Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan on Tuesday sued the city of Chicago, contending Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s reforms are not sufficient to prevent the Chicago Police Department from continuing a pattern of deadly and excessive force that disproportionately hurts African Americans and Latinos.
Despite the sharp criticism in the lawsuit, Madigan and Emanuel appeared together at a news conference where they called the effort moving forward “a partnership.”
Still, Madigan’s move effectively pushes Emanuel toward acknowledging he will have to accept a federal judge’s oversight of his police department, a still-to-be-negotiated agreement that likely will cost the city millions of dollars in reforms and run for several years.
The suit also means Emanuel likely will have to agree to pursue reforms above and beyond what his administration already has put in place at a time when the city continues to deal with surging homicide and shooting numbers. Complicating that effort are ongoing contract negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police, which blasted Tuesday’s announcement as “a potential catastrophe for Chicago.”
Figuring out how to fix a department that federal officials concluded has been plagued by misconduct for decades has been a challenge for Emanuel, who has pivoted several times on an issue he’s been wrestling with since a judge ordered him to release the Laquan McDonald police shooting video in November 2015.
Back then, Madigan called for a federal probe, which Emanuel initially resisted. The resulting federal civil rights investigation was highly critical of the Police Department, and in January, Emanuel signed an agreement with then-President Obama’s Justice Department to seek a consent decree in which a federal judge and court-appointed monitor enforce reforms. By May, however, Emanuel was trying to reach an out-of-court agreement with President Donald Trump’s administration, which has signaled a general opposition to court oversight of police departments.
Since then, Madigan has offered stinging criticism of Emanuel’s efforts to deal with the Trump Justice Department, calling it “ludicrous” to negotiate with a White House that “fundamentally does not agree with the need for constitutional policing.” Former Obama Justice officials, police reform advocates and some African-American politicians and community leaders offered similar criticism, but until Tuesday, Emanuel showed little sign of backing off his talks with the Trump administration and argued such a deal would get the same results as a consent decree.
At a Loop news conference, Madigan proclaimed that she had “filed a lawsuit against the city of Chicago based on the findings of the Justice Department investigation.” The state’s top law enforcement officer then listed what she saw as the city’s policing deficiencies, from inadequate training and a lack of supervision to “a failure to investigate misconduct and discipline officers.”
Madigan noted minorities in Chicago “live in fear of criminals and the police,” and stressed how the Justice Department investigation concluded that a “court-ordered consent decree, to be overseen by a federal judge” was necessary to properly reform the Police Department.
In the suit, Madigan alleged that the policing changes the city had made after the release of the McDonald shooting video “are insufficient to eliminate the city’s decades-long policy, custom, or practice of unlawful conduct and to ensure it will not recur.”
Madigan did not specify when she informed the mayor she would proceed with the suit, but said she has been talking for weeks with Emanuel and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson about how to move forward in light of the Trump Justice Department’s lack of interest in working toward a consent decree. She said the city had agreed to a consent decree, an independent court monitor and soliciting public input, but declined to outline any other specifics the two sides may have agreed upon, saying everything else would be subject to negotiations between her office and Emanuel’s administration.
For his part, the mayor spoke at length about the Police Department reforms his administration already has undertaken, which range from additional training and hiring more officers to an increase in the number of body cameras and Tasers issued to officers. Emanuel said agreeing to partner with Madigan was necessary, given the change in Washington.
The mayor predicted “better days lie ahead” for the department and with current and future reforms in place it would become “the most professional, proactive police department possible.”
“I am proud the attorney general is standing up for our city, for its residents and for our police officers where the Trump administration fell flat,” Emanuel said, noting the White House was “disinterested in reform” and “did not even want to pursue the concept they proposed” — an out-of-court agreement.
Change in tone
Emanuel said multiple times that he would work alongside the attorney general to institute lasting reforms. But the Emanuel administration has argued in a separate suit against some of the very points Madigan sought to make Tuesday.
