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Lawyer Behind Chicago Police Lawsuit Explains Need For Court Oversight

Craig Futterman helped force the release of the video of Laquan McDonald's death. Now, he's taking the city back to court to push for police reform.
Posted at 10:27 AM, Aug 25, 2017

In January, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the Chicago Police Department "engages in a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force" and recommended a federal court-enforceable consent decree to reform the department.

"We're going to make these changes, and we need somebody from the outside to help us," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said.

But seven months later, Emanuel is moving away from the "court-enforceable" piece of that recommendation.

"… it would be foolhardy to say, 'Oh, the mayor says we're gonna fix this? It's all good now!'" University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman said.

But Futterman isn't convinced the city can handle this on its own, and he's hoping a lawsuit against the city will get the federal court involved again in Chicago police reform. 

The 130-page lawsuit, filed on behalf of several civil rights organizations and community members who say they suffered from police brutality, would give a federal judge the power to enforce reforms within the CPD.

"… this isn't going to change without court oversight, sustained oversight. … Federal court judge with the whip, with the hammer. You don't just say, 'We're gonna solve racism in the police department, code of silence, we declare it over so it's over.'" Futterman said. 

And while Futterman and many others call the problems in the police department long-standing, the recent national scrutiny can be traced back to one moment. Laquan McDonald was shot and killed in October 2014 by former Chicago PD Officer Jason Van Dyke. McDonald was shot 16 times.

Futterman was involved in pushing for the release of the video showing the 17-year-old's death from the very beginning.

Futterman said, "I got a confidential call from someone within law enforcement who told me about the video ... they had seen this stuff throughout the years and years and just said, 'Craig, enough of this.'"

Futterman, along with several others, advocated and ultimately won a court order that led to the release of the McDonald video. Since that time, the former Chicago PD superintendent has been fired, the former Cook County state's attorney has been ousted, and the Chicago police have plans to adopt a new use-of-force policy.

But Futterman believes the Chicago PD's problems are entrenched in the department, and it's going to take even more dramatic changes for any reforms to stick.

"A police officer shoots somebody, on average, once a week in Chicago, and that's been true over the last 30 years. And the other thing that hasn't changed over the last 30 years is more than three-quarters of the people shot by police are black. ... This isn't something that just started yesterday or just started with the killing of Laquan McDonald. This has been a decadelong practice," Futterman said. 

Chicago is one of 25 departments across the country to be investigated by the DOJ since 2008 and one of 11 to ultimately be found to use excessive force. The reform consent decree is not a guaranteed fix for these police departments. Several PDs have gone through these court-enforced reforms, spending millions along the way, with minimal success. 

A Washington Post analysis found five of 10 police departments analyzed had an increase in use of force by officers during and after the agreements. In five others, it stayed the same or declined.

"I think it's important that we remember that there's more we agree on than disagree," Emanuel said.

Mayor Emanuel continues to stress his commitment to reform, though he hasn't said why he's backed off a court-enforceable agreement. Futterman believes that lack of oversight is a cop out.

Futterman said: "We know. Now that we know, will we care enough about the lives of people? … Will we collectively care enough about this to say enough is enough and address this?"