Originally published in VICE on June 8, 2017.
Ja’Mal Green has had an exhausting year. Last July, after a protest he helped organize in response to the police shootings that killed Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, Green was arrested for allegedly attacking Chicago police, put in jail with a $350,000 bail, and ultimately indictedon nine felony charges. Green and his friends and family denied the allegations, but after nine months of back-and-forth, he decided to take the prosecutors’ deal: plead guilty to one misdemeanor count of resisting police in exchange for dropping all felony charges.
Green, a 21-year-old activist in Chicago, says he wanted to alleviate his stress and move on with his life—but insists that even the misdemeanor charge was bogus.
“As a black male coming up in Chicago, I mean we all had that experience of being racially profiled, and officers treating us like we’re suspects and criminal,” Green told VICE. “Even at protests, you go through so much crap, they yell out slurs, hit you for no reason. Getting arrested and charged showed me first-hand how corrupt the police [are].”
Green’s experience roughly coincided with a sweeping investigation of Chicago cops by the Justice Department under Barack Obama, which found evidence of routine civil rights violations and excessive use of force. After the scathing federal report came out in January, Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, signed an “agreement in principle” to negotiate a consent decree, or a legal settlement between a city and the feds overseen by a federal judge. This wasn’t unusual: The Obama administration routinely opened investigations into police departments, looking closely at 25 of them between 2009 and 2016, and entering into consent decrees with 14.
But President Donald Trump’s attorney general Jeff Sessions has expressed deep skepticism about consent decrees, once calling them “undemocratic” and “dangerous.” In February, Sessions went so far as to dismiss his own department’s 161-page report on Chicago cops, suggesting he hadn’t read it, but that it seemed “pretty anecdotal.”
Now the question is whether Chicago will essentially use Donald Trump’s presidency to avoid changing the way local cops do their jobs, and more broadly, whether other big-city mayors with relatively progressive political profiles might hide behind a pro-cop White House to avoid aggressively responding to legacies of police abuse.
Even as some cities like Baltimore commit to using consent decrees to overhaul police practices, Mayor Emanuel no longer feels a federal judge is necessary to ensure police reform actually happens in his city. Instead, the mayor wants Chicago to enter into a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the feds, a tool cities like Washington, DC, and Cincinnati pursued to deal with their police problems. There are “many roads to reform, but they all hit the same destination,” as Emanuel put it this week in a press conference.
Prominent civil rights leaders and experts who worked on police reform under Barack Obama were quick to blast the mayor’s retreat.
“There are significant factual differences between what happened in Cincinnati and DC compared to Chicago, and you didn’t have the same kind of corruption and cover-up,” said Jonathan Smith, the executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and the former chief of special litigation in the DOJ’s civil rights division who oversaw the federal probe of police in Ferguson, Missouri.
The cover-up Smith is referring to is the case of Laquan McDonald, the 17-year-old who was (fatally) shot 16 times on a Chicago street in 2014. Dash-cam video of that incident was buried by city officials until late 2015, when a court order helped force it into the open.
“History has demonstrated that [MOAs], which are not court-enforceable, are not robust enough to remedy longstanding problems,” added Vanita Gupta, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and former head of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department under Obama. “Given the size of the Chicago Police Department and the severity of the accountability and use of force problems that were thoroughly documented in the findings report, a [MOA] in this matter will become yet another set of recommendations for the Chicago Police Department that will have no teeth. Chicago has seen this pattern over and over again.”
The Department of Justice did not return a request for comment, but Adam Collins, Mayor Emanuel’s communicators director, defended the move in part by suggesting the new regime in DC forced their hand. “Obviously there’s a new administration and their opinions of consent decrees are very well documented,” he told me. “For months the city and city attorneys have been in discussion with DOJ about a framework to guide future reforms, and the draft MOA that we submitted last week is a product of those discussions.”
Collins emphasized that over the last 18 months, Chicago has implemented a number of police reforms, including body cameras and new training oversight.
And it’s true that without a consent decree, Chicago has made some progress. Last month, the Chicago Police Department announced a package of new rulesdesigned to restrict when officers use deadly force, and guide officers on how they should deescalate situations and aid wounded suspects. (Critics note that the changes were watered-down from reforms first proposed last fall.)
William Calloway, another Chicago activist, thinks the new accountability measures were “a really monumental win” for reformers. While he was greatly disappointed to see his mayor back away from the consent decree, he wasn’t exactly surprised.
“Once you’ve been a resident for a while and you’ve seen the dealings of Rahm Emanuel and the way he plays politics, nothing too much shocks you,” Calloway said.
Green, for his part, expressed skepticism that even a consent decree would work in Chicago, emphasizing that real change has to come from inside the police force. “But I think if the Justice Department is going to step in, then they should actually start bringing justice and lock up people in power,” he added.
Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore cop and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told me that while there’s a legitimate argument thatconsent decrees can force a city’s hand, especially if reforms are being held up by police union contracts or other barriers, he worries they’re becoming somewhat of a fad. “I don’t know if Emanuel gives a damn about police misconduct,” Moskos said. “But if he does, he could do something. The department is under his control.”
But citing police reform in Seattle and New Orleans, Smith, the former DOJ official, insisted consent decrees are effective tools, and especially necessary in the worst cases—Chicago among them.
“The bad news is that this new DOJ is retreating from its commitment to enforcing the constitution,” says Smith. “The good news is there’s a lot of incredibly talented activists in Chicago who are not going to let this go. It may take a little longer, it may be a little harder to get there, but they’re going to insist on change.”