US Justice Department to Investigate Chicago Police

Don Babwin and Eric Tucker, AP, December 7, 2015

The Justice Department will investigate the patterns and practices of the Chicago Police Department, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced Monday, nearly two weeks after the release of a video showing a white Chicago police officer shooting a black teenager 16 times and ahead of the expected release of similar footage in another death at the hands of an officer.

Lynch said the investigation will focus in particular on use of force and deadly force, including racial, ethnic and other disparities in use of force, and its systems of accountability. It was opened after a preliminary review, she said.

“We understand that the same systems that fail community members also fail conscientious officers by creating mistrust between law enforcement and the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect,” said Lynch, who was joined by Zachary Fardon, the U.S. Attorney in Chicago, and Vanita Gupta, the head of Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

“This mistrust from members of the community makes it more difficult to gain help with investigations, to encourage victims and witnesses of crimes to speak up, and to fulfill the most basic responsibilities of public safety officials,” she said. “And when suspicion and hostility is allowed to fester, it can erupt into unrest.”

The civil rights probe follows recent ones in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, and comes as the police department and Mayor Rahm Emanuel are under intense scrutiny over their handling of the October 2014 death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder Nov. 24, more than a year after the killing and just hours before the release of police dashboard camera footage showing the officer shooting the teenager.

Emanuel, who initially said a federal civil rights investigation would be “misguided” but later reversed course, said in a news release after Lynch’s announcement that his goal is to create a stronger and better police force “that keeps the community safe while respecting the civil rights of every Chicagoan.”

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Since the release of the video, Emanuel forced Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy to resign and formed a task force to examine the police department. But the calls for the mayor to resign–something he said he won’t do–have grown louder from protesters, including the voices of more than 200 people during a march Sunday. {snip}

Politicians, including Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, have called for the federal civil rights investigation. The Rev. Jesse Jackson said he was pleased with the decision to investigate Chicago. The longtime civil rights leader said he hoped that the investigation would focus not only on the police department, but on Emanuel’s office and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, which he and others have criticized for taking so long to bring charges against Van Dyke.

“All three of them–the police, City Hall and the prosecutor’s office–are suspect,” Jackson said. “We cannot trust them.”

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If the Justice Department finds systemic violations, the investigations typically result in court-enforceable agreements between the federal government and the community that serve as blueprints for change and are overseen by an independent monitor. The federal government has the option of suing a police department that is unwilling to make changes.

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