A few weeks ago, Attorney General Jeff Sessions admitted he hadn’t read the Justice Department’s report on its investigation of the Chicago Police Department. Instead, Sessions said, he read a summary and found it to be “pretty anecdotal and not so scientifically based.”
Sessions should do his homework. The report provides strong evidence that directly contradicts some of the main contentions in recent remarks by Sessions, and in the memo released Monday calling for a review of all “existing or contemplated consent decrees” to correct civil rights violations by local police departments.
The biggest “contemplated consent decree” right now is the one with Chicago, which would normally follow the investigation that was completed in the final days of the Obama administration. Under a typical consent decree, a court-appointed monitor would report publicly on the police department’s progress and shortcomings. That’s now up in the air.
Federal attorneys have also said they want to review a consent decree with Baltimore that is now in court, to make sure it doesn’t conflict with President Donald Trump’s priority of fighting violent crime.
Sessions is wrong, as the Justice Department report on CPD makes clear, in his view that the problems of excessive force and civil rights violations are due solely to individual officers and not evidence of police department shortcomings. Here’s how he puts it in the memo: “The misdeeds of individual bad actors should not impugn or undermine the legitimacy and honorable work that law enforcement officers and agencies perform.”
First, the misdeeds of individual bad actors do indeed undermine the legitimacy of the agencies they work for. No memo can make that simple fact disappear.
Beyond that, the Chicago report goes to great lengths to demonstrate that CPD’s problems are the result of “systemic deficiencies” – lack of training in sound tactics and constitutional policing, failure to investigate most use-of-force incidents, a completely broken disciplinary system, entirely inadequate supervision, and a top-down tolerance for racism and for lying.
According to criminologist Sam Walker, the “pattern or practice” investigations of police departments by the Obama administration Justice Department helped develop a new model for police reform that is focused not on “bad apples” or on particular reform measures but on “institutional change.”
“The whole reason why Congress gave the Department of Justice the authority to do the kind of investigation that happened in Chicago, and to enter into the these types of consent decrees, is because these are systemic issues – things like the code of silence, entrenched racism, lack of accountability. And they really require a comprehensive approach,” said Sheila Bedi, a law professor at Northwestern.
Sessions also suggests that reform may be best left to local departments. “Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective local policing,” and “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies,” he says in his memo. In a filing this week seeking a postponement of action on a consent decree with Baltimore police, DOJ lawyers cited progress there to suggest court enforcement may not be necessary.
Again, the Chicago report undercuts this argument. It tracks CPD’s efforts at implementing reform over a year, and finds example after example of initiatives rolled out too quickly, without proper preparation. Body cameras were distributed without an adequate policy for their use. (A Chicago Reporter investigation found that the cost of the cameras will be far higher than the department initially stated publicly.) Taser training that was rushed in inappropriately large groups failed to teach officers “how or when to use the Taser.” (In addition, CPD’s Taser policy doesn’t meet constitutional standards). The Crisis Intervention Team program was expanded without proper screening of participants. A new form to report investigatory stops was rolled out with only cursory training, causing widespread discontent among the rank-and-file. Luckily, in this last case, there’s a court-appointed monitor who has reported that his complaints produced some improvements.
None of these shortcomings is fatal, and all can corrected – but they are pretty typical of a department that does things on the cheap and operates under a mayor who tends to announce big initiatives and then move on to the next political opportunity. With no oversight authority calling balls and strikes, it’s altogether possible that police reform in Chicago will amount to half-measures mixed with evasions and retreats.
That’s why the Justice Department report concludes: “Our investigation found that the reforms the city already plans to implement, as well as the additional reforms our investigation found necessary, will likely not happen or be sustained without the reform tools of an independent monitoring team and a court order.”
As Bedi pointed out, “I think the idea that the city is going to be able to right what’s wrong with the Chicago Police District without the transparency and accountability that a federal court can provide is just wrong-headed.”
Finally, Sessions maintains that protecting and respecting civil rights is “first and foremost” a task for local law enforcement. And certainly that’s part of their job description. But there is a unique role for the federal government in ensuring that localities abide by the U.S. Constitution. That’s a very specific mission for the Justice Department.
“One of the things I feel has gotten lost in this discussion is that what consent decrees deal with – and what the Chicago findings letter was about – are constitutional violations,” Bedi said. “And the idea that enforcing the Constitution is somehow getting in the way of effective crime fighting is really an abhorrent notion.”
The rights ensured by the Constitution are not extravagant, she adds. They include the right not to be stopped and searched – or shot and killed – for no reason. That’s covered by the Fourth Amendment, guaranteeing “the right of the people to be secure in their persons.”
The Justice Department found that “CPD officers use unnecessary force and unreasonable force in violation of the Constitution with frequency and that unconstitutional force is historically tolerated by CPD.” It also finds that CPD uses force against blacks almost 10 times more often than against whites. It gives numerous examples of people being killed who posed no threat – who had not even broken any laws. It finds that “the deficiencies in CPD’s training, supervision, accountability and other systems have contributed to that pattern or practice.”
Leaving protection of civil rights to a department with that kind of track record – however well intentioned its current efforts at reform – is irresponsible and indefensible.
And when the chief law enforcement officer of the nation refuses to enforce the most basic law of the land – and ignores the evidence collected by his own department in the process – something is terribly wrong.