City attorneys are asking a judge to dismiss a case brought by civil rights organizations and police misconduct victims. The city argued the group’s calls for a consent decree were now “moot” because the Emanuel administration already had instituted the necessary police reforms. In that case, the mayor’s office also argued well-known, decades-old police abuses were not relevant, while Madigan’s office cited some of that very same police misconduct in arguing the city needs a consent decree.
University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman, who is part of the legal team representing the civil rights groups, said the Emanuel administration’s motion raises questions about whether the mayor truly wants court oversight.
“Do I think (Madigan) is forcing his hand? Yes,” Futterman said. “He — even after we filed suit and up until today — was fighting tooth and nail: We don’t need a consent decree.”
Asked in an interview Tuesday to explain why the city was agreeing to a consent decree this week when it had argued against one in court last week, top City Hall attorney Ed Siskel said the civil rights organizations’ suit had “a lot of legal deficiencies.”
“We raised those issues with the court,” Siskel said. “That does not in any way preclude or reflect on our willingness to move forward with reforms. We have instituted reform steps before, during and after that case was filed and will continue to do so.”
Christy Lopez, a former Justice Department lawyer who helped lead the investigation in Chicago, called Madigan’s suit a “clarion call” and an example to other states and jurisdictions that no longer can rely on the Trump administration to push reform in the federal courts.
Lopez was less certain about Emanuel.
“It’s clear from how much he has gone back and forth on this he is not comfortable. But it is also clear there is such a strong argument for a federal court order overseeing reform here,” said Lopez, now a professor at Georgetown University. “Whether he is doing this wholeheartedly or otherwise, let’s give him credit where credit is due. He is doing that. … He wasn’t doing the right thing last week and maybe he won’t do the right thing next week. But right now, he is doing the right thing.”
Lopez also found Emanuel’s decision to fight the civil rights groups’ lawsuit at the same time he partnered with Madigan curious.
“It’s unclear why it’s a good thing for the people of Chicago to fight the lawsuit brought by the victims while agreeing to fix the problems the victims are pointing out,” she said. “It risks sending a message that this is more political than genuine.”
Sources close to Emanuel privately acknowledge that much of the mayor’s hesitance toward pursuing a consent decree with civil rights groups — or even with Madigan — is rooted in his concerns over police morale and the fact that the city’s shootings and murders have spiked the last two years.
In recent months, Emanuel repeatedly has lauded the city’s officers and has worked to avoid alienating the rank-and-file police he needs to deal with the city’s rampant street violence. As such, Emanuel spent several minutes at Tuesday’s news conference talking about bringing in officers as partners rather than adversaries in the reform effort.
“Acknowledging the mistakes of the past is the only way to learn from them, and we must make and take any steps that we can to make sure they are not repeated again in the future,” Emanuel said. “But the result cannot be that we drag down the men and women that we give the charge to keeping our communities safe. It must be that we build them up so they can make our communities also safe. Reform must reinforce our public safety efforts, not injure them.”
The mayor said several times the city would “pursue reform with our officers, not to them, and not at them.”
The remarks didn’t seem to sway Chicago FOP leadership, which backed Trump for president. Spokesman Martin Preib called the suit “a potential catastrophe for Chicago” that would “only handcuff the police even further.”
“We have worked hard in the last four months of our administration to work with the city and are extremely disappointed by the decision to pursue this route,” Preib wrote. “We will gather with our legal team to consider our options.”
Emanuel has sought to walk a fine line on police matters, and his negotiations with the FOP on a new contract will have ramifications on police reform. Some of the city’s African-American and progressive aldermen have called on the mayor to strip out protections for officers that have been built into the contract over the years.
Asked whether he is concerned about officer morale and its impact on the city’s homicides and shootings, Emanuel acknowledged the crime numbers are not where he’d like them to be and said he’s worried about officer morale, but added that’s always the case.
The possibility of a judge forcing changes on the department doesn’t heighten that concern, Emanuel said, because officers are by and large in favor of the moves.
“I think in the worst of times and the best of times morale is an issue,” he said. “I think we are making gains every day where the rank-and-file know that reforms are in their self-interest because they’ve asked for more training, they’ve asked for more technology, they’ve asked for greater leadership.”
Chicago Tribune’s Hal Dardick and Jason Meisner contributed.