CHICAGO ― In the final months of the Obama administration, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division scrambled to complete its biggest-ever investigation of a city police department: a 13-month probe of Chicago’s 12,000-strong police force that wrapped up just a week before President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
For more than a year, the division’s lawyers reviewed thousands of Chicago Police Department documents, visited all 22 police districts, went on 60 ride-alongs, reviewed 170 police shooting files, examined over 425 incidents of less-lethal force, interviewed 340 department members and talked to about 1,000 Chicago residents.
Their final report, issued Jan. 13, recognized the tough job officers had in Chicago as they dealt with spiking gun violence, and praised the “diligent efforts and brave actions of countless” officers. But a “breach in trust” eroded Chicago’s ability to prevent crime, because officers were able to escape accountability when they broke the law, the report found. Because “trust and effectiveness in combating violent crime are inextricably intertwined,” the report found “broad, fundamental reform” was needed in Chicago.
Without a formal legal agreement to reform — known as a consent decree — and independent monitoring, the report concluded, reform efforts in Chicago were “not likely to be successful.”
Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney general, disagrees. In recent weeks, Sessions has expressed deep skepticism about the role of the federal government in fixing broken police departments, leaving serious doubts about the ultimate outcome of the Justice Department’s work in Chicago.
Sessions wants the Justice Department to serve as the “leading advocate for law enforcement in America.” While admitting he hadn’t read the full Chicago report, he called it “anecdotal” and “not so scientifically based.” Earlier this month in Baltimore, a Justice Department lawyer said Sessions had “grave concerns” about an agreement previously reached between that city and the Obama administration. A federal judge signed off on the deal over Sessions’ objections.
In an interview with a conservative radio host this month, Sessions seemed to suggest that Justice Department investigations and consent decrees were resulting in “big crime increases.” In an op-ed for USA Today last week, Sessions wrote that consent decrees could amount to “harmful federal intrusion” that could “cost more lives by handcuffing the police instead of the criminals.” There’s too much focus on “a small number of police who are bad actors,” Sessions wrote, and “too many people believe the solution is to impose consent decrees that discourage the proactive policing that keeps our cities safe.”
Chicago has a serious violent crime problem. Last year was the deadliest in the city in two decades, with 762 homicides. But supporters of police reform like Jonathan Smith, a former official in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said that Sessions was “simply wrong” to suggest that crime goes up as a result of reform (or, in Chicago’s case, an investigation). DOJ investigations can increase community confidence in police departments and make people safer, Smith argued.
“In communities like Baltimore and Chicago where certain neighborhoods are experiencing gun violence, the problems long predate Justice Department involvement,” said Smith. “The issues in those communities are linked to weakened gun laws that create easy access to firearms, lack of opportunity for jobs and housing and a history of police misconduct that creates mistrust between police and the communities they serve. Lack of police accountability is often a significant contributing factor in a spike in crime because of community mistrust.”
Lorie Fridell, a criminologist and police bias expert from whom the Chicago’s Police Accountability Task Force solicited information for its report released last year, said DOJ investigations not only help to usher in badly need reforms to the specific departments probed, but other departments also rely on the reports to determine if their own departments are meeting constitutional standards.
“I think it’s very unfortunate the DOJ is no longer going to prioritize police reform,” Fridell said. ”The future of police reform is therefore going to have to come from the ground up. It’s going to be important for concerned individuals to demand high-quality policing.”
The future of police reform is ... going to have to come from the ground up." Criminologist Lorie Fridell
Ian Prior, a Justice Department spokesman, said it should be “eminently clear” that the Justice Department “will never negotiate or sign a consent decree that could reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less safe city.” Sarah Isgur Flores, the top spokeswoman for the Justice Department, declined to point to any specific sections of consent decrees Sessions or the department took issue with, though she said there were “several areas of concern” with the Baltimore agreement, which she alleged was “thrown together in such a hurried fashion.” She said Trump’s administration “agrees with the need to rebuild public confidence in law enforcement” but had serious worries “where consent decrees may reduce the lawful powers of the police department.”
Sessions appears to believe civil rights and constitutional policing were somehow adversarial to effective crime fighting, said Vanita Gupta, who headed the Civil Rights Division in the final years of the Obama administration. But “there’s no evidence that backs up what he’s saying,” she argued. Gupta rejected the new administration’s suggestion that the Baltimore agreement was tossed together at the last minute, calling it “an insult to the city and to the Baltimore Police Department,” and suggested they need take a closer look at what DOJ investigators found in Chicago.
“If the attorney general and his staff actually read the report, they would see reflected in that report the perspective of hundreds of Chicago police officers themselves, who talked to us about the realities of policing in the Chicago Police Department,” said Gupta. “That report reflects in many ways a very significant set of voices from law enforcement itself.”
Sessions dismissing the Justice Department’s reports without reading them also frustrates Christy Lopez, a former top Civil Rights Division official. It’s “ignorant” to describe the reports as anecdotal, Lopez said. The Chicago investigation, for example, revealed that just 1.4 percent of all misconduct complaints were sustained, or upheld as valid, over a period of more than five years, and that white Chicagoans were much more likely to have their complaints sustained than black or Latino residents.
