CHICAGO — Several leading community groups filed a class-action lawsuit against the city of Chicago Wednesday in a bid to bypass or even scuttle a draft agreement between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice that seeks to reform the nation's second largest police force without federal court oversight.
The more than 100-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago argues that an overhaul of Chicago's 12,000-officer force in the wake of a damning civil rights report in January can't work without the intense scrutiny of a court-appointed monitor answerable to a judge.
"Absent federal court supervision, nothing will improve," the lawsuit says. "It is clear that federal court intervention is essential to end the historical and on-going pattern and practice of excessive force by police officers in Chicago."
While President Donald Trump's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has expressed skepticism about court involvement, President Barack Obama's administration saw it as vital to successful reforms. Obama's Justice Department typically took a city reform plan to a judge to make it legally binding in the form of a consent decree.
Wednesday's lawsuit — which names Black Lives Matters Chicago among the plaintiffs — asks for a federal court to intervene and order sweeping reforms to end the "abusive policies and practices undergirding the alleged constitutional and state law violations."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration said earlier this month that a draft deal negotiated by the city and the Justice Department — one that foresees a monitor not selected by a court — is being reviewed in Washington. Justice Department spokesman Devin O'Malle cautioned last week that "there is no agreement at this time."
A lead attorney in the new lawsuit, Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor and outspoken advocate for far-reaching police reforms, said in a telephone interview that reports about the draft influenced the decision to sue now.
"This is the community stepping up when the government refuses to act and when it has long been clear that the city is incapable of acting on its own," he said.
If the judge presiding over the new lawsuit sides with the community groups, the court could mandate reforms. But Futterman said he hopes Emanuel will choose to work with the groups instead to draw up a comprehensive reform plan that the court and a court-appointed monitor would oversee.
"This is a real test for the mayor as to whether he is truly committed to police reform in Chicago," Futterman said.
Before Trump's inauguration in January, the Justice Department issued a scathing 161-page report following a yearlong investigation that found deep-rooted problems led to serious civil rights violations by Chicago police, including a tendency to use force even when suspects posed no threat and a "pervasive cover-up culture" among officers.
Emanuel committed to a consent decree in a joint statement with the Justice Department when the civil rights report was released in January and before the Trump administration made its reservations about court oversight clear. Emanuel has also said repeatedly that Chicago will push ahead with reforms, no matter what. His administration has established a new police oversight agency and adopted other practices to hold officers accountable, including fitting patrol officers with body cameras.
The Justice Department launched the investigation in 2015 after the release of police dashboard camera video showing a white officer shooting a black teenager, Laquan McDonald, 16 times as he appeared to walk away from police holding a small, folded knife. The video of McDonald's 2014 death prompted protests and demands for sweeping reforms. The officer who shot the 17-year-old was charged with first-degree murder and is awaiting trial.
Advocates of consent decrees say these have proven to the best way to ensure reforms elsewhere for years. Judges, free of political pressure, can rule that police are not complying with agree-to reforms and force them to do so via binding court orders. A lawsuit filed by community groups in Cincinnati in 2001 played a central role in kick-starting police reforms.
But the scale of the task in Chicago is exceptional: The Chicago Police Department is the largest in the U.S. to ever be investigated by the Justice Department, and efforts to fashion the right reform plan in Chicago come amid uncertainty about the Justice Department's level of commitment to broad reform.
Sessions has said consent decrees can unfairly malign all officers because of a few bad ones. During his confirmation hearing, he said one risk was that consent decrees can "undermine the respect for police officers." Police unions, many of which endorsed Trump for president, shared those concerns.
The draft agreement, city officials have said, would have a mechanism by which the Justice Department can request a court to step in if Chicago isn't adhering to reform provisions. But Sessions' criticism of court involvement would make any such move unlikely.
Plaintiff attorneys scheduled a news conference Wednesday to discuss the lawsuit.