Jeff Sessions’ symbolic act to undermine Chicago’s police reform plan

An affirming wink to any cops who think your rights are incompatible with their safety.

Protesters confront police in Chicago in 2015. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Protesters confront police in Chicago in 2015. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images

President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions would love for you to believe they are stopping Chicago’s hard-won deal to impose police reforms via a court-enforced agreement between cops and community groups.

They aren’t. The brief Sessions’ staff will file in the case this week amounts to a formal scolding of the court deal. Sessions doesn’t have the power to dismantle the arrangement or smash up the court’s looming appointment of a monitor to enforce the deal, because he refused to participate in its formulation.

But the brief will have a harmful impact on the future of Chicago’s reform quest. It is a symbolic act akin to Trump’s own habit of urging cops to be more violent with the people they serve. It will encourage the people most able to undermine and harm the consent decree’s aims: Those among the police rank-and-file who are personally inclined to ignore or sabotage the new order.

Consent decrees requiring change at police departments have a mixed track record around the country. They’ve delivered clear if incomplete success in cities like Seattle, Los Angeles, and Newark, where violent crime and civil suits against police have dropped and measures of public trust in officers have risen since decrees were entered. They’ve shown only faltering progress in almost a dozen other cities, like Baltimore, which is on its third police chief in less than two years since formalizing a consent decree that took more than a year to construct.


Though the idea of a court-enforced settlement is intended to suggest a kind of automatic, unstoppable progress, the reality on the ground is of course more complicated. The heart of these agreements is a mix of human change and administrative course-correction. In order to measure whether or not officers are embracing softer, more abstract shifts in how they interact with the public, consent decrees always require some new set of record-keeping policies. Transparency without data is meaningless, accountability without meaningful transparency is impossible, and cycles of distrust and abuse cannot be slowed and reversed without accountability.

Sessions and Trump have framed their specific Chicago gripes as objections to the administrative provisions of the city’s consent decree – specifically a new requirement for tracking instances where officers point a firearm at someone. That’s only one of several new rules in the lengthy deal – many of which stop well short of the demands made by civil rights litigants in a case called Campbell v. Chicago – but it’s a vital one. An earlier draft of the deal required cops to take note of any time they unholstered their weapon, drawing objections from Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson.

“The point is to get this right. What I can’t do as superintendent of this department is put police officers in a situation that causes them to hesitate,” Johnson said in July about the unholstering policy. After it was amended to require paperwork only when officers actually aim a gun at someone, the boss came around. Johnson’s been a steady physical presence at press conferences with Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) and state Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) as they’ve ushered the deal through draft stages to its current near-final form.

The notion that such basic accountability will freeze cops in their tracks when they ought to be acting is familiar. Officers who don’t trust accountability structures to protect them when they make the right calls, or when they make mistakes in good faith rather than out of malice, may indeed lock up instead of following their training. But that suggests the training itself is askew, the Chicago Justice Project’s Tracy Siska told WBEZ Chicago in August, rather than that accountability policies and quality policework are incompatible.

“If they’re hesitating because they’re worried about the democratic society that allows them to police them questioning their judgments, then they’re not trained well,” Siska said. “If they’re not having the training to pull their guns when it’s right, and they can’t be scrutinized [about] it, there’s a huge problem. And it’s just more evidence of why you’re going to have to force in reforms from the outside.”


Sessions and Trump’s objections to the new gun-brandishing rules and the broader settlement actually hinge on an earlier, smaller reform deal. They argue a 2015 ACLU settlement requiring new paperwork on civilian interactions is primarily responsible for a spike in murders. But that’s a dodge. By blaming paperwork for violence, the administration sidesteps the reasons that paperwork is necessary. It doesn’t bother looking for new processes that might help officers more quickly and easily document their interactions with civilians. It instead attacks the more fundamental idea that people should have some right to transparency regarding such interactions. It targets process in order to quietly warp policy. If writing down when you pointed a gun at someone today were somehow causing more violent crime, as Sessions loves to assert, then obviously anyone calling for you to write down the times you pointed a gun at someone today must loooooove violent crime! Simple.

The attack on transparency and documentation is a stalking horse for attacks on the notion that cops owe anybody an explanation for their decisions on the beat. But Trump and Sessions aren’t the only ones riding it. Emanuel has recently taken pains to portray himself as an enemy to Trump. But the truth is he also fought against the same data-collection requirements regarding gun brandishment by officers that Sessions and Trump have now latched onto.

