By Dan Hinkel Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO — For about six hours Wednesday, the rift between police reform advocates and some of Chicago’s police was on display in a downtown federal courtroom.
Numerous activists spoke of fear and distrust of the city’s officers, and called for a judge to put in place a strict court order designed to bring comprehensive change to the embattled Chicago Police Department.
A half-dozen or so officers and police union officials defended the force, decried street crime and suggested that the forthcoming consent decree would handcuff police and lead to more violence.
The public hearing before U.S. District Judge Robert Dow Jr. marked a milestone in the three-year process of bringing judicial oversight to a Police Department with a long history of excessive force, misconduct and failed attempts at change.
The judge is working toward a final consent decree that likely would stand as one of the most significant consequences of Officer Jason Van Dyke’s 2014 shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald. The police officer was convicted this month of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery, one for each shot he fired.
Scores of people turned out early in the morning to enter a lottery for the right to speak. Dozens addressed the judge five minutes at a time in a packed ceremonial courtroom on the 25th floor of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse. Many more are slated to speak Thursday.
On Wednesday, the wide majority spoke in favor of the decree. They came from a spectrum of backgrounds and neighborhoods, and their concerns ranged from technical elements of the decree to a general desire for change. Several speakers were African-American activists who talked of intimidating experiences with officers and an abiding fear for their children and other loved ones. They spoke of police brutality and misconduct as old news in the city’s black and Latino neighborhoods.
“We talk about subject matter experts,” said Karl Brinson, president of the Chicago Westside Branch of the NAACP, as he gestured to the room behind him. “We’re in a room of subject matter experts.”
Several police officers and union officials, meanwhile, contended the court order would tie cops’ hands.
“Where is the accountability for the criminal element in our society?” asked Mark Donahue, former president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, the city’s largest police union, which has sought unsuccessfully to have the consent decree litigation dismissed.
The two days of hearings are part of a push for reform spurred by the November 2015 release of video of McDonald’s shooting, which sparked weeks of street protests and laid bare the city’s divide on policing issues. It also led to an investigation of Chicago’s police force by the U.S. Department of Justice. That investigation culminated in a scathing January 2017 report that described police as badly trained, loosely supervised and prone to excessive force, particularly against minorities.
The report emerged in the last days of an Obama administration that frequently sought to reform local police forces, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel vowed to work toward a consent decree. Then President Donald Trump took office, and his administration has eschewed intervention in troubled local police forces. Emanuel responded to the lack of pressure for court-mandated reform by proposing an out-of-court agreement, but reform advocates objected, saying lasting change would not come without a judge’s oversight.
In August 2017, state Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued the city, and Emanuel agreed to work toward a consent decree. The city also was sued by activists, and the politicians worked out a deal to allow those groups a role in the litigation.
Last month, lawyers filed a proposed decree that would mandate changes to departmental practices and aim to tighten supervision, improve training and fix the city’s police disciplinary system. Dow has the authority to enact a final order, and he scheduled the hearings to take feedback on that draft.
Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli said clients have often come to her with bruises, black eyes and stories of being screamed at by police. She spoke also of witnesses being treated more like suspects, and cops who gave accounts of incidents that clashed with other evidence.
“To this day, my office receives false police reports from Chicago police,” Campanelli said. “This abuse of power must stop. Chicago has suffered far too long at the hands of a flawed Police Department.”
Edvette Jones noted that Dow had entered an order barring cellphones from the courtroom and pointed out that video footage has played a pivotal role in exposing troubling incidents involving cops.
“The reason why we’re really here is a lot of cellphones — cellphones capturing the injustice (against) black and brown people,” said the activist and artist from a Rogers Park church.
Michael Harrington of Network 49, a Far North Side activist group, spoke of being detained and interrogated in a case of mistaken identity when he’d done nothing wrong. He said he has grown accustomed to being stopped by police.
“They won’t stop without a robust consent decree, which includes the critically important element of public scrutiny,” he said.
A few officers stepped forward to say that police already face heavy oversight, and they blamed criminals and broad social problems for the troubles in some neighborhoods. Police union attorney Tim Grace aired the labor group’s contention that parts of the proposed decree conflict with state law, though he granted that many who worked toward the court order did so in good faith.
“I believe that these good intentions are going to place the officers at risk and the community at risk,” he said.
Last week, Madigan and Emanuel announced the four teams of finalists for the key task of overseeing the department’s progress toward complying with the decree. The groups include former federal prosecutors, police and a retired federal judge.
The public will have a chance to question the finalists at a pair of Nov. 3 forums at the Thompson Center before officials from Madigan’s office and City Hall make their recommendations to the judge.