The Department of Justice is poised to release its report detailing the extent of civil rights violations committed by the Chicago Police Department, triggering negotiations that will provide an early sign of how much pressure President-elect Donald Trump’s administration will be willing to exert on cities to reform their police.
The DOJ under President Barack Obama investigated and then negotiated such settlements enforceable by courts, called consent decrees, with roughly 20 cities, announcing the latest one Thursday with Baltimore. While Obama’s DOJ nearly always brought the reform deals to federal courts to guarantee compliance, Trump’s nominee to lead the department, Jeff Sessions, has expressed concerns about using such an aggressive approach.
Here are things to know about the Chicago report, which will be released Friday:
Although the 2014 shooting of a black teenager, Laquan McDonald, sparked the federal government’s civil rights investigation, the Chicago Police Department has long had a reputation for brutality. Most notorious was the use of torture by officers under police commander Jon Burge to force black men to confess to crimes they didn’t commit. That started in the early 1970s and went on for years.
The DOJ launched its investigation of Chicago’s 12,000-member police force in December 2015 after the release of squad car video showing a white officer shooting McDonald 16 times as he walked away holding a small, folded-up knife. The shooting happened more than a year earlier, and city lawyers fought the release of the video. It only happened after a court ordered it, and the officer who killed McDonald wasn’t charged until hours before the video’s release.
During their investigation, members of the DOJ’s civil rights division combed through Chicago police records, rode along with beat cops and held public meetings in largely black neighborhoods.
Unlike the deal announced in Baltimore, there’s no binding deal with Chicago. All that work will be done after Trump’s inauguration. The next critical stage will be closed-door, bilateral negotiations between the DOJ and city officials to reach a detailed settlement. They haven’t typically included deadlines by which to comply, though some consent decrees have set a goal of “sustained compliance” within two to four years.
While Trump’s position on such DOJ investigations isn’t clear, he portrayed himself as staunchly pro-law enforcement while campaigning and was endorsed by many police unions, including Chicago’s.
During confirmation hearings in Washington this week, Trump’s attorney general nominee, Sessions, spoke about consent decrees. He stopped short of flatly rejecting the Obama administration’s approach of making a federal court the main tool for getting a police department to change, but he made his reservations clear.
“The consent decree itself is not necessarily a bad thing,” he said. But they can potentially “undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness. And we need to be careful before we do that.”
Political appointees at the DOJ could argue for altering many of the procedures favored by Obama appointees, but career staffers could also push for continuity.
The DOJ has conducted civil rights investigations of nearly 70 police departments since 1994, when Congress authorized them. They have focused on small departments with fewer than 10 officers to much larger ones like those in Chicago and Puerto Rico, which has 18,000.
Among other cities whose police departments were recently subjected to civil rights investigations are Cleveland and Ferguson, Missouri. The Cleveland investigation was spurred partly by a 2012 incident in which police killed two unarmed black suspects by firing 137 shots into their car.
The Ferguson investigation was spurred by the 2014 killing of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer. The DOJ report on Ferguson was scathing, finding that police and the municipal court system generated city revenue through fines of African-Americans, among other abuses. Six months of talks led to a settlement, but the Ferguson City Council initially rejected it, citing its cost. After receiving assurances the costs would be a more manageable $2.3 million over three years, the council approved the deal.