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Chicago residents, activists slam police for slow-walking reforms

Tempers flared at a public hearing where speakers accused the Chicago Police Department of failing to abide by a consent decree requiring changes to policies and training.

CHICAGO (CN) — Activists and city residents lambasted the Chicago Police Department on Tuesday, saying in a hearing that the department has resisted reforms mandated by a federal court consent decree enacted almost four years ago.

The consent decree was first proposed by the Illinois Attorney General's Office in an August 2017 federal lawsuit against the city of Chicago, amid popular outrage at decades of abusive police behavior. The CPD has a sordid legacy of racism and civil rights violations, ranging from the beating of protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention, to the yearslong operation of a clandestine torture facility on the city's West Side, to outright murder.

The catalyst for the AG's proposal of a consent decree was the 2014 police killing of Black teenager Laquan McDonald, when white police officer Jason Van Dyke shot McDonald, then 17 years old, 16 times in the back as the teen was walking away from a squad car. The murder prompted a wave of protests once dash cam footage of the shooting was released over a year later.

Besides the video contradicting initial police reports that McDonald had threatened officers with a knife, the fact that it took 13 months for the footage to be released publicly spurred allegations that the CPD and then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel had engaged in a cover-up. The city reaching a $5 million settlement with McDonald's family months before the video was released only furthered public outcry.

That outcry turned into several federal lawsuits, eventually leading to the drafting of the consent decree. U.S. District Judge Robert Dow Jr., a George W. Bush appointee, approved the document in January 2019, despite opposition from the local Fraternal Order of Police and U.S. Attorney's Office. The decree orders changes on everything from police use of force to foot pursuit policy to anti-discrimination training.

"The decree takes an important step forward in the City of Chicago’s ongoing efforts to repair the damaged relationship between its police department and members of the community whom the department serves and protects," Dow wrote in his opinion approving the consent decree.

The hearing held on Tuesday was meant to provide the court with a progress report on police compliance with the decree, as well as provide city residents a chance to provide their own feedback on police behavior. Per the CPD's reckoning, it is already in compliance with about 75% of the consent decree's mandates on various policies.

On Tuesday morning, city and police representatives pointed out this alleged progress. One member of Chicago's corporation counsel team noted, as Dow did in his 2019 opinion, that the consent decree is meant as "a beginning, not an end."

A representative from the Chicago Department of Public Health also highlighted the development of the city's Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement, or CARE, pilot program. The program sends teams of mental health clinicians and paramedics, rather than squad cars, to respond to mental health emergency calls, and was first proposed in the language of the consent decree. To date, CARE personnel have responded to 457 emergency calls with zero arrests or use-of-force incidents.

Those outside the city and police bureaucracy were far more critical of the progress made since 2019, with numerous speakers claiming that they have seen little tangible change in how Chicago police officers act. Many also accused the CPD of purposefully resisting the consent decree's reforms, telling the court that it must do more to ensure police compliance.

"Our [Black and Latino] clients have not observed measurable changes in how police behave towards them," said Illinois ACLU senior attorney Alexandra Block. She also claimed her clients reported "aggressive and racist" behavior from Chicago cops patrolling Black neighborhoods, and that police used excessive traffic stops in those neighborhoods to project force.

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"They reported officers pointing guns at them during traffic stops" on numerous occasions, Block said.

Michelle Garcia, another Illinois ACLU attorney, said she receives weekly reports of Chicago police violating the consent decree, even in areas where the CPD as an institution is supposedly in compliance. She told U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, the Bill Clinton appointee who presided over Tuesday's proceedings, that the court needed to be more aggressive in enforcing the consent decree.

"CPD will not change... until the court and the monitor force them to do so," Garcia said.

One attorney, representing a number of community groups in a 2017 lawsuit against the city, also noted that police have structural incentives to actively oppose reforms. For example, since police get overtime pay when their shifts are extended to process arrestees, they are financially incentivized to arrest as many people as possible.

Other speakers, many of them Black women from Chicago's South and West sides, related incidents where they or their family members were traumatized by police action: botched raids, false arrests, the use of racial slurs and the confiscation of property without probable cause.

A speaker named Krystal Archie said CPD officers raided her home three times in the span of four months. "Each time that the home was raided, it was left in complete shambles," she said. On no occasion did police find anything illegal in the apartment.

Sharon Lyons, another speaker, said that in 2020 she and her family also suffered a botched police raid, with heavily armed cops pointing guns at her young grandchildren. Lyons currently has a federal lawsuit pending against the CPD over the incident.

"I was disrespected... these people had no morals at all," she said.

Their stories are corroborated by a 2020 memo sent to the city's attorneys by several lawyers from the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and the Illinois ACLU, representing a coalition of Chicago community activist groups.

"The CPD has refused to track or document, much less analyze, the reasons for negative search warrants, including raids in which the target of the raid does not live at the address, thereby ensuring the continuation of its unconstitutional practices," the memo states. "For decades, community members have made misconduct complaints about these incidents, but they are rarely if ever sustained."

Despite the public commenters' near-universal condemnation on the lack of reform progress, the Tuesday hearing also highlighted divisions between the parties seeking that reform. Some urged patience as the reforms are instituted, while others rebutted that the Black communities disproportionately mistreated by police can't afford to be patient.

"When people say that reform takes time - our community doesn't have the luxury of time," one speaker said.

Another speaker argued that CPD needs more funding to effectively train officers on the consent decree's changes, but others balked at the suggestion. With a budget of close to $2 billion, the CPD is already among the wealthiest police departments in the country after New York City and Los Angeles.

One commenter even argued for disbanding the police department entirely, citing the common leftist criticism that the police's main function is to protect private property, not people. He called police "updated slave patrols," in acknowledgement of how modern U.S. policing is descended in part from 18th and 19th century slave-catching patrols.

"Updated slave patrols... that's what they are, that's the infrastructure we created," the speaker said.

Pallmeyer said she would take the speakers' criticisms into consideration as she weighs consent decree enforcement going forward.

"Thank you for coming forward," the judge said, admitting that as an affluent white woman she has rarely had trouble with police. "I know it's never easy."

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