Several leading community groups, including a local Black Lives Matter organization, filed a class-action lawsuit against Chicago on Wednesday in a bid to bypass or even scuttle a draft agreement between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice that seeks to reform the nation’s second largest police force without federal court oversight.
The 132-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago argues that an overhaul of Chicago’s 12,000-officer force in the wake of a damning civil rights report in January can’t work without the intense scrutiny of a court-appointed monitor answerable to a judge.
“Absent federal court supervision, nothing will improve,” the lawsuit says.
The civil litigation is also a signal that longtime advocates of far-reaching police reforms don’t trust President Donald Trump’s administration.
While Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has expressed skepticism about court involvement, President Barack Obama’s administration saw it as vital to successful reforms. Obama’s Justice Department typically took a city reform plan to a judge to make it legally binding in the form of a consent decree.
The lawsuit filed on behalf of seven groups and six individuals asks for a court to intervene to end what the plaintiffs describe as “abusive policies and practices undergirding the alleged constitutional and state law violations.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration said earlier this month that a draft deal negotiated by the city and the Justice Department — one that foresees a monitor not selected by a court — is being reviewed in Washington.
Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor and one of the more than a dozen plaintiff attorneys involved in the legal action, said reports about the draft agreement — which he called “a backroom deal without any teeth” — influenced the decision to sue now.
“This is the community stepping up when the government refuses to act and when it has long been clear that the city is incapable of acting on its own,” he said.
Emanuel’s chief city lawyer, Edward Siskel, said Chicago officials would have preferred court oversight but were left little choice because the Trump administration didn’t favor it.
“We wish the Department of Justice would have followed through with their commitment to a consent decree — but we are not there,” he told reporters Wednesday. He contended that reforms outside of court supervision had “a proven track record of success.”
Futterman said the city does have a choice now that the lawsuit is filed: Emanuel could give up on the Justice Department altogether and decide to hammer out a court-enforced reform plan with the groups that are suing.
Even if the city sticks with the Justice Department, the judge presiding over the new lawsuit could side with the community groups and mandate reforms via a court order.
“This is a real test for the mayor as to whether he is truly committed to police reform in Chicago,” Futterman said.
Before Trump’s inauguration in January, the Justice Department issued a scathing 161-page report that found deep-rooted civil rights violations by Chicago police, including racial bias, excessive use of force and a “pervasive cover-up culture” among officers. Emanuel committed to a consent decree in a joint statement with Justice Department officials at the time.
The Justice Department launched its civil rights investigation in 2015 after the release of police dashboard camera video showing a white officer shooting a black teenager, Laquan McDonald, 16 times. The video of McDonald’s 2014 death prompted protests and demands for sweeping reforms. The officer who shot the 17-year-old was charged with first-degree murder and is awaiting trial.
Since then, Emanuel has said repeatedly that Chicago will push ahead with reforms, no matter what. His administration has established a new police oversight agency and adopted other practices to hold officers accountable.
Addressing reporters Wednesday, Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson also cited the decision to fit all patrol officers with body cameras.
“I’m not a lawyer, so I won’t speak about the litigation,” he said. “I’m just a cop trying to make this police department better.”
Using lawsuits to prompt overhauls of police departments is rare. A lawsuit filed by community groups in Cincinnati in 2001 did play a central role in kick-starting police reforms that eventually were overseen by a federal court.
Chicago officials point to Washington, D.C., as a city that enacted successful police reforms without a judge. But another plaintiff attorney in the Chicago case, Sheila Bedi, said successful reforms without court scrutiny are “very, very rare.” Only judges, free of political pressure, can rule that police aren’t complying with agreed-to reforms and force them to do so, Bedi said.
The Chicago Police Department is the largest in the U.S. to be investigated by the Justice Department, so court-enforced reforms could end up costing the city more than a deal cut with Trump’s administration.
But Andrew Stroth, another plaintiff attorney, said a police force with deeply engrained problems that aren’t fixed will see more unjustified shootings and more lawsuits that cost city taxpayers. According to the lawsuit, more than 1,600 people have been shot by Chicago police since 1996, more than 90 percent of them black. And lawsuits that alleged police abuses have cost Chicago more than $640 million on settlements.
“Chicago will save money and save lives by having federal judicial oversight,” Stroth said.