CN June 22 2017 (Bill Ruthhart)


Police reform in Chicago appears to have stalled, or at least taken a very different path since the election of Donald Trump and the appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General.

Mayor Emanuel, who once swore he wanted a full consent decree with the federal government, would have committed the City to implementing dozens of reforms outlined in a federal report outlining  deep, systemic problems with the CPD.  But with the switch in Washington, the Department of Justice was no longer interested in getting involved with the operations of big-city police departments. So Mayor Emanuel has said that he will instead sign a memorandum of agreement with the DOJ. The memo, he insists, will commit the city to a full slate of reforms, but critics are skeptical.

With Chicago police reform efforts appearing to be slowing or perhaps morphing into something altogether different, it was time to call on the Tribune’s Bill Ruthhart. He’s been covering the scramble for changes to police recruitment, training, deployment and discipline for a long time, and it’s been a significant story in 2017.

Ruthhart tells us that there’s even controversy about how, or whether, the Mayor filed his memo of agreement with Justice.

“It’s an agreement between the Justice Department and the City.” he explains. “And so we’ve asked the Mayor numerous times who initiated this. He’s walked away from the podium and not answered the question. His administration likes to say ‘well this wasn’t our idea,’ but it’s not clear whether the Emanuel administration wanted to stick to the consent decree and the Justice Department said, “No, we’re not doing a consent decree, let’s do this instead.” It sounds like perhaps the City Hall drew up this draft of this agreement and shoveled it over to the Justice Department. The Mayor’s office says they have an agreement in principle to do this Memorandum of Agreement. The Justice Department says there is no agreement.”

Is it possible, as some skeptics have argued, that Mayor Emanuel only agreed to enter into a reform process with the DOJ because he knew that the Trump Administration would reject the offer, thereby letting the mayor off the hook?

“I certainly would not try to get inside the mind of Rahm Emanuel,” Ruthhart says, “But, I did point out that he knew who had been elected President. He knew the position of Trump and Sessions on consent decrees, and they’ve since signaled they have no interest in having court oversight of consent decrees. I’m not even sure they have interest of a Memorandum of Agreement over police departments. You know they have very much taken the position that the police should be given full leeway to do their jobs and Trump was heavily endorsed by FOP, including the Chicago FOP, and so you have very different politics there.”

So what should happen? If the feds are no longer a reliable partner, where do police reform advocates turn? “Lots of experts say you can partner with the ACLU or community organizations and enter court voluntarily,” he tells us. “The prospect of a lawsuit also has been hanging out there and  there’s one been filed…Emanuel’s administration could find a partner to go into court voluntarily. Some have suggested that could be Lisa Madigan’s office. Some have suggested it could be the ACLU. It could be some other unknown group that had standing and concern about police reforms, so there’s a lot of different routes to get there.”

There’s been concern among reform advocates that the police union, the FOP, could be a major impediment, given that union’s endorsement of President Trump and its overwhelming vote of confidence in the recent police union election. But Ruthhart says, it’s complicated.

“I don’t know that the Union has a lot of say in police reform at the end of the day if it ends up in court,” Ruthhart continues. “I mean you have a Justice Department investigation that came to some pretty damning conclusions. You know the Mayor signed that agreement after that investigation saying yes, these are all problems that need to be addressed and I believe a federal court should oversee them, right. FOP is not really a party to that…I mean the contract is subject to negotiations, right, and if there’s one thing Rahm Emanuel probably is pretty savvy at it’s negotiating. I’ll give him that for sure. And so I think there’s other things the police besides their 24-hour waiting period to stay intact. There’s certain things that perhaps they might be willing to give if they get better benefits or more pay or other things that cops want.”

Despite the cynicism, Ruthhart says there’s strong impetus driving reforms forward, and that this could still be a solid opportunity for change at CPD.

“The public sentiment and Lisa Madigan and Chuy Garcia and Toni Preckwinkle and many other members of the progressive caucus and City Council, you know, all believe that there’s been so many different reports and efforts at reform in Chicago over the years and none of it has ever really happened. And they all firmly believe that if we are really going to do it this time you’ve got to have somebody who is not a politician overseeing the process. And they are not doubting Emanuel’s dedication toward reform. I think people generally, at least those people I listed said we are not questioning his commitment, it’s just a matter of this should be removed from the political process. Budget considerations and things like that shouldn’t color what the actual reforms are and how they get done…So you know, I think this perhaps has become a bigger issue for him to deal with than perhaps he initially estimated.”

Listen to the show on your phone with SoundCloud:  CN transcript June 22 2017 Bill Ruthhart

Read the entire transcript of the show HERE:


About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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