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What’s the Deal with Chicago’s Consent Decree?

The 225-page document, which would force independent oversight of CPD, gets its only public hearing Wednesday and Thursday.

Photo: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune

This Wednesday and Thursday, U.S. District Judge Robert Dow Jr. will hold the first and only public hearing on the Chicago Police Department Consent Decree, which he’s overseeing.

From 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., on the 25th floor of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse at 219 South Dearborn Street, members of the public will be allowed to make five-minute statements on the decree, a draft of which was released in July and can be viewed online here.

Ahead of the hearing, here’s everything you need to know about the decree.

What is a consent decree, and why does the CPD have one?

A consent decree is an agreement worked out between two parties in a legal dispute, typically overseen by a court. Like so much else happening now in Chicago, CPD’s consent decree goes back to the Laquan McDonald shooting.

In December 2015, after the video of the shooting was released, Obama’s Justice Department launched a civil rights investigation into CPD. That resulted in a report, released in January 2017, which found the department had used “unconstitutional patterns of force on minority communities.”

The Justice Department and the city agreed to negotiate a consent decree, which would stipulate measures to improve training and record keeping on use of force. But the incoming Trump Administration dropped the demand. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan then stepped in, taking the city to federal court to force it to accept a consent decree.

What’s in the consent decree?

Among the requirements in the draft:

  • Police are “prohibited from using deadly force except in circumstances where there is an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm to an officer or another person.”
  • Chokeholds are prohibited unless deadly force is authorized
  • Police cannot shoot at a moving vehicle “when the vehicle is the only force used against an officer or another person, except…to preserve human life or prevent great bodily harm.”
  • Tasers cannot be used on non-violent suspects.
  • Police must “report and document any reportable use of force” 
  • All field officers must wear body cameras 
  • Officers must undergo annual use of force training
  • The department must expand the Officer Support System to provide services that “seek to minimize the risk of harm from stress, trauma, alcohol and substance abuse and mental illness.”
  • The department must establish a website where police can anonymously report officer misconduct, as well as policies “to encourage and protect CPD members who report potential misconduct by other CPD members.” Also, the department must “prohibit all forms of retaliation, intimidation, coercion, or adverse action against any person who reports misconduct…” 
  • The Civilian Office of Police Accountability will investigate allegations of sexual misconduct. The office will also be allowed to participate in investigations of shootings by officers, with its chief administrator present for the first viewing of video evidence.

How is a consent decree enforced?

CPD’s consent decree will be overseen by an independent monitor appointed by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Dow Jr.

Dow is looking for a monitor with expertise in policing, law, and civil rights, per the document. The monitor will conduct compliance reviews, and CPD employees who violate the agreement will be subject to departmental discipline.

Also of note: The monitor’s records won’t be subject to Freedom of Information Laws. As an agent of the court, “the records maintained by the Monitor will be treated confidentially, and will not be deemed public records subject to public inspection under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, or subject to discovery in any litigation.”

How long will the consent decree last?

After three years, the monitor will conduct a “comprehensive assessment” to determine whether CPD is in compliance with the new rules. The court will then decide whether to renew the agreement.

Per the draft, the city will “endeavor to achieve full compliance within five years,” at which point the court will hold a hearing on whether the decree should be terminated.

Why is the Trump Administration fighting this?

Last week, in an address to the Chicago Crime Commission, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the consent decree a “colossal mistake” and an “insult” to police officers. He compared it to CPD’s settlement with the ACLU to end stop and frisk policing in Chicago, which he blamed for the city’s 57 percent increase in murders from 2015 to 2016.

The consent decree specifies that if that ACLU settlement is terminated, “CPD will include all stops effectuated by CPD members that were subject to the ACLU Agreement in the assessment required by this Part.”

How is the consent decree an issue in the mayoral race?

Most of the mayoral candidates favor the consent decree.

Lori Lightfoot, former chair of the Police Board, cites other police departments which have used consent decrees to achieve positive change in their police departments. “Los Angeles and other cities have used the consent decree process [to] dramatically change the face and the content of policing — bringing more community in, providing training and oversight and accountability for police officers,” she told me in an interview earlier this year. “The police department is not going to make these tough choices on its own.”

Then there’s Garry McCarthy, who was police chief when McDonald was killed. McCarthy believes the paperwork required by the decree will force officers to act more like clerks than cops.

“Supervisors are going to spend less time supervising and more time documenting,” he told me. "We’re going to be taking officers off the street to do these clerical duties, and investing in a cottage industry in this country for police monitors who make lots and lots and lots of money.”

He adds: "It takes a really long time to get out of a consent decree. You know why? Because it’s up to the monitor, who’s getting paid. For all these reasons, I have to question why we’re moving forward with this.”

What’s next?

After this week’s hearings, the judge will decide whether to give the decree his final approval. If he does, the city and Attorney General will choose a monitor (also subject to Dow’s approval).

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