On police reform deal with feds, Chicago can learn from Cincinnati

Photo by Marc Monaghan

Over 1,000 people participated in a march for community control of police in downtown Chicago on August 29, 2015.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel says his new police reform plan–for a memorandum of agreement with the Justice Department, to be executed with no judicial approval – would accomplish the same goals as a court-ordered consent decree that would include oversight by a federal judge.

As usual, a lot of people don’t believe him. The former DOJ official who oversaw the investigation of the Chicago Police Department called Emanuel’s proposal “woefully inadequate.”

“This is a nonstarter for anybody who’s committed to real reform,” said Ed Yohnka of ACLU Illinois. “All the city is doing is proposing to sign a set of promises, with no effective enforcement mechanism.”

While the city hasn’t released details about the proposed agreement, one source told the Chicago Sun-Times it would include an enforcement mechanism under which the Justice Department could take the city to court for noncompliance.

The problem is that under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department has made it clear that it doesn’t believe in federal oversight of local police departments. “We’ve seen that [the Justice Department] is not a real partner,” said Yohnka.

Over the past year and a half, we’ve also seen repeatedly that Emanuel and the police department will pursue reform only under pressure. Emanuel moved to replace the discredited Independent Police Review Authority only after a public outcry. CPD announced a new use-of-force policy while it was under federal investigation, then weakened the final policy after the investigation was concluded.

Emanuel’s new plan – relying on Sessions’ Justice Department for supervision ­– would effectively insulate him from any outside pressure.

There are better ways. While grassroots activists continue to press for direct community control of police, there’s also a proven alternative within the realm of legal settlements that gives the community a direct voice in setting and implementing policy. That’s the Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement, which ran from 2002 to 2008.

That agreement, executed and implemented with the very active involvement of a federal judge, resolved over a dozen individual lawsuits along with a class action lawsuit by the ACLU of Ohio and the Black United Front alleging discrimination and excessive force by the Cincinnati police. It ran concurrently with a memorandum of agreement with DOJ, also enforced by the judge.

The Collaborative Agreement gave a seat at the table, and the ability to go to court to seek enforcement, to a range of community groups. The groups were there when the reform plan was hammered out, and they had legal standing to intervene throughout the reform process.

The agreement transformed Cincinnati into a model for police reform, as well as a “sobering reminder of how difficult it can be to change entrenched systems,” according to The Atlantic magazine.

Things are still “far from perfect,” but “policing in Cincinnati has substantially improved,” Mike Brickman, senior policy director for the ACLU of Ohio, told me.

The Cincinnati settlement was unique in two respects. First, it directly involved community organizations. Second, it mandated a sweeping change in the department’s policing strategy by ordering a wholesale shift to community policing focused on problem-solving.

That means officers are now held to account not for how many stops and arrests they make, but for how well they work with community residents. It also meant an end to “zero tolerance” practices, which led officers to view residents as potential criminals and led to lots of bad arrests.

“There are lots of different strategies that don’t rely on arresting black people and feeding mass incarceration,” one civil rights attorney told the Atlantic.

And as arrest rates dropped dramatically, crime rates also came down, with incidents of violent crime falling from 4,137 in 2002 to 2,352 in 2014. As the Atlantic puts it, police learned that more arrests do not equate to increased public safety.

At the same time, over a 15-year period, police use-of-force incidents declined by 69 percent, and civilian injuries during interactions with police dropped by 56 percent.

Now, Brickner said, many Cincinnati officers are enthusiastic supporters of the problem-solving strategy. “They’ve seen how a collaborative approach can make their jobs easier,” he said.

Still, the process was very difficult, he said, and it took many years for reform to take hold. One key factor was the election of a new mayor who supported the reform process. “Leadership matters,” Brickner said.

Another factor in breaking down resistance was the supervision of District Court Judge Susan Dlott. Early on, there were complaints that police barred community observers from ride-alongs, refused to turn over data to the DOJ, and even kicked a member of the monitoring team out of police headquarters. At one point, Dlott threatened the police chief with contempt of court, which would have meant throwing him in jail.

In Cincinnati, judicial pressure was crucial, and community pressure was institutionalized in the reform process. In Chicago, our mayor says we don’t need all that – we should leave police reform up to Rahm Emanuel and Jeff Sessions. But we can do better than that.

At a media event Tuesday at the Garfield Green Line station in Garfield Park, a mostly black community on the South Side, Emanuel “ignored” a question about partnering with community groups, the Chicago Tribune reported. When a group of high school students got off a train and confronted him, chanting “16 shots and a coverup,” Emanuel “walked by the students and ignored them.”

But at some point, he’s going to have to stop ignoring the community. Chicago is at long last ready for real reform. And if our high school students are any indication, we’re no longer willing to be played for fools.