With police brutality, police reform, #blacklivesmatter, and #bluelivesmatter all being hot topics during Barack Obama’s second term and especially during the campaign season leading up to this most recent election, it was clear that changes in policing were coming, one way or another. With the election of Donald Trump as President and appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, the efforts of the federal government aimed at police issues were expected to be directed at bolstering the legitimacy of police departments, supporting a tough-on-crime agenda, and reducing federal intervention.
On April 17, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote an op-ed for USA Today making clear his stance on some of the issues under his influence. He framed the national issue as a fight against rising crime, pointing to the upward movement in Baltimore and Chicago in particular. He talked mostly about two things: being tough on crime and getting rid of federal oversight for local police departments. He cited a few statistics about the correlation between a declining number of arrests in Chicago and an increase in the number of homicides, implying that arrest rates have a significant effect on crime rates. He also framed federal oversight as an undue restriction on police, one that would prevent them from fighting crime.
An article in the Huffington Post by Ryan J. Reilly and Kim Bellware published on April 29 looks at the impact that the latter stance could have in Chicago. With the election of Donald Trump and the appointment of Jeff Sessions, its consent decree — the formal agreement by which local police departments in Chicago promised to cooperate with the Department of Justice to make reforms — will be reconsidered and possibly revoked.
The conversation about policing in Chicago now is shaped by a 2016 Department of Justice investigation and the report that was published a week before Trump’s inauguration. Generally, the report commended Chicago police for their “diligent efforts” and courage in combatting crime, but it also described a “breach of trust” between police and communities and a need for “broad, fundamental reform.” It recommended that the department sign a consent decree, and that without one their efforts at reform were “not likely to be successful.”
Reilly and Bellware note that while the results of consent decrees are not uniformly or exclusively positive, they more often than not are successful to some degree. They can reduce shootings, reduce killings, reduce lawsuits settled against the city, increase police morale, and increase morale in the community.
With Jeff Sessions speaking out on behalf of the Department of Justice against federal oversight in the form of consent decrees, many in Chicago are cynical about the opportunity for change. With no one to keep police in check from the top, residents have no recourse when something goes wrong.