Baltimore and Chicago: A tale of two police departments
Mayor Rahm Emanuel describes a tentative agreement for police reform with President Donald Trump’s administration. Emanuel has backed off a previous agreement to seek court-enforced reforms. June 5, 2017 (Bill Ruthhart / Chicago Tribune)
In back-to-back news conferences on Jan. 12 and 13, officials from the U.S. Department of Justice stood alongside the leaders of two cities — first Baltimore, then Chicago — to assure citizens that efforts to overhaul their troubled police departments would not be derailed by a new administration.
Both cities had been subjected to rigorous investigations that were expected to lead to years of oversight, with a court-appointed monitor reporting to a federal judge. But incoming President Donald Trump and his soon-to-be Attorney General Jeff Sessions were scornful of such arrangements. They believe that worrying about the civil rights of suspects gets in the way of fighting crime.
That’s the same attitude that poisoned the relationship between police and public in Chicago and Baltimore. It jeopardized all the hard work those cities had invested in rebuilding that trust.
So on Jan. 12, Baltimore’s leaders and then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that they’d signed a consent decree committing the city to specific reforms and filed it in federal court that morning. The next day, the Justice Department released a report on its hurriedly completed investigation of Chicago’s police department, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel pledged to continue working toward a consent decree, too. Count us among those who doubted, from the start, that it would happen. And now Emanuel has confirmed that it won’t.
Instead, the city wants the Justice Department to sign off on a plan that calls for an independent monitor but no court enforcement.
Who would select the independent monitor? Recall that the Independent Police Review Authority — the toothless disciplinary body that almost never found a cop guilty of wrongdoing — was joined at the hip with City Hall attorneys and Emanuel’s spin staff.
What reforms are included in the plan? Who would enforce them and how? What’s the timeline?
City Hall isn’t sharing details about the tentative agreement, and Emanuel isn’t taking questions. Transparency and public engagement apparently left town with Lynch.
Contrast it with what happened in Baltimore: That city’s leaders, too, could have ducked a consent decree. One of Sessions’ first actions was to ask a federal judge not to move forward with the agreement until the new Justice team had completed its review of all such pacts nationwide. City officials asked the judge to deny the attorney general’s request.
"I want to say to the community in particular that the police department is absolutely dedicated to the consent decree process," Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said. "There’s no backroom deals. There’s no sleight of hand. It’ll make us better, it’ll make the city better, it’ll make our relationships with the community better."
Days later, U.S. District Judge James Bredar approved the consent decree.
The message to Baltimore residents: The Justice Department is no longer invested in reforming our police department. But we are.
That’s not the vibe Chicagoans are getting from Emanuel. The Justice Department’s exit presented him with the opportunity to go it alone, and nobody should be surprised that he took it.
But we have to wonder if he’s forgotten the uproar over his initial attempt to control the review of the police department after a white Chicago cop shot black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times. As calls rose for the Justice Department to step in, Emanuel resisted outside scrutiny — until he was overwhelmed by the public outcry.
The threat of a consent decree motivated Chicago to break a decadeslong cycle of crises followed by promises that were soon abandoned. Now the pressure’s off. "There’s many roads to reform, but they all hit the same destination," Emanuel said this week. In Chicago, though, the road to reform has always hit a wall.
How is Emanuel’s latest oversight plan any different?
Whatever it is, he probably won’t have much trouble selling it to Trump’s Justice Department. He’s going to have a much harder time selling it to Chicago.
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