Chicago's federal consent decree on police reform falls short of expectations, city leaders say

The federal consent decree was supposed to fundamentally reform the way police work in Chicago. But five years into the decree, forcing change on the Chicago Police Department has proved to be a lot slower and tougher than anybody expected.

A Fox 32 investigation by Dane Placko, has found it's also proving to be much more expensive than anticipated.

"Today is an historic day for the city of Chicago," said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

On Sept. 14, 2018, Chicago's police chief, mayor and the Illinois attorney general unveil a 229-page consent decree that promised the fundamental change for Chicago policing. 

"The consent decree is a detailed and comprehensive roadmap to reform that Chicagoans need and can be proud of," Madigan said. 

But 1,734 days later, nobody is proud or happy about how it has worked. 

"We're in year five, and we are not very far along," former Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson said.

"Well it's just another layer of bureaucracy," Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said.

"We are not satisfied with the progress," said Alexandra Block of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

"It has failed. It has failed miserably," said Rev. Marvin Hunter, the great uncle of Laquan McDonald.

McDonald's great uncle, the ACLU, a Chicago alderman, and the former Chicago inspector general are four stakeholders with four perspectives on the consent decree, but they are all disappointed.

"The actual whole idea of the document, in and of itself, came about as a result of the death of my great nephew, Laquan McDonald. 16-year-old shot down in the streets of Chicago," said Rev. Hunter.

The anger that sparked over the 2014 police shooting of McDonald prompted an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into the Chicago Police Department.

The investigation found a culture of routinely violating the constitutional rights of Black and Latino Chicagoans.

The consent decree ordered changes in everything, from police use of force, to foot pursuits, to anti-discrimination training, to police wellness.

But the ACLU said it's still being inundated with reports of police abuse.

"Police officers are still not respecting members of the community in day to day interactions, like pedestrian stops, traffic stops, these everyday interactions that are aggressive and hostile and insulting and often racist. And that hasn't changed in the last four years," said Block of the ACLU.

According to the police department's own data dashboard, they've reached full compliance on just five percent of the consent decree's requirements.

"The consent decree was oversold and over marketed as what was going to cure our ills. That was one big mistake," said Ferguson.

Ferguson, who had a seat at the table when the consent decree was being drawn, said it's been hampered by a revolving door at City Hall, including a rotation of three mayors, four police superintendents, and five corporation counsels, the city's top lawyer.

Ferguson also said there has been a huge lack of transparency.

"At a time when this entire reform enterprise is really being questioned by the public, legitimacy and effectiveness, this all happens behind a curtain. And that's not good. Change doesn't happen in Chicago in the dark," Ferguson said.

Then, there's the cost.

The federal court appointed a team of outside lawyers, led by Maggie Hickey, to serve as independent monitors. They tracked the police department's progress and reporting to a federal judge, and billed hundreds of dollars an hour.

The decree capped their legal fees and expenses at $2.85 million a year. But public records requested by FOX 32 found the monitors blew past that cap in each of the past three years by $374,000 in 2020 and $287,000 in 2021.

Last year, the monitors billed more than $4.1 million and nearly $1.3 million over the cap. Altogether, the lawyers have billed nearly $14 million to oversee the consent decree.

"It's in the vested interests of the monitors who make a living doing this. They're going to tell us, 'you're nowhere near done. By the way give us some more money,'" Ald. Hopkins said.

Hopkins chairs the City Council's public safety committee. He opposed the consent decree, saying the city would have been better off spending the money on police training and equipment.

"All of that was in progress on the day we signed the consent decree. And I think you could argue that without the burden of a federal monitor and without that extra layer of bureaucratic oversight, we might actually be farther in achieving those goals today," Hopkins said.

The monitor herself pointed at staffing shortages to explain the slow pace, written in a recent report: "We have observed a pattern where the CPD makes significant progress with the consent decree, which then diminishes as the CPD shifts resources toward deployments and unspecified crime-reduction strategies."

"We were really hoping that the life of Laquan McDonald would bring about a positive change. Take this negative and create something positive out of it. Because we can't get his life back. The way to do that we thought was to get real police reform," Hunter said.

Now, it's up to new Mayor Brandon Johnson to prioritize the pace of police reform with the appointment of Chicago's next top cop.

"The process for appointing the superintendent is really crucial, and we do think it will set the tone going forward," Block said. "And it is very, very important that the mayor select someone who has the capacity to bring about that culture change we were talking about."

But some worry that could take years.

The Los Angeles Police Department was under a federal consent decree for 13 years that cost taxpayers there more than $300 million.

"I'm afraid we're in a similar situation here. I hope it's not as bad as Los Angeles and their experience. But we have no guarantees at this point," Hopkins said. 

"The job of public officials is to try to do the impossible. And this seems impossible. Except it's not," Ferguson said.