Feds launch civil rights probe into Chicago police

The Justice Department has conducted similar investigations, and produced scathing reports, in Ferguson, Cleveland, and Baltimore.

Susan Walsh/AP
Attorney General Loretta Lynch (r.) and US Attorney in Chicago Zachary Fardon (l.) speaks during a conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Monday, about an investigation into the patterns and practices of the Chicago Police Department after recent protests over a video showing a white Chicago police officer shooting a black teenager 16 times.

The US Department of Justice is launching a broad civil rights investigation of the Chicago Police Department this week, as public outrage in the city builds over recent fatal police shootings of black men. 

The DOJ has undertaken similar reviews in other cities shaken by police shootings, including Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., with the aim of determining if there are larger systemic issues within police departments beyond single, high-profile incidents of misconduct. The civil rights probe into the Chicago Police Department comes after the release of a police dashboard camera video showing the October 2014 death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

The release of the video, after a lengthy court battle, has thrown the city into turmoil. Officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder on Nov. 24, more than a year after the killing and hours before the dashcam video was released. Within days, Mayor Rahm Emanuel forced Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy to resign, and is under increasing pressure to resign himself.

Such DOJ investigations are designed to both look for systemic issues and work with police departments to resolve those issues. The Ferguson report, released in March, found "a pattern of unconstitutional policing" and practices that "reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias." That probe sparked a series of court reforms.

A similar investigation of the Cleveland Police Department found "a pattern or practice of unreasonable and unnecessary use of force."

These investigations give the Justice Department the authority to file civil lawsuits against local governments in order to force them to adopt reforms. Cities typically settle these suits and enter into "consent decrees" with the DOJ, legally committing a police department to institute certain reforms within a specific time frame.

The practice is quite common. More than 25 police departments around the country have experienced some form of DOJ involvement in the past two decades, according to a 2013 report from the Police Executive Research Forum, but such consent decrees can drag on and become costly for cities. While some cities can satisfy their consent decrees ahead of schedule – Pittsburgh entered into a five-year agreement with the DOJ in 1997, and saw the review end in 1999 – for others it can last over a decade, and become increasingly costly.

The PERF report noted that DOJ consent decrees have become "more exhaustive in nature than earlier agreements," requiring a broader range of policy changes, and that some police chiefs think consent decrees that continue for years have been too costly (an ongoing review of the New Orleans Police Department is expected to cost $11 million).

But PERF noted that cooperating with DOJ investigations from the start can expedite the process. Both the Ferguson and Cleveland police departments have committed to working with the DOJ, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch has praised the process.

In announcing the ongoing Baltimore investigation in May, Ms. Lynch said that the Justice Department "has conducted dozens of these pattern or practice investigations, and we have seen from our work in jurisdictions across the country that communities that have gone through this process are experiencing improved policing practices and increased trust between the police and the community."

Mayor Emanuel initially said a federal civil rights investigation of the Chicago police would be "misguided," but he has since reversed course. Adam Collins, a spokesman for Emanuel's office, told the Associated Press: "We welcome the engagement of the Department of Justice as we work to restore trust in our police department and improve our system of police accountability."

Meanwhile, state prosecutors are now planning to announce the results of an investigation into another shooting Monday.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez will discuss the investigation into the October 2014 shooting of Ronald Johnson – the same month as Mr. McDonald's death. Police say Mr. Johnson pointed a gun at officers before he was fatally shot, but Johnson’s family and attorney Michael Oppenheimer say he wasn’t armed and claim a gun was planted. They have also called on city officials to release a dashcam video of the shooting.

Of 409 officer-involved shootings in Chicago since September 2007 – an average of one a week – only two have led to credible allegations against an officer, the Chicago Tribune reported. Both of those cases involved off-duty officers.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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