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Big Shoulders, Bad Problems

The Trump administration would be wise to get on the side of police reformers in Chicago

January 17, 2017

The Justice Department’s report on Chicago policing is heartbreaking—and infuriating. It is heartbreaking because it helps explain in such grim detail why there is so much deadly violence there now and why so many of the city’s residents do not trust or respect the men and women who are sworn to serve them. It is infuriating because anyone who has paid any attention to Chicago’s problems has known for years, for decades, how dysfunctional and unaccountable is the city’s police department.

The shock of the report is not in its conclusions, which everyone pretty much expected, but in its relentless and detailed accounting of lawlessness by the very people who are supposed to enforce the laws. The chronicled episodes of racism, of senseless cruelty, of obstruction of justice, of violence, of misconduct that transcends poor training or faulty equipment; none of it came as news to the police officials and line officers who either committed those acts or who countenanced them.

The self-defeating conspiracy could have ended at any point if enough good people within the department stood up and began to hold each other accountable. The fact that this didn’t happen year after year as the chaos and corruption (and bloodshed) continued isn’t just a stain on the city’s mayor or high-ranking police officials. It’s also an indictment of a police union that protected even those cops whom the law should have exposed and punished. And, yes, one can hold this view and still believe that the responsibility for crime rests, first, with the criminal.

The “war on cops” meme so quickly pronounced these days? It begs the question: why shouldn’t civilians be skeptical and cynical about the police when they read how often the many good officers within departments cannot or will not expose the few bad cops who are acting to contrary to their sworn oaths? The recent story of Chicago policing, one could argue, is the story of brave officers who acted like cowards, or worse, when confronted with gross misconduct; of men and women who saw wrong and did not try to right it.

Which brings us to President-elect Donald Trump and his presumed U.S. attorney general, Jeff Sessions. The former fancies himself a tribune of union members (and, indeed, rank-and-file union voters helped push Trump over the top in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and Michigan). The latter is about as anti-union as they come except when it comes to police unions. He showed those unions love during his confirmation hearing last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the unions, in turn, showed their love for him, too.

Trump ran for office on a law-and-order theme that excused the police for all sorts of sins. If he at any point in his campaign recognized the many legitimate grievances citizens have about their local police I did not see it. Meanwhile, Sessions has a long history of antipathy for federal intrusion into local policing, a point he reiterated during his hearing last week when he said that federal lawsuits undermine the “respect” people ought to have for cops. Let’s be clear: It didn’t take a federal investigation for the people affected by Chicago’s racist policing to lose respect for the police.

So what are Trump and Sessions now going to do with this report on Chicago policing that is about to be dumped on their laps? Will they continue to pressure Chicago officials, and the police union, to at last bring meaningful reform to the department? Will they see the obvious link between the poor policing of communities of color and the rising crime rates in those neighborhoods? Will they honor and respect the good cops in Chicago by promising to help local officials root out the bad ones?

Or will they take a step back and blast what Sessions in the past has called the “overreach” of the Justice Department in tackling broken police systems like Chicago’s? Will Trump blame the victims of the conduct detailed in the federal report? Will he rush to the political rescue of a police union that has shown itself unwilling or unable to control the worst excesses of some its members? Will both Sessions and Trump blame the city’s Democratic administration and its hapless leader, Mayor Rahm Emanuel?

If the history of policing in the past decade or so has taught us anything, it is that problems as serious as those in Chicago don’t just go away by themselves. If local officials had the moral courage, political will and economic wherewithal to implement dispositive reforms, they would have done so without federal intervention. If Chicago truly wanted to fix its problems, and could fix them, it would have already done so. That’s why the incoming Trump administration could take a bold step on criminal justice and policing everywhere by siding with the reformers instead of obstructing them. Don’t hold your breath.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Photo: ThinkStock)