BGA attorney Matt Topic asks the Illinois attorney general to take the lead on enforcing Chicago police reform in an op-ed for Crain’s Chicago Business.
Two years ago, on behalf of independent journalist Brandon Smith, I filed the lawsuit that forced the city of Chicago to release the Laquan McDonald shooting video. Despite the police misconduct the video revealed and the tremendous public outcry and promises of change that resulted, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has walked away from his commitment to legally binding police reform.
In case you’ve forgotten the full scope of what’s at stake, reread the report’s sections titled, “CPD’s pattern or practice of unreasonable force includes the use of excessive less-lethal force and against children” and “CPD and the City do not take sufficient steps to prevent officers from deliberately concealing misconduct.” Or just rewatch the Laquan McDonald video.
Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice has called the city’s approach—which would omit court oversight—“woefully inadequate.” Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has called it “another shortcut that leads to a dead-end” and noted the direct connection between the city’s pattern of civil rights violations and the violence on our streets. They’re right.
But public pressure isn’t enough this time. When it comes to actual police reform, we need more.
Several community groups affected by CPD’s pattern of civil rights abuses have filed a suit seeking the court-ordered relief that should have been in a federal consent decree. Hopefully that forces change, but there is still more that could be done.
So here’s another thought: Perhaps Madigan herself should join the suit or file one like it. She has said only that she “won’t rule out” legal action, but the time has come to think about ruling it in, and fast.
Under the legal doctrine of parens patriae, state AGs can file lawsuits on behalf of their citizens when they have reasonable cause to believe that public officials are engaged in a pattern of civil rights violations or illegal conduct. At least one federal appellate court has allowed such a suit—1982’s Pennsylvania v. Porter—and approved court oversight against a mayor, police chief and individual officer. The result: An injunction prohibiting them from subjecting people to “unconstitutional physical violence, mistreatment, threats, or harassment” and “unconstitutional detention, searches, seizures, arrests and imprisonment.”
Resources are already in place that would enable the Illinois AG’s office to join the fray. Its Civil Rights Bureau is responsible for conducting civil rights investigations and filing lawsuits “when an investigation deems that such action is warranted.” The DOJ’s substantial findings arm Madigan’s office with sufficient evidence to force the city into court-supervised reform—reform that the city already, in principle, agreed to with the now-uninterested feds.
And let’s not forget that Madigan called for the federal investigation, noting that, “the children in all of Chicago’s communities deserve to grow up in a city in which they are protected and served by the police.”
Across the country, state attorneys general are filing bold suits on behalf of their citizens. Chicago’s dire need for police reform should compel Madigan to consider doing the same here. Many have rightfully taken issue with our attorney general’s lack of initiative on public corruption, but this is an opportunity to use her authority—as she has done in areas like consumer protection—to address one of the most important issues in the city and state in our time.
As Madigan herself has noted, for more than 50 years, Chicago has failed to address police misconduct. Strong talk is great, but now it’s time to act.
This moment is too important for anything less.