The federal consent decree with the Chicago Police Department for the past four years has had little effect on police conduct or public faith in the controversial department, and may have made Chicago's crime problem worse, a Manhattan Institute commentator writes in a detailed analysis of the reform program. The issue brief by Charles Fain Lehman argues that while the final verdict is not yet in, the preliminary results cast doubt on a broader question: whether federal consent decrees with troubled police departments can ever achieve meaningful police reform.
Since the decree took effect, there has been little change in the number of police killings — the initial impetus for federal intervention — and brutality complaints to the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) rose last year. Pointing to "a large and precipitous decline in police activity in the period following the implementation of the consent decree," the report notes that the same has been true across big-city police departments in the era of COVID shutdowns and policing protests. The decree "may have marginally reduced the use of force and possibly slightly improved trust in the police," Lehman writes. "But it appears to have had no effect on complaints, officer-involved shootings, or even pre-Covid activity. If the consent decree was meant to improve any of these outcomes, it cannot be said to have been a success, particularly not compared with the post-Covid drop in activity." Success is still possible, he concludes, pointing to other cities' experiences. But such programs "fail at least as often as they succeed," and Chicago's size and notoriety make it an important test of the concept.