CHICAGO — A federal judge on Thursday approved a far-reaching plan for court-supervised reforms of the beleaguered Chicago Police Department, two years after a U.S. Justice Department report found a long history of racial bias and excessive use of force by officers in the nation’s third-largest city.
Judge Robert Dow’s approval of the consent decree — without ordering any notable changes of the draft presented to him — is a culmination of a process that started with the release of video in 2015 showing white police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times. It led to the Justice Department investigation.
The 236-page plan negotiated between Illinois and Chicago officials calls for more community policing, more data collection on how some 13,500 officers work and expanded training on the use of force. One provision will require officers to file paperwork each time they point a gun at someone, even if they don’t fire.
In his 16-page ruling, Dow calls the plan “an important step” to repair the damaged relationship between the police department and members of the community it has sworn to protect.
“But it is a beginning, not an end,” he said. “The consent decree is not a panacea, nor is it a magic wand.”
Dow said selecting and then appointing an independent monitor — a critical player in the process — could happen by March 1. The person would ensure that hundreds of changes called for in how police work actually happen and report to the judge on whether the city is hitting reform benchmarks.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson issued a joint statement later Thursday, touting that after seven attempts at major reforms over the last century, “Chicago now has an enforceable agreement that will stand the test of time.” They said it will ensure that “there are no U-turns on that road to reform.”
The ACLU of Illinois also heralded Dow’s approval. Kathy Hunt Muse, who oversees the group’s police-practices project, called it “a historic day,” adding the consent decree “is the catalyst for change we have been waiting for.”
Dow cited some complaints about the tens of millions of dollars the plan will cost over what could take a decade or more to implement. That includes a $2.85 million annually for a monitoring team.
He noted Chicago has paid over $650 million since 2004 for not fully reforming the department in litigation and settlements over police abuse. He said if the city had spent $2.85 million a year since its founding in 1790, it still wouldn’t have reached that lofty amount from the past 15 years alone.
Of the thousands of comments in filings, letters, emails and a special two-day hearing to gauge public opinion on the plan, Dow said the majority was supportive of the reforms — with the notable exception of the police union.
Union leaders took particular exception to the gun-pointing provision, which they argued would cause officers to hesitate to draw weapons at times when their lives are actually in danger.
Among other provisions are that officers issue verbal warnings before any use of force and provide life-saving aid after force is used.
“Some provisions have been criticized, either as too strict or too lax,” Dow wrote. “But, on balance, the vast majority of public commenters have endorsed the vast majority of the decree’s provisions — and many who think the decree should go further are content to accept the decree as it is.”
The plan would build on some changes the department already has made, such as issuing body cameras to every officer.
Former Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveiled the 200-plus page decree in July.
Madigan sued the city in 2017 to ensure court oversight was a central feature of any reform plan. Emanuel didn’t oppose the legal action. The lawsuit killed a draft plan negotiated with President Donald Trump’s administration that didn’t envision a court role in reforming the department — a departure from practice during President Barack Obama’s administration of using courts to change troubled departments.
Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions criticized the proposed Chicago consent decree, saying it unfairly maligned good officers. The department filed an 11-page statement of interest in October, saying the plan would deprive police of flexibility to do their jobs right. It criticized criteria meant to assess police compliance as vague.
The damning Justice Department report released in the waning days of the Obama administration in January 2017 found that deep-rooted civil rights abuses permeate Chicago’s force, including racial bias, a tendency to use excessive force and a “pervasive cover-up culture.”