With just days until Donald Trump is sworn in as president, the Obama administration is making a last-minute push for police overhauls in two of the nation’s most violent cities, Baltimore and Chicago, where officers have been accused of routinely mistreating African-Americans.
In Chicago, where a city task force appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel concluded that “the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color,” the Justice Department is rushing to wrap up a sweeping investigation into police patterns and practices, prompted by the release of a chilling video that showed a white officer shooting a black teenager. The findings are expected to be released before Jan. 20, Inauguration Day.
Such an investigation is typically the first step toward a consent decree in which a police department is required to make significant changes under court supervision. But in Chicago, President Barack Obama’s Justice Department is running out of time to pursue such an order, and activists fear that the Trump administration will abandon the effort.
Here in Baltimore, where Justice Department officials have already released a blistering report accusing the police of systematic racial bias, negotiators for the city and the Obama administration are “getting very close” to agreement on a consent decree, Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said. Federal officials say an announcement could come as early as this week.
Pattern and practice inquiries can be powerful tools for police reform, and the Obama administration has made expansive use of them amid a wrenching national conversation over race and policing. Baltimore and Chicago are among nearly two dozen cities — including Ferguson, Missouri; Seattle; and Cleveland — where the Justice Department has pushed for wholesale changes in policing.
But Trump, who campaigned on a law-and-order platform and has denounced what he calls “the war on our police,” is widely expected to reverse course. He has sharply criticized the Obama Justice Department, and he argues that criticism of the police is partly to blame for violence against officers in cities like Dallas.
Negotiations on the consent decree for Baltimore were moving steadily along when Hillary Clinton appeared on track to become president. But Trump’s victory created a sense of urgency. Now, “we are racing at an accelerated pace,” Pugh said. “The Obama people are pushing harder because they are on their way out.”
The last-minute push comes as Trump’s choice for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., faces Senate confirmation hearings this week. Sessions has argued that consent decrees, like the one being negotiated in Baltimore, make officers less likely to do the kind of community policing that would reduce crime.
“One of the most dangerous, and rarely discussed, exercises of raw power is the issuance of expansive court decrees,” Sessions wrote in 2008. “Consent decrees have a profound effect on our legal system as they constitute an end run around the democratic process.”
Such comments have created intense concerns about how Sessions, if confirmed, would handle delicate issues involving police treatment of minorities.
The senator has also been dogged for decades by questions about his views on race, which linger in Baltimore, a city that is nearly two-thirds African-American.
“He has a background that I think is very questionable when it comes to how he sees people of color in a city like Baltimore,” said City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, a community organizer who won election in November. “I think there will certainly be a much different tone coming from them as it relates to police accountability.”
Cornell William Brooks, the national president of the NAACP, who was arrested last week during a sit-in at Sessions’ office in Alabama, said an important tool would be lost if the Trump administration pulled back in the use of consent decrees.
“What happens if we can’t say, ‘We’ve reached out to the DOJ and that they are looking at it’?” Brooks said. “To whom do you appeal?”
A spokesman for Sessions declined to comment while the confirmation hearings were pending.
In both Chicago and Baltimore, which are led by Democratic mayors, the police are grappling not only with demand for reform but with surging violent crime that has reached levels not seen since the 1990s. Chicago, home to 2.7 million residents, had 762 homicides last year — more than New York and Los Angeles combined — prompting Trump to taunt Emanuel on Twitter. “If Mayor can’t do it he must ask for Federal help!” the president-elect wrote.
Baltimore, with about 622,000 residents, had 318 homicides in 2016, nearly as many as in New York, a city of more than 8.5 million. The Baltimore police commissioner, Kevin Davis, called 2016 “a historically violent year.”
Both cities attracted Justice Department scrutiny after the deaths of young African-American men: Laquan McDonald, 17, was shot by a Chicago officer in 2014, and Freddie Gray, 25, died of injuries he received while in police custody in Baltimore in 2015. The deaths led to widespread protests — Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland called in the National Guard to quell riots in Baltimore — and calls for federal intervention. In the ensuing political fallout, the mayors of both cities dismissed their police chiefs. In Baltimore, six officers were charged in Gray’s death; none were convicted.
The two cities have had difficulty hiring enough officers and are saddled with high poverty rates, struggling school systems, a plethora of illegal guns, and high unemployment rates among young African-Americans, which the police and others say help fuel crime.
“These two cities have been traumatized with major violent crime issues, and each chief now has the daunting task of rebuilding a department after a high-profile incident has eroded public trust,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, an organization that works to improve policing.
Both mayors have said they are committed to reform — regardless of who occupies the White House. “It’s not about Trump; it’s about what we do as a city,” Pugh said.
Some Baltimore officers are already wearing body cameras, she said, and she is pushing for more civilian involvement in police trial boards, a central demand of advocates and the Justice Department. But legal experts say Trump’s election might have already changed the negotiating dynamic, strengthening a city’s ability to push back against other federally imposed requirements.
“On the one hand the city is partnering with the DOJ, and in another sense they’re adversaries,” said David Jaros, a law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. “And to the degree that they’re adversaries, this has changed their bargaining position dramatically.”
At the same time, activists and some members of the Baltimore City Council are worried that in the rush to finish, they will not have a chance to weigh in. City Councilman Brandon M. Scott, the chairman of the public safety committee, and Ray Kelly, the president of the No Boundaries Coalition, an advocacy group, have called for public hearings before any agreement is signed. Pugh has not committed to a public review.
“We’re optimistic; we think this consent decree is going to be the tool we need for change,” Kelly said. “But without a public hearing to say what’s in it, we can’t change it.”
In Chicago, some activists said they feared that the findings would be watered down or ignored by Trump.
“With Trump’s administration coming in, the report probably won’t have any teeth,” said the Rev. Ira Acree, a Chicago minister whose wish list includes more effective police oversight, beat-based policing and greater diversity among officers.
But Lori E. Lightfoot, the president of the Chicago Police Board, an oversight group, said that once the report was issued, there would be pressure on the city to make changes, even without a legally binding agreement like the one expected in Baltimore.
“If they give a report that cries out for change and reform,” she said, “I think that this city is going to have to act. It’s going to be in the city’s economic and moral best interests to do so.”