President Donald Trump’s Justice Department is intervening in federal court proceedings in an attempt to block new police reforms in Chicago, illustrating a radical departure on the issue of criminal justice from Barack Obama’s administration.
In the final week of Obama’s presidency, the Department of Justice released a scathing, 161-page report detailing a pattern of systemic abuses and unlawful conduct within the Chicago Police Department.
The report was the culmination of an investigation launched two years prior in the wake of the scandal following the killing of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager who was shot 16 times by a white police officer, Jason Van Dyke. In October, Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder.
As part of a broader program to promote criminal justice reform, Obama’s Justice Department completed similar investigations in cities including Fergusson, New Orleans, Baltimore, and Newark.
In each of these cases, the Justice Department pursued the appointment of an independent monitor by a federal judge to oversee reforms negotiated in a “consent decree” between the government and the city based on the recommendations made in DOJ’s reports.
In the case of Chicago, this never happened. Exactly one week after the Justice Department issued its report on CPD, Trump was sworn in as president and Jeff Sessions – who ran the DOJ until he was forced to resign on November 7 – became Attorney General.
Not only did Trump’s Justice Department neglect to pursue the appointment of an independent monitor in Chicago, but it is now attempting to undermine Chicago’s police reforms by intervening in an effort to block the consent decree negotiated between the city and the State’s Attorney.
The Trump administration’s actions in Chicago are indicative of a broader “paradigm shift” from the prior administration on the matter of criminal justice reform, Lynda Garcia a former attorney in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, told The Globe Post.
The Justice Department’s 2017 report found that the city’s police department is fundamentally broken – concluding the department has failed to demonstrate to low-income, predominantly black communities that “their police force cares about them and has not abandoned them, regardless of where they live or the color of their skin.”
“That confidence is broken in many neighborhoods in Chicago,” the report states.
The jury has found Jason Van Dyke, the white officer charged in the death of Laquan McDonald, guilty of second degree murder and guilty of 16 counts of aggravated battery.
They found him not guilty of official misconduct. https://t.co/oTZAhGP9JW pic.twitter.com/g9naTNNDBl
— CBS News (@CBSNews) October 5, 2018
The Justice Department further found that the CPD engages in a pattern or practice of using force that is “unreasonable,” and that the pattern is “largely attributable to systemic deficiencies within CPD and the City.”
In October of 2017, Chicago rolled out a host of promising police reforms rooted in the recommendations made by Obama’s Justice Department.
The city created a new Civilian Office of Police Accountability, a Community Policing Advisory Panel and a Deputy Inspector General for Public Safety, who is charged with identifying policing patterns that violate residents’ Constitutional rights.
New use of force guidelines and training requirements – hailed by University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris as “groundbreaking” – were also implemented.
But without an independent monitor to oversee them, experts say the new reforms stand little chance of being effective.
Over the last century, there have been six major attempts at reforming CPD. None of them were successful enough to prevent the Justice Department from declaring that the department is broken.
“The reason why [reforms] are overseen by an independent monitor is because when you have a department – for example [CPD] – that has tried over decades to implement reforms themselves, they’re obviously not in a position to make them meaningful,” Garcia said.
With Trump’s Justice Department staying on the sidelines, Illinois State’s Attorney Lisa Madigan took it on herself to try to follow through on the prior administration’s investigation, suing the city in August of 2017 and forcing Mayor Rahm Emanuel to negotiate a consent decree.
The consent decree was finalized in July and the two parties have asked a federal court to enforce it and to appoint an independent monitor to oversee the reforms agreed to in it.
But the Trump administration is now seeking to destroy the agreement. In October, the Justice Department intervened in the case, submitting a statement of public interest asking the judge to tear up the consent decree on the grounds that federal oversight will hinder the police department’s ability to do its job and will lead to increased crime.
Oversight and Crime
“Chicago’s agreement with the [American Civil Liberties Union] in late 2015 dramatically undercut proactive policing in the city … It is imperative that the city not repeat the mistakes of the past,” then-Attorney-General Sessions said prior to the intervention.
Garcia said that Sessions’ argument is “very tenuous,” and said there’s “no scientific data” to support his claim that reforms and oversight lead to increases in crime.
Bocar Ba, a postdoctoral researcher at Duke University who studies the impact of police reforms, told The Globe Post Garcia’s assessment is correct.
“[Sessions’ claims] are not true,” Ba said. “Oversight has no impact on crime … When there is a scandal it seems that murders and robberies go up, but we can not attribute that to oversight directly.”
A spokeswoman for Madigan’s office told The Globe Post that the consent decree will reduce crime and build trust between the department and residents.
“It’s not surprising that this Justice Department is opposing real reform,” the spokesperson said.
The federal court is yet to make a ruling on the consent decree. The CPD’s union – The Fraternal Order of the Police – has also intervened in an attempt to kill the consent decree, claiming it’s unlawful and citing similar concerns raised by the Justice Department.
According to Garcia, the DOJ’s statement of public interest shouldn’t have all that much legal bearing on the case because the department is not a direct party to the agreement.
Nonetheless, she said the Justice Department’s actions in this case are “worrisome,” and that the current administration’s attitude toward policing threatens to undo much of the Obama administration’s progress in enacting meaningful criminal justice reform.
“It’s disappointing to see the federal government abdicate its responsibility … to address systemic constitutional violations within police departments,” Garcia said. “And it’s worrisome that jurisdictions’ police departments that need this sort of oversight to correct these problems are being left without that sort of support.”
The Chicago Police Department did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Ivy Kaplan contributed reporting to this article