IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Chicago's consent decree woes offer a warning as Minneapolis police face federal oversight

Minneapolis is embarking on a court-ordered overhaul of its police department. Chicago, where an effort began in 2019, is at "risk of failing" to meet its goals, a former official said.
Photo Illustration: an image of Minneapolis police officers over an image of Minneapolis
As Minneapolis prepares for federal oversight in its police department, Chicago has struggled to meet its oversight goals.NBC News / Getty Images

As Minneapolis prepares to negotiate a federal consent decree that would install an independent monitor of its embattled police force, officials under scrutiny to deliver meaningful reforms will likely find a laborious process with no obvious end in sight.

They need only look to the roughly dozen cities and communities that in the past decade have adopted specifically tailored court orders to ensure their law enforcement agencies are complying with constitutional policing.

The agreements — while necessary because they guarantee federal oversight, supporters say — remain fraught, often lasting years while costing cities millions of dollars annually in legal and monitoring fees and other mandated upgrades.

In Baltimore, where a federal consent decree was implemented in 2017, staffing shortages within the police department and a slow rollout of new equipment have hampered efforts. Cleveland, Ohio, has made strides since its consent decree was put in place in 2015, although a federal judge said the city will continue to be under a monitor through at least 2024 as it grapples with staffing and accountability requirements.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, which entered into a consent decree in 2019, community activists and policing reform groups say little progress has been made as the previous administration weathered larger crises that stalled the effort.

Chicago is in "full compliance" with less than 5% of its consent decree requirements, according to a police department dashboard.

Residents are "telling us they don't see an effect on their neighborhoods. Police officers are still disproportionately targeting communities of color for these really aggressive interactions," said Alexandra Block, a senior supervising attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which is part of a coalition of community groups that sought a consent decree in Chicago.

"The big issues haven't changed either, despite a new use of force policy and foot pursuit policy," Block said. "It doesn't seem like those officers understand the new policies or are being held accountable to follow them."

The sluggish developments in Chicago come amid a backdrop of officer vacancies in the city, a wave of gun violence and scandals dragging down the police department and city leadership. Incumbent Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot lost a re-election bid in February, prompting newly elected Mayor Brandon Johnson, a progressive Democrat, to begin a search for a new police superintendent who can help guide the consent decree's execution.

Stakeholders blamed Lightfoot for failing to prioritize the consent decree as she struggled to steer the nation's third-largest city through the Covid pandemic, clashes with the teachers' union, a rise in the migrant population and other emergencies.

"Consent Decree implementation and monitoring is a faltering undertaking both in substantive accomplishment and in transparency," Joe Ferguson, a former inspector general of Chicago, wrote in a federal court filing this month. "In the absence of a hard methodological and operational reset, I believe the Consent Decree is at high risk of failing to achieve its objectives."

Chicago's court-appointed independent monitor acknowledged in a report last fall that any significant progress has been "diminished" by inadequate police department staffing.

But former federal prosecutors and legal experts say the same fate can be avoided in Minneapolis, where the police department has been scrutinized in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man whose death in 2020 spurred racial justice protests across America.

The Justice Department, in announcing its findings of a sweeping civil rights investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department, said officers have used "unjustified deadly force," discriminated against Black and Native American people and people with behavioral health issues, and "violated the rights" of citizens engaged in protected speech.

"We observed many MPD officers who did their difficult work with professionalism, courage and respect, but the patterns and practices we observed made what happened to George Floyd possible," Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a news conference.

Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O'Hara, who assumed the position in November, also pledged to "change the narrative around policing in this city." O'Hara previously led the police department in Newark, New Jersey, which has been under a federal consent decree since 2016.

The consent decree agreement in Minneapolis requires that the federal government, the city and the police department engage with a variety of stakeholders, including residents, community groups and local business owners.

"While the City does not concede that there is a pattern or practice of unlawful behavior, the City agrees that the United States' findings raise issues of great importance to the City and the community, and the City agrees to continue to implement significant changes to address issues raised in the report," the agreement says.

Chicago's consent decree, which was born out of an investigation launched by the Obama administration into police misconduct, was "groundbreaking" for having community members participate in its crafting, Block, from ACLU, said.

If Minneapolis is to be successful, she added, then "one of the most important lessons is that community input needs a feedback loop."

"It's not enough for the police department to take a survey or accept public comments on a particular policy or issue," she said. "They need to demonstrate what they're doing to incorporate those comments from the public, and if they aren't going to, then be transparent about why. One thing we're frustrated about is CPD saying they're collecting community input, but it feels like it's going into a black hole never to be heard again."

Neither the Chicago Police Department nor the mayor's office immediately responded to requests for comment.

Christy Lopez, a Georgetown University Law Center professor and a former Justice Department deputy chief who helped negotiate a federal consent decree in Ferguson, Missouri, said Minneapolis will benefit as long as residents have a say.

"Chicago did a nice job of getting in with the community from the outset, but what no one's done is actually incorporate community expectations: What does policing look like for you? What does a consent decree look like for you? How can the community help measure that?" Lopez said.

Ferguson underwent a consent decree agreement following the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014 and accusations of racially biased policing in the majority-Black suburb of St. Louis.

Over the past decade, law enforcement agencies in cities such as Albuquerque, New Mexico, New Orleans and Springfield, Massachusetts, have entered into federal consent decrees. Seattle, which has been under a consent decree since 2012, is moving closer to ending the process after meeting goals like reducing use of force incidents.

In March, Louisville, Kentucky's police force agreed to a consent decree after a Justice Department probe alleged discrimination against Black residents and searches based on invalid warrants.

Puneet Chema, the director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Justice in Public Safety Project and a former Justice Department special litigation attorney who worked on the federal consent decree negotiations in Baltimore, said she hopes that consent decrees now take into account solutions that also reduce police violence, such as the use of behavioral crisis units at the scene of calls.

The Justice Department investigation in Minneapolis noted that police training has been inadequate in responding to people with mental health issues, although the city has benefited from a pilot program launched in late 2021 that allows mental health professionals to respond to calls rather than police.

"These problems weren't created overnight and the goals of these consent decrees are to remedy the entire systems within law enforcement agencies," Chema said. "That does take time."

But community groups say that can't come at the expense of civil rights and human lives.

More than two years after Chicago's consent decree went into effect, outrage was reignited in the city in 2021 with the separate fatal shootings of Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old who was being chased by police officers who said he had a gun, and Anthony Alvarez, an armed 22-year-old who ran from police.

The department has since changed its foot pursuit policy, barring officers from going after people just because they ran away or committed a minor offense. Chicago's consent decree had included a requirement to adopt a foot pursuit policy.

Reforming practices is important, but it will take ongoing talks among the community, police and city leaders to ensure trust and goodwill are being mutually felt, said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert on police use of force.

In Minneapolis, "there's language in the report that talks about collaboration," Alpert said. "I hope they can do that more than has occurred in other consent decrees, so people are left with more than empty promises year after year."