Chicago’s top cop promises widespread reform, with or without Washington

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The Chicago police superintendent on Tuesday said that the department is committed to reform, with or without the involvement of federal officials, and laid out a plan aimed at rebuilding community trust while overhauling systemic problems that have been well documented in recent months.

“We are moving forward with the reform effort,” said Superintendent Eddie Johnson, at a press conference at police headquarters. “CPD is different” than it was a year ago, Johnson said, and the reform effort will continue.

As Johnson spoke, the department released a 19-page report detailing a series of steps the department intends to address as part of the reform: Rebuilding community trust, improved training, transparency and revamped guidelines on use of force.

Johnson’s comments come amidst growing expressions of concern from civil rights lawyers and community groups that the proposed guidelines on when force by officers is appropriate were toned down after the U.S. Department of Justice signaled it is unlikely to go forward with a consent decree to mandate changes designed to address systemic problems documented in a January report. Attorneys from a variety of organizations that monitor police conduct said in recent days that they feared the revised guidelines are evidence that the department will not accomplish reform without oversight from the Justice Department.

Johnson said the department is still seeking input on the guidelines, and hopes to adopt revisions in the spring. The officers on the force then will receiving training, he said, after which the guidelines would take effect later this year.

Seated at the podium with Johnson was police board president Lori Lightfoot, who said she did not think “a piece of paper” from the Justice Department – referring to a consent decree that the Obama administration had hoped its January report would accomplish – would determine whether or not reform happened. The “leadership” from Johnson to make change is critical, Lightfoot said, adding, “he has shown the leadership to move us forward.”

The police board president was also confident in the department’s ability to carry out the new reform plan, saying, “It’s aggressive, to be sure, but it sets appropriate targets for the department to meet on a range of issues that are important to continue to build a foundation for reform.”

Lightfoot had chaired the city task force that issued a damning report last spring highlighting institutionalized racism and widespread abuses that went unpunished as having created widespread mistrust in the department. The task force report, and the subsequent Department of Justice Report, both were spurred by the November, 2015 release of the video of Office Jason Van Dyke shooting to death a teenager, Laquan McDonald.

Contacted after the press conference, Karen Sheley, director of the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union Police Practices Project, said she welcomed the department moving forward, calling that “positive.” Still, Sheley said the likelihood of success remained greater if Washington gets involved.

“Generally, what we see in all kinds of reform work is that you really can’t replicate the benefit of having federal oversight…to make sure that process goes forward,” Sheley said.

New Attorney General Jeff Sessions has signaled that he may not move forward with consent decrees.

Whether Washington moves forward or not, Lightfoot said at the press conference, it is ultimately up to the city to pick up the slack on reform. “I feel very strongly that we shouldn’t let anybody outside of Chicago dictate to us what the right path is forward,” she said.

Johnson spoke of recognition both to rebuild community trust and to consider the needs of the officers on the force. The police officers, he said, need to know that innocent mistakes will not be confused with “intentional misconduct.” Of that more serious conduct, he said, “there is no place for that.”
Johnson added that he had been on the force for 28 years, and “I know and feel what the beat cops feel.”