Civil Rights & Police Accountability Clinic—Significant Achievements for 2018-19

Without doubt, our Clinic’s greatest accomplishment this year was winning the a federal civil rights consent decree to remedy the Chicago Police Department’s pattern and practice of civil rights violations and its practices which have fostered conditions of police impunity and inflicted incalculable harm on generations of Chicago’s most disadvantaged families, especially African Americans.  What is more, our community-based clients won the right enforce the decree in federal court throughout the entire life of the decree.  This is the first time in U.S. history that community enforcement has ever been written into a government consent decree over a police department.  The decree emerged from years of advocacy by our clinic students and clients calling on the United State Justice Department to conduct a top to bottom civil rights investigation into the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Our advocacy led to the largest civil rights investigation of a police department in the Justice Department’s history, which documented Chicago’s unchecked patterns of police violence, racial discrimination, and the lack of police accountability.  However, the Trump administration refused to redress the CPD’s systemic civil rights violations documented by the Justice Department, and instead opposed any court oversight of the CPD.  In response, Clinic students, together with individual victims of police brutality, Black Lives Matter-Chicago, the West Side Chapter of the NAACP, the Chicago Urban League, Latinx neighborhood organizations, and women’s advocacy groups, did what the Trump administration refused to do:  enforce the Constitution of the United States in Chicago.  We sought a permanent injunction, the appointment of an independent monitor, and federal judicial oversight over the CPD—an injunction enforceable by people who have been most impacted by Chicago police abuse.  After an evidentiary hearing in which our clients and students testified and submitted an eighty page brief documenting the urgent need for a decree, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Dow entered the proposed decree, appointed an independent monitor, and ruled that our clients had the right to bring direct enforcement actions under the decree.  The decree holds the potential to fundamentally transform policing in Chicago and end decades of police abuse.  This represents the accomplishment not just of the outstanding student team who brought this home, but also the work of our former students dating back to the founding of the Clinic who long fought to make this day a reality.  It is now up to future students with our clients to ensure that the decree lives up to its potential.

Clinic students have already begun to build upon and beyond the decree to bring about needed institutional changes.  For example, Mariah Garcia worked with our client partners to research and propose a series of policies to remove or limit the assignment of police to Chicago public schools; Sarah Kinter drafted an ordinance that would create direct community oversight of the CPD and police misconduct investigations; Eleni Christou drafted policies limiting the circumstances in which police officers may point guns at people; Morgan Daves Gehrls drafted transparency requirements related to police use of force and allegations of police misconduct; and David Raban has begun to establish systems to analyze data to measure CPD compliance with the decree. 

The Clinic secured a $265,000 monetary settlement to four individual clients who had been abused by Chicago police officers.  Officers repeatedly shot a Black man with a Taser and then falsely charged him with assaulting the police to justify what they had done.  Other officers beat and falsely arrested two Black women in a separate incident at an event outside of a nightclub.  Additional officers targeted another client, a college student, for false arrest and brutality, because of his participation in a protest against Chicago police violence against African-Americans. Injunctive relief that our clients sought, including rules that prohibit CPD use of deadly force except when necessary as a last resort to prevent death or serious bodily injury, was incorporated into the Chicago police consent decree.

Another truly historic event spurred by the outstanding work of clinic students was the conviction of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke for the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.  This was the first conviction of an on-duty Chicago police officer for killing a Black man, woman, or child in Chicago’s entire history.  To put this in proper perspective, Chicago police officers have killed an average of more than one person per week over the past thirty years.  More than 75% of the people killed by Chicago police have been Black.  Yet none of the hundreds of officers who killed African Americans while on duty had ever been criminally prosecuted or convicted.  A video from a police car camera revealed that Officer Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald as the boy shied away from him, that Van Dyke paused as Laquan fell to the street, adjusted his aim, and then repeatedly fired into the boy’s body as he lay helpless in the street—a total of 16 shots.  The Clinic first brought Laquan’s killing to public attention, ultimately winning a court order securing the public release of the police video that the City and Police Department had fought to suppress and brought worldwide scrutiny to Chicago police abuse of African Americans and its machinery of denial that enabled officers to abuse Black and other disadvantaged people with impunity.  Clinic students’ successful petition for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute Officer Van Dyke’s actions and fellow officers’ efforts to cover up the circumstances of Laquan’s killing resulted in Van Dyke’s murder conviction and the criminal indictment of three officers for participating in the cover up.  Van Dyke’s lenient prison sentence (also challenged by the Clinic) and a trial judge’s acquittal of the three indicted officers indicate the amount of work that remains for our students to make the ideal of equal justice under the law a reality.   

In other news, Clinic students’ success in establishing the Citizens Police Data Project has gone worldwide.  Clinic students established the legal precedent that police misconduct records belong to the public and created a public database of Chicago police misconduct records from 1967 through the present that continues to be used to free people from prison, defend individuals falsely accused of crimes, prosecute civil rights violations, support investigative reporting from New York to Los Angeles, and provide the data for a number of scholarly articles to improve knowledge. Universities and lawyers in the United Kingdom are now drawing upon our students’ work to advocate for the development of a similar database there.

Graduating students, Aaron Tucek and Erica Maricich, and continuing student, Lee Stark, brought a new civil rights case in federal court challenging the wrongful conviction of our client, who at just 19-years-old was sentenced to thirty years in prison, because Chicago police detectives had tortured him into giving a false confession. As spring finals approached, Aaron and Lee drafted a powerful brief opposing the defendants’ motion to dismiss our client’s case.  Beth Daviess did an outstanding job presenting a claim of police torture before the Illinois Torture and Inquiry Relief Commission.  Whittney Barth, even though she graduated this June, will be presenting a case before the Commission in August that will re-examine the legal definition of torture in Illinois.  Shortly before her graduation, Laurel Hattix, drawing upon her two years with Kimberly Waters, working with Black high school students about their experiences with police in the Clinic’s Youth/Police Project, led a workshop that trained lawyers in the public defender’s office, civil rights attorneys, and community organizers on recent developments in police surveillance.  Finally, clinic graduate Jeremy Chen’s appellate work opposing the Fraternal Order of Police’s appeal of a trial court order that released tens of thousands of police misconduct records to the public proved successful.  The Appellate Court dismissed the FOP’s appeal.