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Former Obama Justice Department official on consent decree: Chicago ‘wants this’

Vanita Gupta (left), shown with then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch, said in January 2017 that a court-enforced consent decree is the best way to ensure true reform at the Chicago Police Department. | AP photo

Vanita Gupta (left), shown with then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch, said in January 2017 that a court-enforced consent decree is the best way to ensure true reform at the Chicago Police Department. | AP photo

A key deputy to former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch says police reform was already “long overdue” in Chicago when she and Lynch came to town in January 2017, accusing the Chicago Police Department of violating constitutional rights.

Nearly two years later, Vanita Gupta says, that reform is now “desperately needed.”

Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, made her comments in a three-page letter to the federal judge who is considering whether to approve a proposed consent decree negotiated by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. It would govern police reform in Chicago.

The letter can be found amid hundreds of others sent to the judge as he prepares to take further public comment at a hearing Wednesday and Thursday at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. Written two days after the Trump administration announced it would oppose the consent decree, Gupta’s note effectively serves as a rebuke from the Obama administration amid increasing criticism from Lynch’s successor, Jeff Sessions.

“The city wants this reform,” Gupta wrote in her letter this month. “The Chicago Police Department wants this reform. And the community, which has been waiting far too long, wants this reform.”

Sessions sent the judge his own critique this month, arguing that Chicago’s violent crime crisis would “not be solved through civil litigation, and murders of Chicagoans will not be prevented by subjecting the CPD and its officers to multiple, costly monitors through various settlement agreements and consent decrees.” In a speech last week, he also complained that “lame-duck politicians” wrote the proposed consent decree to control CPD “from their political graves.”

Neither Emanuel nor Madigan are running for re-election.

Gupta, now the head of The Leadership Conference Education Fund, alleged in her letter that “the federal government has abdicated its duty to enforce federal law that Congress passed specifically to protect the civil rights that are violated because of systemic police misconduct.” She also invoked this month’s conviction of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke on one count of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery over the shooting death of teenager Laquan McDonald.

“The verdict delivered the McDonald family and Chicago’s residents a small dose of justice,” Gupta wrote. “But it only held one officer accountable. The challenge now is to address the systemic failures that allowed for the tragedy to occur. The proposed consent decree will do that.”

U.S. District Judge Robert Dow has been sifting through letters from Gupta and many others as he prepares for this week’s two-day hearing. He is expected to take public comment during the hearing set for 9:30 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday in the ceremonial courtroom on the 25th floor of the federal courthouse. Speakers may sign up between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. each day outside the courtroom.

The bulk of the letters sent to Dow appear to be form letters signed by people who support the proposed consent decree. However, the letter argues the consent decree does not go far enough.

“We all must view this consent decree as a starting point, rather than a finish line,” the letter states.

The Fraternal Order of Police filed its own lengthy document, explaining that while a number of provisions in the proposed consent decree “provide substantial benefits to the interests of police officers and the public,” there are “a number that directly conflict with the negotiated provisions” of its collective bargaining agreement.

Mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot shared, on “Lori Lightfoot for Chicago” stationery, feedback that she had previously given to Madigan’s office. She told the judge “it is critically important that we make the systemic changes necessary to change policing for the better in this city.”

Dow also received a series of letters in which young people answered in their own handwriting the typewritten prompt, “The reason I want a Consent Decree to reform the Chicago Police Department.”

Wrote a 12-year-old: “Because I want my family and I to be safe.”