The Chicago Consent Decree: What It Does and Doesn’t Do, and Why It Is Being Fought Over

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It was in the context of the major upsurge of struggle against police murder that erupted over the police murders of first Michael Brown, then Eric Garner, and then others, that in late 2015 Obama’s Department of Justice stepped in to conduct an investigation into the Chicago Police Department. In January 2017, the DOJ issued a report that gave a picture of the widespread use of excessive and lethal force, in particular against Black and other oppressed people; a pattern of cover-ups; and the overtly racist mind-set in the CPD. The report found, for example, “many circumstances in which officers’ accounts of force incidents were later discredited, in whole or in part, by video evidence. Given the numerous use-of-force incidents without video evidence ... the pattern of unreasonable force is likely even more widespread....” They reported how cops and their supervisors regularly referred to Black people as “monkeys, animals, savages, and ‘pieces of shit.’”

The city of Chicago agreed to enter into a consent decree to allow federal supervision of the police, including various proposed reforms putting some restraints on the police—like better “supervision” of cops, more “transparency” about use of force, etc. This consent decree and others in various cities certainly did not come out of those in power suddenly realizing that their police have been murdering and brutalizing the people and that this injustice has to stop. No, the rulers have been forced into them by the struggles of the people, which were bringing to the surface some ugly truths about the nature and workings of this capitalist-imperialist system. Many middle class people and white people generally who normally turn away from or even blame the masses of Black people for the horrific conditions they live in were having their eyes forced open—beginning to see there is a huge problem with how the police treat Black people, which raised questions about their illusions of how America is the land of “fairness” and “justice.”

The consent decrees in no way put a stop to police terror in general nor did they substantially diminish the oppression of Black, Latino, and other people of color. But other powerful forces at the top opposed the DOJ even admitting that there are some “bad” cops and that police departments needed to be “reformed,” because they insisted such actions conceded legitimacy to the protests and weakened the police. And with the inauguration of Donald Trump and installation of his fascist regime—just a week after the DOJ report on Chicago came out—those forces now hold the reins of executive power in the federal government. Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed that even the modest reforms pushed under Obama “cost more lives by handcuffing the police instead of the criminals,” and his DOJ declared that they will no longer enforce or enter into consent decrees mandating federal oversight of police departments. (As the accompanying article points out, Sessions snuck into Chicago on September 5 to reiterate and underline this reactionary stand.)

And Trump himself has made crystal clear that his regime is removing all restraints on the police, calling on them to “please don’t be too nice” to the masses of people, who are in fact brutalized and terrorized by these pigs day in and day out. Using the heart-rending violence among the people in Chicago as a hypocritical and sinister justification for increased repression, Trump declared days after his inauguration that if Chicago doesn’t “fix” the problem, “I will send in the Feds.” What all this means is that the slow genocide that has inflicted Black and Brown people in this country is not only continuing but intensifying, openly incited from the highest levels of power.

Meanwhile, the DOJ under Trump was making clear that it was ditching the consent decrees in Chicago and elsewhere. In response, civil rights lawyers at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University law schools filed a class action suit, arguing that their clients were at a high risk of having their constitutional rights violated by the police and seeking supervision of the Chicago Police Department overseen by a federal judge; in other words, what would effectively be a new consent decree. This suit forced a great deal of exposure of the CPD into the light and it is worth reading over. (Go here for a PDF of the suit.) It was endorsed by editorials in the two main Chicago papers, the New York Times, and by other forces.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried to have the suit dismissed, saying a consent decree was unnecessary because the city itself was implementing reforms. But in the meantime, Illinois State Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a Democrat, had stepped in to push for a consent decree and reforms overseen by a federal judge on the basis of the pattern of unconstitutional policing revealed in the Obama DOJ report. In negotiations with Madigan over the decree, Emanuel tried to limit the scope of reforms, such as whether cops should be required to report every time they draw their weapons. The decree is being supported to varying degrees by different civil rights and activist groups, independent journalists, and others.

As the trial of Van Dyke opened, Madigan and Emanuel announced that they had reached a deal on the consent decree.

But even the relatively tame reforms proposed by the consent decree—concessions won through the struggle of the people—are loudly condemned and opposed by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the police union. And they are backed from the highest levels. In May of this year, Trump tweeted open support for the FOP and attacked Emanuel: “Chicago Police have every right to legally protest against the mayor and an administration that just won’t let them do their job. The killings are at a record pace and tough police work, which Chicago will not allow, would bring things back to order fast...the killings must stop!” Then, as noted in the main article, Sessions went to Chicago right before the trial to reaffirm this support and in effect throw the weight of the federal government behind acquittal.

The FOP is challenging the consent decree in the courts. But even if they are unable to legally block the decree, they effectively hold veto power, because under the city’s collective bargaining agreement, a number of key provisions in the decree cannot be implemented unless the FOP agrees to changes in relevant sections of their contract!

What all this and so many other stories like it most clearly show is that the masses must fight like hell to get even the most limited concessions, which then come under constant attack; that these fights can awaken others, bring to light further abuses of the system and spark people to seek the causes of those abuses, and strengthen people’s fighting capacity and organization; but that to get the most fundamental change, to uproot the underlying causes of the endless abuses and outrages, requires a whole different system—through an actual revolution.


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