CHICAGO _ A federal lawsuit filed Wednesday by a host of civil rights lawyers and organizations seeks to force sweeping reforms in the troubled Chicago Police Department.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago, is an attempt to force a form of oversight Mayor Rahm Emanuel backed away from earlier this month _ federal court supervision of reforms in a department plagued by allegations of excessive force and misconduct.
About 15 lawyers from Chicago and New York filed the lawsuit on behalf of six African-American plaintiffs who allege excessive force and other abuses, as well as groups including Black Lives Matter Chicago.
The roughly 130-page lawsuit invokes police uses of force dating to the 1968 Democratic convention and the killing of Black Panther Fred Hampton in arguing that violence and racial discrimination remain structural features of the department to this day. The suit contends that police routinely beat, deploy Tasers on and shoot African-Americans and Latinos with the protection of a "code of silence" and little risk of discipline.
Though the suit seeks money for the individual plaintiffs, it is distinct from most litigation filed against the police because it also seeks an injunction to force reforms that are not specified but would be hammered out if the litigation succeeds.
Indeed, the chief goal is an order empowering a judge to enforce reforms that could include those endorsed by the U.S. Department of Justice in its report from January criticizing the police as badly trained, poorly supervised and prone to excessive force, said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor and a member of the plaintiffs' legal team.
Without court oversight, Futterman said, "We'll be having the same conversation after the next scandal."
The Emanuel administration could not immediately be reached for comment.
The suit is, in part, a response to Emanuel's reversal earlier this month of his vow to negotiate a consent decree _ a judicially enforced agreement for reform _ with the Justice Department. The agency investigated the department following the scandal sparked 19 months ago when a judge ordered the release of video of a white officer shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times.
The Justice Department earlier this year painted the agency as badly broken. The report said a consent decree would be the best and likely the only way to correct the department's deep and long-standing problems.
President Donald Trump's inauguration, however, brought in a new administration skeptical of federal intervention in local law enforcement.
Emanuel is now pitching a plan for an agreement with federal authorities to hire an independent monitor to oversee reforms without the supervision of a judge. Former Justice Department officials have blasted the plan, saying court oversight is essential to fixing a police force as large and dysfunctional as Chicago's.
The mayor and allies have said Emanuel's political will for change is evident in the reforms he has made so far, including embracing body cameras and moving to fix the city's primary police disciplinary agency. They have portrayed Emanuel's approach as the best option after losing a more enthusiastic partner for reform in the Obama administration.
The new lawsuit seeks court enforcement _ whether the city wants it or not. But Futterman said Emanuel could also agree to work out a court-monitored consent decree with the plaintiffs.
"He wants a dance partner? He's got one," Futterman said. "If he's serious about ending police civil rights abuses in Chicago, he will agree _ as he already did before _ to binding court oversight and enforcement."
If the suit finds early success in court, it could put Emanuel in a political bind. He's said repeatedly that he is committed to serious reform, but now he faces a decision as to how to handle a lawsuit from some of the city's best known reform advocates and his loudest critics.
There is precedent for activists suing and forcing court-monitored police reform.
In Oakland, Calif., litigation filed in the early 2000s by citizens led to court-enforced reforms without Justice Department intervention. Oakland, however, is not considered a complete success; scandals have continued as millions of dollars in costs have piled up over some 15 years.
In Cincinnati in the early 2000s, African-American activists and civil rights groups sued the police over alleged racial profiling and sought reforms. As the litigation was pending, officers shot an unarmed man, sparking riots and a Justice Department investigation. The city settled the litigation and addressed the Justice Department's findings by entering into a court-monitored agreement for reforms.
Though a federal judge stepped in to force compliance with the agreed reforms, Cincinnati's reform process is generally seen as a success.
One key challenge of litigation seeking police reform is proving that the plaintiffs have legal standing, said Al Gerhardstein, a Cincinnati civil rights attorney who sued that city for reforms. U.S. Supreme Court case law, Gerhardstein noted, holds that plaintiffs suing for an injunction under federal civil rights statutes must be able to show they are at ongoing risk of harm.
"If the city wants to just hunker down and fight, these standing arguments are a good tool for them," he said, adding that fighting the suit would do nothing to improve police relations with residents.
"You might win that legal battle but at what cost?" he asked.
The new suit in Chicago asserts that the plaintiffs would be in danger of future injury, as would the people represented by the groups pressing the suit.
The individuals named in the suit range from a man who alleges he was thrown to the ground and beaten by police during a peaceful protest to a pregnant woman who alleges she was pinned to the ground without cause.
The suit cites the Justice Department report as well as the report from the mayor's own Police Accountability Task Force in arguing that the department has a history and current practice of discrimination. It also notes dozens of other pending lawsuits and disciplinary cases.
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