“That’s not anecdotal,” says Lopez. Lopez also said that dismissing the individual stories highlighted in the DOJ reports as anecdotal is “deliberately blind” to what investigators were trying to do.
“It devalues people when you minimize the importance of their stories,” Lopez said. “You can call them anecdotes, but, for example in the Ferguson case ― when we have an officer writing down in his own report that after he went out and arrested a woman who’d called in on a domestic violence call, and he arrested her for an occupancy permit violation, and she says ‘I’ll never call the police again, even if I’m being killed’ ― that many be an anecdote, but that’s an important story to tell.”
It devalues people when you minimize the importance of their stories." Christy Lopez
Chicago residents for years have demanded changes like a citizen-led review board for police misconduct cases or improved mental health and crisis training. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson have both expressed willingness to enact reform, with or without oversight from the courts or the DOJ. Failure to get traction for reforms — even as they face an obstinate police union — could spell political trouble for both of them.
In the absence of federal action, advocates “are looking at every option ― including litigation, political pressure and legislation” to bring about reform, said Karen Sheley, director of the ACLU Illinois’ police practices project. The city has “hit a crisis point,” she added. “Everyone in Chicago should be asking their elected officials to support reform, including of the police union contracts, which are being negotiated now.”
A lack of police reform has already come at a high cost to Chicago taxpayers. Since 2004, the city has forked over about $662 million for police misconduct in the form of multimillion-dollar settlements, as well as legal fees and other penalties. Settlements totaling more than $100,000 require city council approval ― and they always get it. Police who break the rules and later cost the city money are rarely punished, allowing a core of officers especially prone to violating rules to propel the staggering payout costs.
In his op-ed last week criticizing police reform, Sessions pointed to violent crime spikes in Chicago and Baltimore as reasons not to implement reform, even though neither city has implemented consent decrees.
In an email to HuffPost, a Justice Department representative provided links to stories about crime spikes in New Orleans, Cleveland and Albuquerque, New Mexico, all cities that came under federal scrutiny. One story highlighted comments from Louisiana’s attorney general, who argued that the Justice Department consent decree has resulted in a spike in crime in New Orleans.
“It’s not fair to say that the city of New Orleans is less safe because of consent decrees,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a Democrat, told HuffPost after a meeting with Sessions this week.
Nobody was surprised by the findings. The issues in Chicago are longstanding and deep-rooted." Vanita Gupta
Federal consent decrees on policing do have a mixed record, but there are plenty of success stories. The consent decree monitor in Seattle, for example, recently said the police department had made a dramatic turnaround, and the overall crime rate in Newark, New Jersey, is lower than it’s been in 50 years.
Peter Harvey, the consent decree monitor in Newark, said it’s simply not true that federal police reform efforts lead to violent crime spikes, and that the community is excited by the prospect of modern policing being implemented in Newark.
“Remember, it’s the community that helps you police. Very few cities have enough cops to patrol a city 24-7 effectively, 12 months a year. You need the community to help you,” said Harvey. “The community will help you if you ask the community to engage with you, but what the community will not do is watch you place community residents in chokeholds where they die, and then turn around and say, ‘Well, we want to be your friend.’ Those are inconsistent messages.”
Harvey said the overwhelming majority of cities he knew of found a consent decree to be a positive development, because it allowed them to bring about changes they may have wanted for years but could not implement.
“In virtually every city that has had a consent decree, shootings have gone down, killings have gone down, judgments against the city have been reduced, and morale in the police department has been raised and morale in the community has been raised,” Harvey said. “It’s not going to negatively impact the crime rate, because you’re not inviting the police not to patrol, you’re not inviting the police not to enforce the law, you’re inviting the police to follow constitutional mandates.”
There’s a fear, a tremendous fear I’ve heard from residents, who wonder, ‘Where do we turn?'" Father Michael Pfleger of Chicago
The DOJ’s change of agenda is worrying, said Father Michael Pfleger, the outspoken pastor of Chicago’s St. Sabina Church on the South Side of Chicago.
“The Justice Department, sort of being the big brother watching, the enforcer, has been a good thing across the country,” said Pfleger, who has organized his congregation to regularly protest violence and police brutality. “Now Sessions has certainly sent a message that police have no one standing over them ensuring they’re acting justify and fairly. ... That’s not what we need right now. Yes, we need strong police, but not an imposing force.”
“There’s a fear, a tremendous fear I’ve heard from residents, who wonder, ‘Where do we turn? If the police are wrong, then where do we turn?’” he said.
Leaving the systemic problems found in Chicago unfixed “would be a serious abdication of the Justice Department’s responsibility,” Gupta said, noting that investigating patterns and practices of unconstitutional policing was a mandate given to the Justice Department by Congress.
“Nobody was surprised by the findings,” Gupta added. “The issues in Chicago are longstanding and deep-rooted. To think that there could be a crime-fighting strategy that doesn’t address police legitimacy and the severe breakdown in police-resident trust in certain neighborhoods in Chicago to me actually seems quite dangerous.”
She finds it telling that Sessions and the DOJ have not identified any specific provisions of consent decrees that raise concerns.
“What is it specifically that is causing alarm?” she asked. “Is it really the program at large that this Justice Department is seeking to diminish?”
Ryan J. Reilly reported from Washington. Kim Bellware reported from Chicago.