5 Years After Chicago’s Consent Decree Took Effect, Little Urgency Surrounds Reform Push

Chicago Police Department Headquarters, 3510 S. Michigan Ave. (Michael Izquierdo / WTTW News)Chicago Police Department Headquarters, 3510 S. Michigan Ave. (Michael Izquierdo / WTTW News)

Five years after a federal court order requiring the Chicago Police Department to change the way it trains, supervises and disciplines officers took effect, little urgency surrounds the reform effort — despite the growing cost to taxpayers of police misconduct and persistently high levels of crime and violence on the South and the West sides.

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Neither Mayor Brandon Johnson nor Chicago Police Supt. Larry Snelling publicly marked the fifth anniversary of the implementation of the court order, known as the consent decree, on Friday. The wide-ranging roadmap for reform was prompted by a 2017 federal investigation that found officers routinely violated the constitutional rights of Black and Latino Chicagoans.

CPD has fully met just 6% of the court order’s requirements, according to the most recent report by the team monitoring the city’s compliance with the consent decree released in November.

Since the consent decree took effect on March 1, 2019, the monitoring team has billed Chicago taxpayers for more than $15 million through Aug. 31, according to bills analyzed by WTTW News. That team has unrestricted access to CPD officials, facilities and data as the team keeps tabs on efforts to remake the department.

Originally expected to be completed within five years, the consent decree will remain in effect for at least another three years, until 2027. That means Chicago taxpayers will have no choice but to pay millions more to cover the cost of the work performed by the independent monitoring team led by attorney Maggie Hickey to determine whether the city is making good on its promises of reform.

Hickey and her team are responsible for reviewing new policies drafted by police brass, ensuring officers are properly trained on the new procedures and that the new rules are implemented and followed.

In their first months in office, Johnson and Snelling have focused their public safety initiatives nearly exclusively on efforts to roll back the surge of crime and violence that began during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic and has yet to fully recede. The men have promised to take a holistic approach that focuses on the root causes of crime, and made a concerted effort to boost officers’ morale.

When pressed by reporters, Johnson has repeatedly said he is committed to ensuring that the Chicago Police Department “engages in constitutional policing.” Johnson expanded the size of CPD’s Office of Constitutional Policing and Reform, the CPD division responsible for implementing the consent decree, by 45 positions, and increased its 2024 budget by approximately 18% to $582 million.

But Johnson and Snelling may be forced to concentrate their attention on the city’s sluggish progress in complying with the consent decree in the coming months, as warnings from Hickey that the city’s efforts are unacceptable grow louder and more persistent.

Hickey urged police brass and city officials in November to quickly take action to “address unfulfilled reforms and achieve the outcomes intended by the Consent Decree.”

“We urge the city to immediately make short- and long-term efforts to ensure required reforms become daily practices,” Hickey said in a statement. “The city’s new administration and incoming superintendent must meet this moment.”

The monitoring team’s next report, expected by the end of June, “will include our assessment of whether the outcomes intended by the consent decree are being achieved and whether changes are necessary to expedite and sustain reform,” according to a statement from Hickey, who is prohibited by the court order from discussing her work in public.

It is unclear what changes, if any, the team will order city and police officials to make. But those changes could be costly for taxpayers and unpopular with members of the City Council who, like Johnson and Snelling, prefer to focus on efforts to reduce crime and violence rather than reform.

However, advocates for reform have long urged city officials to see the two issues as inexorably linked. Without systemic reform, Chicagoans cannot trust that they will be treated fairly by officers or the criminal justice system, fueling cycles of violence with a lack of accountability, advocates say.

There was no sign during a Feb. 5 hearing about the city’s compliance with the consent decree held by the City Council’s Police and Fire Committee that Hickey’s warnings had caused alarm bells to sound at City Hall.

Instead of focusing on why the city has fully compiled with just 6% of the consent decree, several alderpeople peppered CPD brass and city lawyers with questions about what it means to be in preliminary compliance, secondary compliance and full compliance with the requirements of the consent decree.

CPD is in preliminary compliance with approximately 50% of the consent decree, which means the department has finalized written policies addressing those items. CPD is in secondary compliance with approximately 29% of the court order, which means that a majority of officers have been trained on those new policies.

That was good enough for Ald. Samantha Nugent (39th Ward), who represents a Far Northwest Side ward that is home to many police officers and often votes in lockstep with the city’s largest police union, which has opposed the consent decree since it was first proposed in 2017. Union leaders frequently complain its requirements have made officers’ jobs almost impossible.

“We are not perfect, but we are making progress,” Nugent said.

CPD is considered to be in full compliance with each requirement of the consent decree, which is broken down into 714 paragraphs that require officials to change the way CPD operates, when the department proves to the monitoring team that CPD is complying with the new policies.

Chief Angel Novalez, the head of CPD’s Office of Constitutional Policing and Reform, told alderpeople it was very difficult and time-consuming to get revised policies approved by the monitoring team, to train officers and to demonstrate the policies had been implemented.

CPD is now on the clock to at least start making progress toward fulfilling a major requirement of the consent decree by developing a staffing model that “considers data-driven resource allocation methods incorporating district-specific factors, including, but not limited to, calls for service, public violence and property crime.”

CPD officials have until May 1 to hire an outside organization to conduct that study, under the terms of an ordinance crafted by Ald. Matt Martin (47th Ward) that was unanimously approved by the City Council in February.

However, there is no evidence CPD officials have made any progress on implementing a system designed to alert police brass about which officers have been the subject of repeated police misconduct allegations, as required by the consent decree.

There have been seven full-throated efforts to reform the Chicago Police Department — none of which have been successful.

The Legacy of Laquan McDonald

The series of events that led to the consent decree began on Oct. 20, 2014, when now former Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times, killing him.

More than a year later, a judge would side with journalists and force officials to release dashcam video of McDonald’s murder, triggering widespread protests and upending Chicago politics. Amid the tumult, the U.S. Department of Justice, then led by appointees of former President Barack Obama, launched a federal investigation into CPD.

But shortly after that probe found systemic problems within CPD, former President Donald Trump took office and instructed the Department of Justice to drop efforts to ensure police departments across the country did not violate the civil rights of Black and Latino residents.

That prompted former Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to sue the city to force it to enter into a consent decree, and then Mayor Rahm Emanuel reluctantly agreed to the court order.

Emanuel repeatedly vowed there would be “no U-turns on the road to reform.”

But less than a year after the court order took full effect, Emanuel announced he would not seek a third term, bowing out just weeks before a jury convicted Van Dyke of second-degree murder for shooting McDonald as the teen moved away from officers.

Instead, it is now the responsibility of Emanuel’s successor’s successor, Johnson, to make good on Emanuel’s promise that the consent decree results in “a better city, a better CPD and safer streets.”

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

A Safer City is supported, in part, by the Sue Ling Gin Foundation Initiative for Reducing Violence in Chicago. 

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