Head Of Chicago Law Department Urges Reform | WBEZ
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Outgoing Head of Chicago Law Department Urges Further Police Reform

The departing head of Chicago’s Law Department says police reform should not be dependent on the city’s agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Steve Patton, who has served as the city’s corporation counsel since 2011, is stepping down a week after the DOJ wrapped up its year-long investigation of the Chicago Police Department. Patton had worked on a deal in which the city agreed to negotiate in good faith toward a court-enforced “consent decree” and the hiring of a federal monitor.

But the future of Chicago’s potential consent decree remains unclear under the administration of President Donald Trump.

“The answer to that, as the mayor has made clear, is we can’t control whether Attorney General (Jeff) Sessions, or the Justice Department, want to negotiate a consent decree,” Patton said. “We can, and should, undertake all of those initiatives and reforms (outlined in the DOJ report), even if the new administration elects not to proceed with the negotiation and signing of the consent decree.”

Patton spoke with WBEZ’s Melba Lara about his time as city attorney and what he sees as next steps for Chicago.

Melba Lara: It’s probably fair to say that the biggest crisis you faced was the Laquan McDonald scandal. Why did the city hold onto that video and was that a mistake?

Steve Patton: For one reason and one reason alone: it was purely and simply to avoid the risk of interfering with a pending criminal investigation. The stakes with interfering here were greatly highlighted by the fact that, as I think everyone now recognizes, that was the most horrific police misconduct that I’ve seen in my tenure here. If there were ever a criminal investigation that one would not want to inadvertently mess up, it would be that one.

I hope to be measured by, and I think all of us do, not only by how we handle the challenge of the moment, but how do we learn and how do we make things better going forward? One of the things I’m proud of is, in the wake of Laquan McDonald, we’ve set about the hard task of coming up with a better way to deal with video evidence like the video tape there.

Lara: Having watched city government up close for the last five years, what do you think is the biggest weakness in the way our city government functions?

Patton: The biggest weakness I see in city government is there’s just so much institutional inertia, and oftentimes an unwillingness to want to accept ownership and responsibility. Sometimes good public servants just get beat up, no matter what they do, that there’s a tendency to figure out the best way to survive, the best way to not get thrown under the bus, the best way to not be blamed for a bad decision is to make no decision at all.   

Lara: What one accomplishment are you proudest of during your tenure?

Patton: There are many. Among the list is achieving substantial compliance with the Shakman Decree and eliminating political hiring. It took 43 years, it was one of the reasons I agreed to take this job. Resolving a large number of Burge cases we inherited and negotiating and securing passage of a landmark reparations ordinance. More recently, quarterbacking the city’s response to the DOJ investigation and helping to complete that investigation in a record time.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Press play above to hear the full conversation. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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