Attorney General Jeff Sessions has sent the clearest signal yet that the Trump administration may not keep pressing reforms to policing in Chicago, sowing uncertainty as to how much change will come to a Police Department the previous administration branded as systemically abusive.
In his first major speech since being appointed by President Donald Trump, Sessions on Tuesday vowed to “pull back” on federal civil rights probes of local police departments like the one that less than two months ago resulted in a damning report accusing Chicago police of engaging in a pattern of civil rights abuses.
Sessions has declined to commit to a federal consent decree with Chicago that could codify reforms to the Police Department and allow for court enforcement of those changes.
Instead, he has pushed the idea that officers’ hesitance to police aggressively is driving rising violence in major cities including Chicago.
A vacuum of outside enforcement would leave control of police reform largely in the hands of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has championed changes to policing but only since the politically damaging scandal sparked in 2015 by video of a white officer shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times. The lack of a consent decree could help Emanuel take credit for policing reforms without any other authority forcing changes he might oppose.
Emanuel has vowed that he will continue pushing change, but police reform advocates voiced concern Tuesday that his appetite for meaningful reform will wane without outside pressure. The Justice Department report itself said significant change was unlikely to come without a consent decree.
“Change won’t occur in Chicago unless there is external pressure to do so,” said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor and frequent police critic. “‘The city lacks a combination of the will and the ability … to address those civil rights violations on their own.”
On Tuesday, Emanuel said any withdrawal of federal pressure would not stop police reforms in Chicago.
“When the Justice Department report came, there were a lot of questions, and I’ve been very clear we’re going to continue to do what’s in our self-interest as it relates to training, technology, transparency and leadership, so our police officers have the support, the confidence to do their job,” Emanuel said.
Emanuel’s attempts to change policing have come in the 15 months since the video of McDonald’s shooting spurred heated protests rooted in long-held grievances over officers’ treatment of African-American and Latino residents.
In January, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report that found that officers were poorly trained and quick to use excessive and even deadly force without facing consequences. Confirming what residents have said for decades, the report said the department has tolerated racially discriminatory conduct.
Notably, the report criticized changes Emanuel pushed in the months after the McDonald scandal as rushed or insufficient. The new Tasers the Police Department distributed came with ineffective training, the report concluded. New body cameras were hampered by “vague or confusing” directives on their use, and the city’s ordinance creating a new civilian oversight agency fell short, in part by failing to limit cases in which officers can acknowledge misconduct in hopes of lighter discipline, the report concluded.
Emanuel agreed to enter talks toward a court-enforced agreement with the Justice Department on a number of reforms while then-President Barack Obama was still in office. Trump’s election, however, signaled a shift, and his administration has been prone to eschewing promises of police reform in favor of tough-on-crime rhetoric targeting urban violence in cities such as Chicago.
Indeed, Chicago has been beset by a surge in shootings. Last year, the city saw more than 760 slayings and 4,300 people shot, huge increases over 487 homicides and about 3,000 shooting victims in 2015. That uptick has continued this year, with 103 homicides through mid-Tuesday compared with 102 at this point in 2016, according to data compiled by the Chicago Tribune.
On Tuesday, Sessions, who has said he read a summary of the Justice Department report on Chicago, worried aloud that police are pulling back because they worry about getting in trouble if they make a mistake.
“We need to help police departments get better, not diminish their effectiveness, and I’m afraid we have done some of that,” Sessions told a gathering of state attorneys general. “So we’re going to pull back on this.”
Sessions also promised an aggressive crackdown on homicides and violent crime that he warned could be an indicator of a long-term rise in street violence. He acknowledged that crime nationally has dropped substantially since the late 1980s and the early 1990s, but he said he worries the recent rise in reported violence in major cities is not “a blip.”
“I’m afraid it represents the beginning of a trend,” he said, blaming increased violence on low police morale, increasing drug use and fear of police in some communities.
Sessions also spoke to reporters Monday in Washington, D.C., and said he had “not made a decision” on whether he would order the Justice Department to continue negotiating a court-enforced federal consent decree in Chicago. Sessions said something needs to be done to make Chicago police more proactive.
“I’m really worried about Chicago with the surge in murders,” Sessions said Monday. “One of the metrics that has been reported in Chicago shows a dramatic reduction in stops and arrests in Chicago by the Police Department. So they have the same number of officers, but the number of people that are getting arrested for presumably smaller crimes — the broken windows concept that New York believes in so strongly — that has to be a factor in the increase of violence in the city.”
Since the start of 2016, Chicago police officers have been required to better document street stops after a study by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois found that they made more than a quarter-million stops from May through August 2014, four times more than New York cops did at the height of that city’s controversial stop-and-frisk practices.
Edwin Yohnka, a spokesman for the ACLU of Illinois, said Sessions’ comments about street stops reflect the attitude of someone “who couldn’t be bothered” to read the entire Justice Department report, rather than just a summary of it.
“He doesn’t know Chicago. He knows a political talking point,” Yohnka said. “And the reality is, the street stops, which he apparently celebrates, caused the breakdown in trust between the police and the communities they serve.”
Sessions’ focus on violence rather than department reform was welcomed by the president of the union representing rank-and-file officers. Continue Reading
Article Org: chicagotribune.com