Days after backing off his commitment to have a federal judge enforce reforms meant to fix the scandal-plagued Chicago Police Department, Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday suggested his tentative deal with President Donald Trump’s administration to keep the issue out of court would yield the same results.
The mayor’s about-face, which trickled out of City Hall late Friday, comes after he signed an agreement in January stating he would seek federal court oversight of the police reform process. That came after a 13-month Obama Justice Department investigation, spurred by the Laquan McDonald police shooting, found a broken Police Department with a pattern of excessive force and misconduct.
Instead, Emanuel now wants to sign a memorandum of agreement with Trump’s Justice Department that would include an independent monitor of the department but no court enforcement. Trump has signaled a retreat from the civil rights investigations and court-enforced agreements former President Barack Obama used to drive changes in troubled police departments.
On Monday, Emanuel defended his decision, suggesting there was little difference between the two approaches, while some African-American aldermen who previously had called for a Police Department overhaul were mostly indifferent. The mayor suggested the results of the presidential election played a role in the changed approach, though Trump already had been elected when Emanuel signed an agreement to seek court oversight of the Police Department.
“There’s many roads to reform, but they all hit the same destination. As I said before, we’re going to stay on the road to reform,” Emanuel said. “This is the model that is exactly the right way — an independent set of eyes to help implement exactly what we’ve agreed to with the Obama Justice Department, and I think, given where things are and given there was an election, this allows us to achieve the same goal with independent eyes that we negotiated with the Obama administration and those principles.”
But the top Obama Justice official who oversaw the federal investigation has called Emanuel’s tentative deal with the Trump administration “woefully inadequate,” the Chicago Tribune reported Friday. Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, said Chicago’s police problems were “deep and long-standing,” and she predicted the out-of-court agreement would not have any teeth.
The mayor made his brief comments about the new agreement with Trump officials at the ribbon-cutting of a new cybersecurity firm in the Loop. Emanuel, who declined a Tribune interview request, walked away from reporters without addressing Gupta’s criticisms and ignored questions about why he would not still seek court oversight. Reporters waited outside to ask further questions, and Emanuel’s police detail found an alternative exit for the mayor.
The Emanuel administration said a similar out-of-court arrangement was used years ago in Washington, D.C., to address police reform. Many larger cities with troubled departments, however, have entered into court-monitored consent decrees with the federal government.
Video of the 2014 shooting of black teen McDonald by a white Chicago police officer spurred murder charges for the cop, weeks of street protests and the Obama-era civil rights investigation into the Police Department.
In April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a widespread review of Justice Department agreements with dozens of law enforcement agencies, including 14 federal consent decrees with police departments.
Gupta pointed out it was less than six months ago that Emanuel and the city agreed to carry the police reform process into federal court. She said neither the Justice Department nor the city has formally disavowed that pledge.
“When I went to Chicago with the attorney general (Loretta Lynch) and announced the findings, we announced an agreement in principle … to negotiate a consent decree to be filed in federal court,” Gupta said. “We reached those agreements because those parties understood the gravity and scope (of the problem).”
Experts and reform advocates have noted that even in the absence of federal pressure, Emanuel still could partner with community groups and seek judicial oversight of reform efforts. The mayor did not respond to a question on whether he had considered that option.
Lori Lightfoot, whom Emanuel appointed as president of the city’s Police Board and as chairwoman of a police reform task force, said the community must be engaged in the process or the “final product will have zero legitimacy.” Lightfoot, though, didn’t address whether Emanuel should partner with community groups and still seek a consent decree. She also said it was too soon to say whether the tentative agreement with the Trump administration would carry the same weight as a court-ordered consent decree.
Lightfoot did, however, say if the “Department of Justice remains interested and engaged, I see that as a positive,” and called Emanuel’s tentative agreement a framework that “has promise,” but that the “details will matter.”
Lightfoot also suggested a need to work within the constraints of the Trump Justice Department.
“The world in which we now live (is with) a Department of Justice with a seeming hostility toward consent decrees, and we need to play the cards that we are dealt,” said Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor.
At City Hall, African-American aldermen who have pushed for police reforms didn’t voice much concern over the fact that police reform efforts wouldn’t have the force of a federal judge behind them.
“I think that this is a step in the right direction,” said Ald. Howard Brookins, 21st, a longtime advocate of police reform and a critic of how cops are disciplined. “I’m optimistic that while this isn’t what a lot of the advocates had hoped for, this is still a step in the right direction and about the best we could do out of this Justice Department.”
Ald. Roderick Sawyer, chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said he was leery of the prospect of a judge enforcing changes to the Police Department anyway.
“I think this will work,” said Sawyer, 6th. “I’m also not really a big fan of court-ordered mandates, but if we have somebody just kind of looking over our shoulder to make sure what we’re doing is appropriate, I think it’s acceptable. And I think the citizens will think it’s appropriate.”
Chicago Tribune’s Annie Sweeney contributed.