Civil Rights Groups Take Chicago to Court to Force Police Reforms
By Dan Hinkel
Days after Mayor Rahm Emanuel backed away from a pledge to have a judge monitor efforts to reform the Chicago Police Department, a host of civil rights organizations filed a federal lawsuit seeking to spur sweeping changes in the troubled department that would be enforced by the courts.
About 15 lawyers from Chicago and New York filed the lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Chicago on behalf of six African-American plaintiffs who allege they were victims of excessive force and other abuses at the hands of Chicago police. The plaintiffs also include groups such as Black Lives Matter Chicago.
The roughly 130-page lawsuit -- which seeks class-action status -- invokes police uses of force dating to the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the killing of Black Panther Fred Hampton in arguing that violence and racial discrimination remain structural features of the department to this day. The suit contends that police routinely beat, deploy Tasers on and shoot African-Americans and Latinos with the protection of a "code of silence" and little risk of discipline.
Though the suit seeks money for the individual plaintiffs, it is distinct from most litigation filed against police because it also seeks an injunction to force the department to adopt reforms. Those reforms are not fully specified in the lawsuit but would be hammered out if the litigation succeeds.
Indeed, the lawsuit's chief goal is an order empowering a judge to enforce reforms that could include those endorsed by the Obama administration's U.S. Department of Justice in its report from January criticizing Chicago police as badly trained, poorly supervised and prone to using excessive force, said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor and a member of the plaintiffs' legal team.
Without court oversight, Futterman said, "We'll be having the same conversation after the next scandal."
Neither Emanuel nor his top lawyer, Edward Siskel, directly addressed questions about the suit's demands, instead saying that the administration is committed to reform and reiterating points in support of the administration's new plan, which calls for monitors to oversee changes without the court supervision the lawsuit seeks.
Early this month, Emanuel backed away from his vow made in January to negotiate a consent decree -- a judicially enforced agreement for reform -- with the Justice Department. The agency investigated the Police Department following the scandal sparked 19 months ago when a judge ordered the release of video of a white officer shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times.
The Justice Department said in its report that a consent decree would be the best and likely the only way to correct the Police Department's deep and long-standing problems.
President Donald Trump's inauguration, however, brought in a new administration skeptical of federal intervention in local law enforcement.
Since Emanuel announced his new approach, former Justice Department officials have blasted the plan, saying stable, long-term court oversight is essential to fixing a police force as large and dysfunctional as Chicago's.
The mayor and allies have defended his approach by saying Emanuel's political will for change is evident in the reforms he has made so far, including embracing body cameras and moving to fix the city's primary police disciplinary agency. They have portrayed Emanuel's plan as the best option after losing a more enthusiastic partner for reform in the Obama administration.
The new lawsuit seeks court enforcement -- whether the city wants it or not. But Futterman said Emanuel could also agree to work with the plaintiffs on a court-monitored consent decree.
Futterman's call for cooperation echoes the recommendation that Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has made -- that Emanuel should partner with advocates on a consent decree.She described the idea of negotiating reforms with a presidential administration outwardly skeptical of them as "ludicrous." Emanuel has not directly responded to Madigan's points.
"He wants a dance partner? He's got one," Futterman said. "If he's serious about ending police civil rights abuses in Chicago, he will agree -- as he already did before -- to binding court oversight and enforcement."
At a news conference at police headquarters after the suit was filed, Siskel would not say if the Emanuel administration would consider working with the plaintiffs, saying the city is "exploring models" for reform.
"We wish that the Department of Justice would have followed through with their commitment to a consent decree, but we are not there," he said.
Kevin Graham, president of Chicago's largest police union, said: "Despite the vast gulf between what the anti-police movement claims and what is actually taking place on our city's streets, our officers are doing a phenomenal job in extremely dangerous circumstances, day in and day out. I am confident the general public supports the police."
If the lawsuit finds early success in court, it could put Emanuel in a political bind. He's said repeatedly that he is committed to serious reform, but he now has to decide how to handle a lawsuit from some of the city's best known reform advocates and his loudest critics.
There is precedent for activists suing and forcing court-monitored police reform.
In Oakland, Calif., litigation filed in the early 2000s by citizens led to court-enforced reforms without Justice Department intervention. Oakland, however, is not considered a complete success; scandals have continued as millions of dollars in costs have piled up over some 15 years.
In Cincinnati in the early 2000s, African-American activists and civil rights groups sued the police over alleged racial profiling and sought reforms. As the litigation was pending, officers shot an unarmed man, sparking riots and a Justice Department investigation. The city settled the litigation and addressed the Justice Department's findings by entering into a court-monitored agreement for reforms.
Though a federal judge stepped in to force compliance with the agreed reforms, Cincinnati's reform process is generally seen as a success.
One key challenge of litigation seeking police reform is proving that the plaintiffs have legal standing, said Al Gerhardstein, a Cincinnati civil rights attorney who sued that city for reforms. U.S. Supreme Court case law, Gerhardstein noted, holds that plaintiffs suing for an injunction under federal civil rights statutes must be able to show they are at ongoing risk of harm.
"If the city wants to just hunker down and fight, these standing arguments are a good tool for them," he said, adding that fighting the suit would do nothing to improve police relations with residents.
"You might win that legal battle but at what cost?" he asked.
The new suit in Chicago asserts that the plaintiffs would be in danger of future injury, as would the people represented by the groups pressing the suit.
The individuals named in the suit range from a man who alleges he was thrown to the ground and beaten by police during a peaceful protest to a pregnant woman who alleges she was pinned to the ground without cause.
The suit cites the Justice Department report as well as the report from the mayor's own Police Accountability Task Force in arguing that the department has a history and current practice of discrimination. It also notes dozens of other pending lawsuits and disciplinary cases in justifying calls for federal oversight.
"Time and again, the city has revealed that it is institutionally unable to end its years-long practice of civil rights violations. Federal judicial intervention is the only means by which the rights of plaintiffs and the class they represent will be vindicated," the suit reads.
Chicago Tribune's Bill Ruthhart, John E. Byrne and Jeremy Gorner contributed.
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