Chicago officials: Trump’s priorities will not hamper police reform

The Trump administration is signaling a shift from focusing on attacking police abuse in Chicago to instead focusing on the continuing violence that plagues the city’s streets. But local officials insist that reforming the police department will not be stalled with or without federal oversight.

The latest signal came Tuesday night, when President Donald J. Trump tweeted, “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!” Days earlier, following Trump’s inauguration, the White House website was updated to state: “The Trump Administration will be a law and order administration. President Trump will honor our men and women in uniform and will support their mission of protecting the public. The dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong. The Trump Administration will end it.”

The site also states: “Our job is not to make life more comfortable for the rioter, the looter, or the violent disrupter. Our job is to make life more comfortable for parents who want their kids to be able to walk the streets safely. Or the senior citizen waiting for a bus. Or the young child walking home from school.”

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Those are among indications that the Trump administration intends to shift away from the Obama administration’s focus on investigating police misconduct in cities like Chicago, where a recent Department of Justice report found a culture that tolerates unreasonable police shootings and other excessive force. But whatever path federal authorities take, the head of the Chicago Police Board and other officials this week emphasized that reforming the police department will go forward.

“We need to take ownership of this issue, regardless of what happens in Washington,” police board chair Lori Lightfoot said. “The consequences of not acting are played out every day on the streets of Chicago.”

Following the November 2015 release of a video that showed teenager Laquan McDonald shot to death by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed a task force headed by Lightfoot, while the Department of Justice launched a separate investigation into the patterns and practices of the Chicago police.

The task force reported last April that the department faced widespread mistrust among minority communities as a result of a “long, sad history of death, false imprisonment, physical and verbal abuse” of minority residents by officers that commonly went unpunished.

Days before the administration changed last week, the Justice Department completed its own report on the Chicago police department with the finding that “CPD officers engage in a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force, that is unreasonable. We found further that CPD officers’ force practices unnecessarily endanger themselves and others and result in unnecessary and avoidable shootings and other uses of force.”

Such findings had been used by the Justice Department during the Obama administration to force troubled police departments to take steps to address the problems, signing consent decrees that include federal oversight. Such decrees are now in effect in several cities where the department identified patterns of misconduct in recent years, including Baltimore, Cleveland, and Ferguson, Missouri.

But Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, said during his confirmation hearings that he disapproved of that approach, saying the Justice Department’s legal actions “undermine the respect for police officers.”

Lightfoot is one of several Chicago officials who insist that the eradication of systemic problems that have sown mistrust between minority citizens and Chicago police would continue regardless of the role Washington plays.

Karen Sheley, director of the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union Police Practices Project, which brought a lawsuit that helped change Chicago’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” practice, called the possibility of the Justice Department’s withdrawal from reform efforts under the new administration “disturbing.” During the campaign, Trump had advocated a return of stop-and-frisk and other aggressive policing tactics.

“These things tend to kind of be campaign rhetoric,” Lightfoot said. “What the actual policies will be are yet unknown outside of a small group of people in Washington, [but] it doesn’t really matter: The change has to come. It must come. And it must happen as quickly as possible here at the local level.”

Her call reiterates what Mayor Emanuel said after Trump won the election, but before the Justice Department report was even complete. “We are on a journey of reform which we will not waver from,” Emanuel was quoted in the Tribune in November. “It is in the long term and short term and immediate term interests of the city.”

Dean Angelo, the president of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, said in an interview this week that he hopes Sessions would “encourage the city and the department to do what is necessary to do” to implement the recommendations of the Justice Department to improve training, technology, equipment and morale.

“We have a responsibility as a community to make sure that it happens,” ACLU’s Sheley said. “If the DOJ isn’t involved there are other ways to get judicial intervention. Every option needs to be on the table to make sure this gets done right.”