Nearly two years after Mayor Lori Lightfoot won election on a platform of police reform, a new report from a court-appointed expert tasked with tracking City Hall’s progress shows the city is still falling short of its police reform goals but could be turning a corner.
The report filed in federal court Tuesday night by independent monitor Maggie Hickey found that between March 1 and Dec. 31, 2020, Chicago missed the majority of its deadlines in the federal court-ordered police reform plan, known as a consent decree.
However, the report does show signs of progress. Hickey’s team, which is independent from the department and has sweeping investigative powers, found the city to be “in at least preliminary compliance” with 154 consent decree requirements, and out of compliance on 120 of its obligations. That percentage still adds up to a failing grade, but it is the first time the monitoring team has determined the city actually met more of its obligations than it missed.
The report provides an in-depth look at policing in Chicago as the country continues to grapple with police violence and brutality, particularly in communities of color.
“Ultimately, we will know that reform is taking root when community members see and feel it in their neighborhoods,” Hickey said in a statement.
Following the fallout from the Laquan McDonald killing by police, Chicago entered into the legally-binding consent decree in response to a blistering report from the U.S. Department of Justice that found the city engaged in racist and abusive policing practices.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois said two years into the consent decree, Chicago’s “Black and brown neighborhoods are seeing little, if any, change” in policing.
Miracle Boyd, a youth organizer with the group GoodKids MadCity, said she has not seen any improvement over the past two years. Boyd was hit in the mouth by a police officer during a protest last year. She said if anything, police abuse has gotten worse in Chicago since the start of the consent decree.
Chicago’s last three top cops, including current Superintendent David Brown, have hailed the consent decree as an essential blueprint for the Chicago Police Department to become more trusted, respected and effective. Those leaders have reorganized the department in an effort to better meet the demands of the consent decree.
But according to Hickey, CPD is still falling short of its promises. A big sticking point, according to the monitoring team, is the department’s ongoing struggle to engage with “underrepresented communities most impacted by policing.”
“It is crucial for the community to have a voice in reforming its police department. While the CPD has made some progress, there is still much work to be done,” Hickey said in a statement.
Northwestern University law professor Sheila Bedi said meaningful community engagement was necessary in order for the consent decree to “live up to its transformational potential.”
“What the monitor’s report makes clear is that the city … is failing to implement the consent decree in a way that truly engages the communities most affected by police violence,” Bedi said.
She said a controversy last fall, in which CPD convened a “use of force working group” to review department policies and then rejected almost all of the group’s suggestions, is emblematic of the city’s failed community engagement.
“Over and over again, the department is ignoring feedback from people who are overpoliced, from people who want safe communities,” Bedi said. “And the monitoring team makes note of the fact that the department is refusing to implement recommendations that are coming from the general public.”
But Robert Boik, executive director for CPD’s Office of Constitutional Policing and Reform, said the department has gotten much better at community engagement.
“If you look at the department from a few years ago, even, we’d never put things out for public comment. We never did outreach per se, to determine what the community’s view would be on a specific policy area. And now that is becoming a routine part of our business,” Boik said.
In a joint statement, Brown and Lightfoot said the new report “reflects our continued commitment to meaningful reform.”
“While much work remains to be done, this report exhibits a significant step up from both
previous reporting periods,” the statement reads. “It is important that we also acknowledge and take ownership of the opportunities to do better, the road to reform remains a marathon, not a sprint.”
The consent decree took effect on March 1, 2019. Chicago U.S. District Court Judge Robert Dow, who is overseeing the consent decree, charged Hickey with tracking the city’s reform progress and making semiannual reports to the court.
So far all of Hickey’s monitoring reports have found Chicago lacking. Those have prompted promises of improvement from city leaders. But Chicago is still way behind on its legal obligations.
Last month, the city filed its own 172-page report on its consent decree progress. According to that report, the department created or revised 112 policies between March 2020 and the end of the year in an effort to comply with the consent decree. Among those new policies was a rule barring officers from retaliating against their colleagues who violated the department’s so-called “code of silence.”
Many of the reforms in the consent decree are focused on holding cops accountable for misdeeds, and much of Chicago’s complex discipline system actually sits outside of the department’s control. In an interview last month, Brown said the city’s discipline system for officers — involving multiple city agencies and often taking years to process cases — remains a “puzzle” to him.
“It is the most convoluted disciplinary system I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Brown, who took over CPD’s top job a year ago after serving as the police chief in Dallas. “It just goes in so many different directions and comes back, and the timing of it is [too long].”
In the new report, the monitoring team said it too is still working “to further its understanding of the City’s complex accountability systems.” The monitoring team credits the city for progress on holding bad cops accountable, but said that progress is hampered by the department’s bureau of internal affairs’ resistance to the consent decree.
“I certainly wouldn’t characterize the work going on in the bureau of internal affairs as resistance,” said Boik.
Instead, he said there’s been “a healthy debate” within CPD about certain policy demands.
Overall the report says the city is failing to meet the majority of its accountability obligations in the consent decree. Those “out of compliance” requirements include making it easier to file misconduct complaints, improving the process for investigating domestic violence allegations against officers and creating a system for tracking officer complaints.
“In some ways, the entire decree rises and falls on the accountability provisions. It doesn’t matter what the policies say if there isn’t a process for ensuring that there’s compliance, and accountability is the way to get that done,” Bedi said.