A team of attorneys representing Black Lives Matter Chicago, community organizations, and victims of police violence filed a lawsuit on June 14 against the Chicago Police Department in federal court. The aim is to reach a court-monitored settlement that would mandate police reform. Though it had been in the works for the last year, the suit came days after Mayor Rahm Emanuel backpedaled from his commitment to seek out a federal consent decree for an overhaul of the troubled police department.
This isn’t the first time community organizations have sued for police reform, and, if successful, this lawsuit also wouldn’t be the first time the city would be ordered by a federal judge to remedy its civil rights violations. However, the road to getting reform with the help of the courts is a long and difficult one, and community involvement is crucial to a successful outcome.
While a dozen or so police departments around the country are currently operating under Obama-era consent decrees brokered by the Department of Justice (the same ones Attorney General Jeff Sessions has promised to phase out), there are several examples of federally monitored police reform agreements coming about because of successful lawsuits by community organizations and individuals. This was the case in both Cincinnati and Oakland, though the tales of police reform at the behest of federal courts are starkly at odds in those cities.
In Cincinnati, a city with a police force of roughly 1,000 officers, reform was born of a class-action suit filed in 2001, after years of abusive policing practices in black neighborhoods. To settle the lawsuit, Cincinnati entered into an agreement not only with the federal government but also with community organizations and the police union, thus formally bringing all the stakeholders for police reform into negotiations with one another. Frequent meetings to evaluate progress and a department commitment to “problem-oriented” community policing were mandated by the “collaborative agreement.”
Nevertheless, it took at least five years to get rank-and-file cops on board. In the early years under the agreement, morale among officers was low and most thought the strategy was a failure. Furthermore, the department wasn’t complying with the terms of the deal and was still policing aggressively in black neighborhoods. But there was buy-in at the top of city government among successive mayors and police chiefs, and community pressure for change persisted.
The idea in Cincinnati has been to make the police department more like other city agencies tasked to solve community problems and deliver vital services. Officers were pushed to think of crime as a symptom of other neighborhood problems and their promotions weren’t pegged to arrest stats but to a demonstrable record of engaging in problem-oriented policing. Eventually, Cincinnati cops began to tackle hot spots—not through sweeps but by removing or remedying the conditions that facilitated crime. Here’s an example, cited by the Atlantic: On one intersection the police department, seeking to reduce pedestrian congestion, moved a bus stop and a phone booth farther away from a liquor store where people often congregated, dealt drugs, and got into fights. When the liquor store owner refused to forbid drug dealing on his property, his liquor license was suspended and the city eventually bought his shop and demolished it to put a grocery store on the lot instead.
Federal oversight of the collaborative agreement ended in 2008, but Cincinnati remained committed to its vision and values. By 2014 both arrests and crime had fallen precipitously.
Keeping up that trend has been a $20 million process 15 years in the making. And with every new police chief, the problem-oriented policing strategy is at risk of being abandoned. Meanwhile there are still complaints of racial discrimination and excessive force by cops. The stakeholders seem to agree, however, that without the lawsuit and federal pressure combined with formally recognized community participation in the reform process, no lasting changes in Cincinnati’s police culture could’ve been made.
In Oakland, a city with fewer than 800 cops, attempts at police reform in roughly the same span of time have cost about $14 million and have been accompanied by starkly different outcomes. The lawsuit that led to federal court oversight there was filed in 2000 by victims of a group of officers who allegedly beat, robbed, and kidnapped citizens. But despite federal intervention, corruption scandals and police abuse continued with some $57 million paid out to settle with victims over the next ten years. Last year, just as the department seemed to finally be fulfilling all its obligations under the settlement agreement, a ring of officers was busted for sexual misconduct involving an underage sex worker.
The reasons for the failure of police reform in Oakland are complex, but there are key differences between that city’s approach to the process and Cincinnati’s, notwithstanding the common thread of federal oversight: Instead of making community-oriented policing a bedrock practice, Oakland has poured money into technology in the hopes of changing police culture. The settlement agreement for the lawsuit did not make room for community organizations’ involvement in reform in any specific way. The police department continues to be overseen by an independent monitor with hiring and firing powers over leadership, but the divide between residents and the cops is still a chasm.
If the new Black Lives Matter legal strategy is successful in Chicago and federal oversight of CPD is established, the details of any settlement agreement—including who will participate in evaluating the agency’s progress and which policing principles are applied—will be hugely important. And the extent of buy-in from city leadership will determine whether Chicago, whose police force is much larger than either Oakland’s or Cincinnati’s, will follow the example of the former or the latter.
“Our hope is that we can forgo a lengthy legal battle and we can engage the city in negotiations for a consent decree,” says Sheila Bedi, a lead attorney in the BLM lawsuit. “I think the need for systemic judicial oversight of the Chicago Police Department is something that has been apparent for many, many years, even prior to DOJ releasing the results of its investigation.”
For federal judicial oversight to work, significant pressure from the community on city leadership must continue. Without it, and especially if politicians perceive federal interference as unpopular, resistance to police reform can be expected. And Chicago has its own experience with that scenario to learn from.
In 1966 the Chicago Housing Authority was sued by public housing residents alleging that the agency’s segregationist policies in public housing construction and tenant screening were violating their civil rights. The tenants won the lawsuit the following year, and a federal judge ordered the city to remedy its segregated public housing by constructing new units in white neighborhoods. But aldermen and Mayor Richard J. Daley fought the orders tooth and nail, spurred on by fervent NIMBYism in white neighborhoods. It took years to get even a modest number of public housing units built outside poor, African-American areas, and a federal judge still has to sign off on decisions to build or rehabilitate public housing in the city today. Ultimately, the city pursued policies that helped rid it of much of its public housing rather than seeking to remedy residential segregation.
Of course, it’s unlikely that the city would give up on policing altogether rather than comply with reform mandates. But it’s worth considering to what extent police reform is even possible. Ultimately, some in Chicago, such as the various community organizers calling for outright police abolition, believe the money spent on trying to change police culture would be better put to use elsewhere. Instead of making cops better social workers, why not hire more social workers? For now, however, the CPD remains the city’s most highly funded and well-resourced agency. It may be easier in the short term to force it to spend its money differently rather than cutting its funding to any significant extent.
Black Lives Matter Chicago is now awaiting an answer from the city to its complaint in federal court. The defendants’ attorneys could file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit or answer the plaintiff’s complaint with challenges to their claims. The next court date is scheduled in front of Judge John Z. Lee on September 1.