“Transparency goes back to collecting data about the interactions that people are having with police officers. And we don’t know what’s happening on a system-wide basis unless that data is collected,” ACLU-Illinois’ Karen Sheley said on the same August radio panel. “And under this current draft of the consent decree, the mayor and the city are fighting having that kind of information collected as well. The first step before you can become transparent is you’ve gotta collect the information.”

Sessions, Trump, Emanuel, and other serial skeptics of court-enforced policing reforms like to focus on the word “decree” and ignore the bit about “consent.” Howling against the notion that cops can be forced into changed behavior from dictates on high, they obscure the actual process by which these deals are struck. Years of work go into such agreements, both out of practical necessity – as with any policy, it requires meetings and specifics and negotiation to convert the poetry of protest into the prose of rulemaking – and in the hope that a thoughtful, inclusive process will generate buy-in from community leaders and police officers alike.

The “consent” here isn’t just the formal legal concept of a city agreeing it can be penalized by a court if it fails, but also a nod to soft-power realities. If rank-and-file cops don’t see the new rules as legitimate, don’t feel their own perspective on the hardships and practicalities of their workdays have been reflected in the deal, the changes are less likely to take long-term root. To that end, all those lawyers, scholars, and protesters vilified by authoritarian-minded local and federal officials have sought out meetings and input and participation from actual Chicago cops. About 170 current officers participated in 13 separate focus group discussions of the ideas floated for reform over the past 18 months. An anonymous comments line was also set up for officers who weren’t randomly selected for a focus group or who might not be comfortable giving frank commentary even in that anonymized forum, though it received only a handful of responses.

All 13 focus groups raised the need for better training, equipment, and support from bosses, community members, political leaders, and the media. Eleven of them flagged concerns that even the current, lax accountability systems for police misconduct were driving officers to more conservative, reactive, or passive conduct. Such widespread skepticism of pre-decree accountability systems illustrates the headwinds any efforts at change will face. But they also illustrate again the special pleading and deceit baked into the Trump-Sessions line of argument here. Cops object to any oversight system as second-guessing, suggesting they’ll feel that way whether or not you make them keep track of every time they point a gun at someone.


The FOP actively discouraged officers from participating in the sessions, according to a summary report on the focus group findings released by Madigan’s office. The police union stands out as a primary obstacle to change, whether the sort officers called for in these breakout sessions or the civilian-designed policy proposals raised by the folks Sessions has been accusing of driving violence in speeches throughout this year.

“The FOP contract, which isn’t addressed in this consent decree, poses really significant barriers to addressing the code of silence” among officers who are aware of colleagues’ misconduct, longtime Chicago civil rights attorney Craig Futterman told WBEZ in the summer. “How can you do a rigorous investigation if you’re not even allowed to interview officers on the scene right away? How can do you do a rigorous investigation if, unlike every other police investigator who looks at patterns of abuse and pattern evidence whenever you’re looking at a potential suspect, we can’t do that with respect to police officers?”

The consent decree urges the city to renegotiate some provisions of the city’s police contract, but the court can’t override the collective bargaining rights embodied in those contracts. If the current contract’s near-absolute protections from internal affairs and civilian oversight investigators can’t be trimmed back in common-sense ways, it’s highly likely Chicago will continue to see the kinds of flagrant cover-ups that played into the Laquan McDonald case and numerous other department scandals dating back to the 1960s.

It’s hard not to feel like all this is shouting into a whirlwind. Sessions’ mind is clearly set against any questioning of police legitimacy. The professional fact-checkers have already picked apart his specious, cherry-picked claims about a causal link between requiring cops to obey the Constitution and an increase in violence. It doesn’t matter that he’s wrong – he and Trump have power, and aren’t inclined to listen to people who disagree with them.

Which makes it all too appropriate that Kanye West made it onto the president’s Thursday schedule. The two reportedly intend to discuss crime and policing in West’s hometown during that meeting. The artist’s recent MAGA-hat heel-turn – halfheartedly framed as some kind of Andy Kaufman-style public performance art by optimistic fans, rather than the simpler out-of-touch rich-madman stuff it is on its face – probably helped him get the sit-down. Maybe West has some adroit plans worked up to get the president to understand how Chicago’s police officers earned their community’s distrust and scorn over generations of abuse, killings, and cover-ups. But that would be a helluva magic trick – especially since the two share a facts-don’t-matter belligerence toward experts, the kind of enormous remove from everyday experience that elite wealth provides, and a monomaniacal confidence in their own existing ideas.