A new memo from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is raising questions about the future of federal oversight of the Chicago Police Department.
On Monday, the Justice Department made a sudden request in federal court for more time to see how proposed police reforms in Baltimore might conflict with the aggressive crime-fighting approach favored by Sessions.
The government’s request for a 90-day continuance came three days before a scheduled hearing before a federal judge, and just hours after Sessions announced he had ordered a sweeping review of the Justice Department’s interactions with local law enforcement, including existing or proposed consent decrees.
It provided an early glimpse of the attorney general’s stance on police department oversight and his ambivalence about mandating widespread change of local law enforcement agencies.
Sessions, an Alabama Republican who cultivated a tough-on-crime reputation during 20 years in the Senate, has repeatedly expressed concern that lengthy investigations of a police department can malign an entire agency. That view reflects a dramatic break from President Barack Obama’s administration, which saw such probes as essential in holding local law enforcement accountable for unconstitutional practices.
The review renewed questions about the fate of negotiations with Chicago’s police department after a report released in the final days of Lynch’s tenure found officers there had violated the constitutional rights of residents for years.
Sessions has not committed to such an agreement and has repeatedly said he believes broad investigations of police departments risk unfairly smearing entire agencies and harming officer morale. He has also suggested that officers’ reluctance to aggressively police has contributed to a spike in violence in some cities.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police Superintendent Eddie Johnson issued a joint statement responding to Sessions’ memo.
“We can only speak for our intentions, we can’t speak for the federal government’s,” the statement reads. “Reform is in our self-interest and that is why Chicago has been, is, and always will be committed to reform.”
“The [Chicago] police department didn’t get broken overnight. This isn’t a problem that just emerged in the last few months or weeks or years,” said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “And it’s going to take a long time to fix the problem. The solution is going to transcend any individual mayor, any individual commissioner of police, or commander at any sub-station.”
Patrick Smith is a WBEZ producer and reporter. Follow him @pksmid. WBEZ reporter Benjamin Payne and the Associated Press contributed to this report.