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How Chicago could become first test for Trump on police reform (+video)

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The Obama administration on Friday put the Chicago Police Department on path toward aggressive reform. But the Trump administration might have the last word.

Chicago Police Superintendant Eddie Johnson answers questions during a news conference Friday in Chicago. The Justice Department issued a scathing report on civil rights abuses by Chicago's police department.
Teresa Crawford/AP | Caption

In the waning days of its tenure, the Obama administration has set two of America’s most violent cities on an aggressive path to police reform. What the Trump administration does in response will be the first test of how it views the issue. 

President Obama’s Justice Department has repeatedly pressured police departments into strict reform programs enforced by the courts. Baltimore signed one of these consent decrees Thursday, and the Department of Justice announced Friday that Chicago is moving toward a similar agreement.

For Baltimore, signing a consent decree means the Trump administration will have little say in how its reforms move forward; the courts control the process. But in Chicago, where negotiations will continue for months, the business of shaping the decree – or continuing with it at all – will fall to the Trump administration.

President-elect Donald Trump and his cabinet nominees have signaled a shift to a softer strategy that includes more cooperation with cops. The question is whether the Trump administration will bend the upcoming consent decree talks to make Chicago the first test of that approach.

A more collaborative and less punitive approach to police reform in general could be welcome, criminal justice experts say. Some feel Obama has overreached at times, turning potential allies against him.

Yet experts also say that Chicago is not a run-of-the-mill case. The Justice Department’s civil rights investigation, released Friday, found that officers engage “in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force” that is unreasonable and unconstitutional.

The report could create momentum that is hard to reverse, says Jonathan Smith, a former investigator with Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

“Maybe in future cases, we’re going to see a different way [police] reform takes place, but given the report today, it’s a pretty shocking and compelling report, it’s going to be hard for the Department of Justice to walk away.”

In the most difficult cases, consent decrees are often the only option for real reform, he adds.

Collaboration “is a very effective tool, but it only works in certain cases.” In departments “that need more intense intervention, it’s not going to get the job done.”

Chicago vs. Baltimore 

The Justice Department report released Friday pointed to “systemic deficiencies” in training, investigation, and accountability in the Chicago Police Department.  An agreement signed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, committed the city to future reforms.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch said she expects the momentum toward a consent decree to continue despite the change of administrations.

“Yes, the top people at the Department of Justice move on, but this agreement is not dependent on one, or two, or three people,” she said.

Yet the way ahead for Baltimore is clearer.

The Justice Department’s investigation into the Baltimore Police Department began after the city erupted into riots following Freddie Gray’s death in police custody and ended five months ago.

The court-ordered review process announced Thursday will mandate the department to implement all the reforms detailed in the decree – ranging from new policies and tactics to revamped oversight and training. All the costs will be paid by the city.

The steps laid out Friday in Chicago are clearly intended to put the Windy City on the same path. The question now is what the Trump administration will do. 

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, Mr. Trump’s nominee for attorney general, wrote in 2008 that consent decrees are “an exercise of raw power.” During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week he added that he is concerned “that good police officers and good departments can be sued by the Department of Justice when you just have individuals within a department that have done wrong.”

Do consent decrees work?

Experts and former police officials have concerns about consent decrees, too.

Ronal Serpas, who was superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department when it agreed to a consent decree in 2012, says that some of the terms undermined the spirit of reform.

For example, civilian oversight of the department was superseded by the police union’s civil service rules.

“Without discipline you can’t get anything changed,” says Dr. Serpas, now a criminologist at Loyola University in New Orleans. “It sends a message to the department that the change isn’t real.”

Other consent decrees have seen city officials, rank-and-file officers, and their superiors chafe under the costs and requirements. The police union in Seattle sued over the department's consent decree, while New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu tried to get the department's consent decree voided.

Even activists in Chicago question the value of a consent decree, seeing other potential reforms as more potent.

Consent decrees don't involve the people. The people need to be the monitors of the police,” says Frank Chapman, field organizer for the Chicago Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression. “That's why we are talking about having in Chicago an ordinance … that would create an all-elected, all-civilian police accountability council. We see that as the solution and we see that as the way to go for the country.”

But each consent decree is unique, crafted to address the needs of the city that signs it. And there is evidence that consent decrees can help, too.

A review of the Los Angeles Police Department’s nine-year consent decree by three Harvard criminologists found that “the quantity and quality of enforcement activity” rose in that period along with public satisfaction.

“The evidence here shows that with both strong police leadership and strong police oversight, cities can enjoy both respectful and effective policing,” the report concluded.

Different approaches

But many police chiefs and law enforcement experts might appreciate a different approach, adds Serpas. One of the Obama’s more popular reforms was the collaborative program launched by the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services in February 2013

But the problems in Chicago might be beyond such approaches, says Serpas. “The environment there in Chicago means a consent decree may be only option.”

With homicides topping 760 last year – more than in New York and Los Angeles combined – and a crisis in relations between police and the black community, Trump himself has suggested he may be willing to give Chicago some assistance. He tweeted last week that the city “must ask for federal help” if it can’t get a grip on its homicide rate.

But it could be that the Trump administration will focus on less-extreme cases.

“It’s what happens after Baltimore and Chicago” that will test the Trump administration, says Jim Bueermann, executive director of the Police Foundation.

“Those will continue in the direction they’re going, and will be completed or not based on their own merits,” he adds. “It remains to be seen what happens in any other cities … and whether Trump Department of Justice will pursue those inquiries.”

Correspondent Nissa Rhee contributed to this report. Wire material was also used.