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Why Are There 2 Lawsuits Calling For Federal Oversight Of Chicago Police Reform?

Lawyers representing a handful of community groups that sued the city in an effort to get a federal judge to enforce police reform in Chicago were back in court on Friday. But how their case will play out is unclear.  

On Tuesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel agreed to the federal oversight after Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a similar lawsuit.

Now that there are two lawsuits both asking for federal oversight, at stake is who will have an official say in defining what police reform will look like. Here is a breakdown of what’s happened so far — and what may happen next.

OK, I  haven’t  been following this so far. Tell me the basics. What’s happened?

In January, the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report that detailed abuses throughout the Chicago Police Department. The report added that reform was unlikely to happen without oversight from a federal judge.

Emanuel initially indicated a willingness to negotiate a court-enforceable agreement, but then new U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions criticized any plans that would require a federal judge to monitor a local police department. So in June, Emanuel pursued a less aggressive agreement with the Justice Department. A “memorandum of agreement” would not have been court-enforced — much to the dismay of many local reform advocates.

But this week there was yet another turn. Madigan also sued the city in an attempt to instead force Emanuel to negotiate a court-enforceable agreement. She said she was stepping up to fill shoes that Sessions and the DOJ had left empty. The final plan will likely outline goals for reform in something called a consent decree.

The mayor said Tuesday that the city would negotiate with Madigan to create a possible consent decree — but what exactly what will be in it is still up for grabs.

Wait, what’s a consent decree? What could it cover?

A consent decree is when two parties settle a lawsuit with an agreement that a judge will enforce. In this case, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, City of Chicago lawyers and possibly others (we’ll get to that in a bit) could negotiate a plan for police reform. For example, the consent decree could set goals for training for police officers, how the department disciplines officers, or its use of force policies.

So there are now two lawsuits asking for federal oversight of police reform?

Yes, exactly. Madigan wasn’t the first person to file a lawsuit against the city in an attempt to force it to agree to a consent decree. This summer, people who claimed they were abused by police officers partnered with groups like Black Lives Matter in a lawsuit similar to the one filed by Madigan. The city moved to have that lawsuit dismissed last week, but a lawyer representing the community groups said they will move forward with the case. At stake is who gets an official say in what types of reforms could be imposed.

Black Lives Matter, which was listed on that lawsuit, released a statement slamming Emanuel and Madigan for trying to make a deal that just involved politicians. They said that any agreement that resulted from their negotiations alone wouldn’t “end the rampant police crimes of murder, torture, racial profiling, and collusion with criminal elements.”

If a judge doesn’t dismiss the community lawsuit, as the city has requested, the two lawsuits could potentially be heard by the same judge at the same time.

Could the community groups have a role in Madigan’s lawsuit?

Madigan said she will negotiate the agreement with the Emanuel administration, but stressed that she wants public input what types of reforms should be included. But she wasn’t very specific about what that meant. Here are two ways community groups might be involved:

  • Madigan could seek community input in the form of panels, interviews, comments or meetings. But a lawyer representing the community groups said they want to do more than just be heard. They want an official role in making decisions about what reforms will be implemented and enforcing the agreement.
  • One way to get more say would be if a judge allowed them to become a party in Madigan’s suit. To do so, the community groups, which include individuals who claim they were victims of police violence, might argue the individuals or groups would have their rights directly affected by the issues expected to be addressed in the lawsuit, said Ben Wolf, a lawyer with the Illinois ACLU. If a judge let that happen, it could give peopled added official authority to negotiate parts of the the consent decree that directly affect them.

How are police reacting to the idea of a consent decree?

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson stood by Madigan when she announced the lawsuit. He said the police department was committed to participating in this reform.

Martin Preib, a spokesperson for the union that represents the city’s police officers, had a very different take. He called the idea of a consent decree “a potential catastrophe. In a written statement, he said crime is “exploding” in Chicago because “police have been so handcuffed from doing their job by the intense anti-police movement” and a consent decree would make that worse.

Prieb said the police union is considering its legal options. Similar to community groups, the union could argue they should be part of any negotiations that could result in a consent decree that affects them.

If the union believes the final consent decree violates any of the police union members rights, they could also sue at that point. Other police unions have made similar moves.

Shannon Heffernan reports on criminal justice for WBEZ. Follow her at @shannon_h.

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