This report was produced in collaboration with City Bureau, a Chicago-based journalism lab. It is part of a series of “Explainers” that provide background on important topics relating to policing and criminal justice in Chicago. The full series is available online at citybureau.org
Since the U.S. Department o Justice announced a formal investigation of the Chicago Police Department’s use of force and accountability structures last December, speculation has surrounded the outcome of what is expected to be a lengthy review process.
If past investigations conducted by the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division are an indication, the CPD could find itself subject to a consent decree, a binding legal agreement that would outline expected reforms. A decree, and the accompanying federal oversight, could lead to substantial changes in how the CPD uses force and handles complaints about discrimination, but could also spur a revolt among the department’s rank and file and cost Chicago taxpayers millions of dollars.
The Justice Department’s investigation, which may take up to several years, could lead to several different outcomes. Some cases have ended without formal action or with a non-binding reform agreement. In cases where investigators find serious violations, the Justice Department can file a lawsuit to demand changes. In most cases, the police and the government instead agree to a legally binding set of reforms, typically overseen by a federal monitor.
The use of consent decrees in policing dates to 1994, when Congress passed a law authorizing federal investigations of local police departments in the wake of the Rodney King riots. Since then, the Justice Department has initiated nearly seventy formal probes. With the approval of a consent decree in Ferguson, Missouri, on March 15, the Justice Department now monitors fourteen departments, including the police in Seattle, New Orleans and Cleveland.
The record of consent decrees is mixed. In 2001, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Justice Department reached a wide-ranging agreement that included training changes, civil rights reform and better management of gang units. When the federal monitor lifted the decree twelve years later, a comprehensive review by Harvard researchers found major improvements. Their study declared that “community engagement and partnership is now part of the mainstream culture of the Department.”
An intervention in Detroit was less successful. In 2000, the city’s mayor requested an investigation following a six-year period where city police shot and killed nearly fifty people and another nineteen people died while being detained. After a two-year probe and an eleven-year consent decree, police shootings and detainee deaths dropped, but residents complain that officers frequently ignore new use-of-force rules and that the department’s internal investigations are still deeply flawed. Today, Detroit remains under partial supervision, over fifteen years since the start of the investigatory process.
The use of consent decrees in other cities has several implications for Chicago. First, the process is a long and expensive undertaking. Los Angeles spent an estimated $300 million to complete reforms; a Tribune report puts the potential cost to implement reforms similar to Los Angeles’ at $100 million. Those costs could be a major issue for Chicago, though reforms also might reduce the amount the city pays to settle lawsuits against the police, which totaled over $500 million between 2004 and 2014.
Second, political support is essential for the success of a consent decree. In Los Angeles, community activists worked with Bill Bratton, a respected police chief, to enact reforms, overcoming a lawsuit from LAPD officers. In Detroit, federal oversight led to the creation of new policies and procedures, but limited funds and persistent internal resistance have helped stall deeper reforms.
Chicago’s situation has similarities with both cities. Deep public frustration with the police helped unseat incumbent State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel has grudgingly welcomed the federal investigation in the face of relentless activist pressure.
Still, Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police (the police union) is a powerful presence in the city and has previously resisted reform efforts. The FOP has already sued to destroy police complaint records from before 2011 and elected to fund the legal defense of former CPD commander Jon Burge, who ran a police torture ring in the 1970s and 1980s.
A federal consent decree could transform the CPD, but it could also set City Hall on a collision course with its own police force. As reform efforts in other cities have shown, only a city leadership firmly committed to reform and willing to spend money and political capital can hope to have a shot at long-lasting change.