explains that a “needs assessment” must first be done.

By the nature of such things, that’s inevitable. A credible consent decree is as specific as possible, so as to eliminate the most possible wiggle room, but parts can be only a roadmap. It requires that the parties involved, compelled by an independent monitor and federal judge, work out many of the details along the way.

The real value in a consent decree is that it is enforceable by a federal court, which makes reform not voluntary, but mandatory.

Emanuel and Police Supt. Eddie Johnson already have taken modest steps to reform the police department, requiring that all police officers wear body cameras, equipping more officers with Tasers — a less deadly alternative to a gun — beefing up staffing and making changes in training. But the more wide-ranging changes laid out in the proposed consent decree, if carried out honestly, could improve not only policing practices, but the department’s grimly disdainful culture.

Certain proposed reforms, unfortunately, can’t be imposed unilaterally by the city, but must be negotiated with the police union.

Among other things, the consent decree calls for anonymous complaints against officers to be investigated — now prohibited by the union contract — and that the anonymity of complainants be maintained. The current rules discourage people from coming forward for fear of retaliation, which feeds a racially-charged mistrust between Chicagoans and the police.

As Madigan summed it up at a press conference on Friday: “Too many Chicago residents do not feel safe in their communities but also do not feel safe calling the police.”

The message is clear: It’s not enough that this proposed consent decree have the backing of a federal court. To be effective, it also will need the support of the people of Chicago, in every neighborhood. It will need, for that matter, the support of rank-and-file police officers who, despite their union’s open hostility to reform, understand that the status quo is indefensible.

Back in January 2017, the Justice Department released an investigative report that shamed our city. For generations, the report concluded, the Chicago Police Department had performed in a sloppy and corrupt manner, pulling and firing their guns too quickly, covering up for officers who cross the line, failing to punish bad cops and running roughshod over the civil rights of African Americans and other minorities.

The report just told a lot of Chicagoans what they already knew, though, if only from reading the daily news. It never ends.

In the Sun-Times and elsewhere this weekend were stories about the upcoming trial of Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, charged with murder in the killing of 17-year old Laquan McDonald.

There were stories, as well, about 15 men — their wrongful convictions overturned — who are suing the city for an alleged police “code of silence” that allowed a team of rogue cops to frame them.

And there were stories — so many sad stories — about the daily drumbeat of murder in Chicago that reminded us again why our town needs more and better policing.

The draft consent decree is up for public comment until Aug. 17. You can read it and offers your thoughts at chicagopoliceconsentdecree.org.

We’ll be weighing in. We hope you will, too.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.