On November 24th, 2015, people in Chicago and around the world watched in disbelief as the horrific dashcam video of a White Chicago Police Department (CPD) officer firing 16 shots into the body of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was shown for the first time. In the 15 seconds it took for the fatal shooting to occur, Chicago was shaken to its core and the city’s dirty laundry was swept out from under the rug for the world to see and judge.
The “City of Broad Shoulders” shuddered as a watershed of decades of racial tensions that had been quietly dismissed or explained away in political prose and bargaining came crashing down across television screens and the internet.
The Chicago Urban League was the first organization to request that the Department of Justice conduct a pattern and practice investigation into the CPD. Our decision to do so was predicated on an unabashed call for justice harkening to the foundation and mission upon which the League was founded 100 years ago.
On Friday, January 13th, the Justice Department released its 164-page report of findings confirming what many community members have long known: there are two Chicagos—one Black and one White—separate, unequal and plagued by systemic racial oppression. The CPD has been using excessive force and violating the Fourth Amendment rights of Black and Brown Chicagoans for decades.
While the League is encouraged by the Agreement in Principle between the DOJ and the City of Chicago to bring about the reforms the CPD so desperately needs, we had hoped the agreement would include more specific and detailed steps towards reform as in the agreements between the DOJ and the cities of Baltimore and Newark. Such detail can only serve to clarify the reforms CPD needs and increase transparency between law enforcement and the people of Chicago as those reforms come to fruition.
The DOJ indicated in its report that a consent decree is needed and that court-ordered independent monitoring must occur in order to reform the CPD – a sentiment with which the League wholeheartedly agrees. However, our country’s new political reality is that we may never see such a decree.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, nominee for U.S. Attorney General, has stated that the use of consent decrees in addressing civil rights abuses is “dangerous” and an “end run around the democratic process.” This should come as no surprise given his well-documented history of racism and hostility towards the civil rights of African-Americans.
The likely retreat of a Sessions-led DOJ is of great concern to the League. Due to the long history of systemic misconduct, we cannot trust the CPD to police itself. And while the Agreement in Principle between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the DOJ is a legally binding document that can be enforced through civil litigation, justice delayed through protracted litigation would truly be justice denied. The time is now for immediate and complete reform embraced by the current city’s administration as promised.
And the call for immediate reforms should be of great concern to us all, because Chicago is not any different than any other major city. The issues outlined in the DOJ report of findings transcend geography and affect communities of color across the country. Achieving transformational, systemic reform within law enforcement and criminal justice systems that have a long history of racist policies and practices is difficult because the blue wall of silence matters more to them than constitutional principle.
An overwhelming majority of police officers across the country, especially White cops believe that disproportionate police killings of Black people are not a systemic issue and that protests over these killings are motivated by anti-police bias, making their jobs harder, according to a new Pew Research Center poll. The blue wall and their own biases shield many officers from the truth that there is cause for concern about their behavior and practices. In fact, protesters are biased against “accidentally” being shot to death while peacefully and nonviolently exercising their First Amendment rights.
Even though Sessions will likely take the helm soon, the Agreement in Principle and a consent decree are important because ultimately – after all the pundits weigh in and varying public commentary is inked – the real work begins that transcends politics and trends, but only if “we the people” demand it.
We the people must demand that every Chicagoan, every Detroiter, every Minnesotan, every Baltimorean and every person regardless of race, creed, color, class, religion, ability and age, has a fundamental right to equal treatment under the law. This simple truth should resonate deeply with all those who care about the future of our country.
Shari Runner is the President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. A native of Chicago, she has been an active part of the city’s civic and cultural life. She is passionate about the importance of inspiring youth and empowering African American lives.