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Plan to overhaul Chicago Police Department only as serious as the next mayor

The Fraternal Order of Police protested in front of City Hall in May over the consent decree and other issues. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

“Let us begin.”

So said U.S. District Judge Robert Dow on Thursday upon approving a plan to overhaul the Chicago Police Department.

But first, let us have an election.

The federally monitored consent decree — forced on the city by a series of scandals over more than a decade that have eroded community trust and exposed a corrosive code of police silence — ultimately will be only as successful as City Hall’s willingness to carry it out. Consent decrees work best, the experience of other cities has shown, when mayors and police chiefs jump on board.

OPINION

Mayor Rahm Emanuel was reluctant at first to bind the city and police department to the rigors of a consent decree, going all in only after then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit against City Hall in 2017.

But in a few months, Chicago will have a new mayor, and some of the candidates hold very different ideas about the need for the consent decree, the validity of criticisms of the police department, and the ability of officers — good and honest officers — to do their job in a post-consent-decree era.

If this mayoral election is leaving you a little confused, we hear you. We get confused, too. Fourteen candidates are in the race, some well known, others not, and their views on everything — from city finances to public schools to fighting crime — are not easily pigeonholed. A candidate who might be instinctively conventional on, say, taxing LaSalle Street traders might be more progressive on police reform. We’re thinking here of Bill Daley.

There’s nothing to be done about it except our homework. We urge you to study up on all the candidates before the Feb. 26 election, which inevitably will lead to a runoff election on April 2.

One place to start would be to read the Sun-Times questionnaire completed by 13 of the candidates, which includes a question about the consent decree. Are they for it or against — and why?

Nine candidates said they fully support the decree and would, as mayor, work to carry it out. Three candidates — John Kozlar, Bob Fioretti and Garry McCarthy — basically said they are opposed. But it’s important to stress that they did not say they would resist carrying it out if elected mayor.

One candidate, Willie Wilson, did not give a clear thumbs up or down to a consent decree, but presented his own ideas for changing the police department.

Lori Lightfoot is among the most enthusiastic supporters of the decree, which is unsurprising given that she led a task force that produced a scathing report of the police department. That report became the basis for a Department of Justice study of CPD and the consent decree.

In her questionnaire, Lightfoot wrote: “It is the only tool currently available to make the systemic reforms necessary.” And in a statement she released Thursday after the judge signed off on the decree, she added: “I know it is imperfect. Nonetheless, it is an essential foundation for accountability and transparency.”

Paul Vallas said the consent decree calls for “things CPD should have been doing and that rank and file police officers welcome.” But he also expressed concern that it not “punish and place an undue burden on the police” and not become a “cottage industry for lawyers and advocates who would seek to profit from its provisions.”

Preckwinkle called a consent decree “much needed and long overdue.” Gery Chico called it “a good first step.” Susana Mendoza said she would “fully” implement it to help police officers “transition from a warrior mindset to a guardian mindset.”

Amara Enyia called it “vitally necessary.” Daley said he supported it because “we can’t continue with the status quo.” And Jerry Joyce said he would carry it out “as expeditiously as possible.”

All 13 candidates, even those who support a consent decree, added caveats. Most pointedly, La Shawn Ford wrote: “It alone will not completely resolve all the issues of police brutality and accountability.”

Just as it is unsurprising that Lightfoot and others strongly back the decree, it is unsurprising that McCarthy does not. The political fallout from the Laquan McDonald murder case led Emanuel to fire McCarthy as police superintendent in December 2015, and McCarthy has since argued that a consent decree scapegoats the police.

“First, it is important to note that CPD’s use of force is consistent with the national average,” McCarthy wrote in his questionnaire. “Second, this fact partly demonstrates why I view the consent decree as a political document that hardly addresses the real challenges facing our police officers when they’re confronting violent criminals on the streets of Chicago. Much of the decree is already state law and, in some cases, it undermines public safety by diverting supervisors from their primary job of ensuring quality police work.”

In the same way a consent decree could lead to an overhaul of the police department, this year’s elections for mayor and the City Council could lead to an overhaul of basic city policy not just on police reform, but also on crime prevention, city finances, schools and protections against public corruption.

As voters, let’s do our homework.

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