Justice Dept. finds widespread Constitutional abuses by police
Subscribe for unlimited digital access.
Try one month for $1!
Subscribe for unlimited digital access. Try one month for $1!
Chicago police have shot at fleeing suspects who weren’t an immediate threat, failed to address racially discriminatory behavior within the department and put their own officers at risk, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice released Friday morning.
Speaking at a news conference at the Dirksen Federal Building in the Loop, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the report found “reasonable cause” that the police department engaged in a pattern of using excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. She blamed that partially on “severely deficient training procedures” and “accountability systems.”
Lynch said Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration and the Justice Department will negotiate a “court-enforceable” agreement on reforms. Both sides will seek a federal court order, known as a consent decree, to ensure the reforms continue, potentially under the oversight of a court-appointed independent monitor.
But the 164-page report comes in the waning days of the Obama administration, with Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, president-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, expressing skepticism about such decrees.
Despite Sessions’ stance, police-reform advocates expressed optimism that the incoming Trump administration — viewed as more friendly to rank-and-file cops — would continue to follow the consent-decree path set by his predecessor’s. Asked point-blank about Trump stalling the work, Chicago Police Board President Lori E. Lightfoot, who headed the city’s Police Accountability Task Force, replied, “I don’t think so.”
Like Lightfoot, newly elected Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said the clear need for police reform in Chicago should prevail amid the change in presidential regimes. “All politics is local,” she said. “We owe an obligation to the people of Cook County, as we try to beat down on the violence that has taken so many lives, to have these reforms met.”
Federal officials, Emanuel and Police Supt. Eddie Johnson spoke for about an hour in unveiling the long-awaited report.
“We found that the Chicago Police Department engaged in a pattern or practice of using excessive force, including deadly force and non-deadly force. This pattern included . . . shooting at people who presented no immediate threat and tazing people for not following verbal commands,” Vanita Gupta, the Justice Department’s head of civil rights, said.
Gupta said the neighborhoods hardest hit by the “CPD pattern of unlawful force and breakdown in the city’s accountability system” include those on the South and West sides.
Zach Fardon, the Justice Department’s top prosecutor in Northern Illinois, said the report represents a “turning point” in the city’s history.
“This past year has been among the most brutal in Chicago memory. Gun violence has overwhelmed us,” Fardon said. “We have been suffering grief and heartbreak, fear and confusion, uncertainty, sadness.
“Today’s findings coupled with the commitment of CPD and the city to work with us toward sustained change mark an historic turning point — a major step forward.”
Then, Emanuel spoke. “Police misconduct will not be tolerated anywhere in this city and those who break the rules will be held accountable for their actions,” he said.
Later, Police Supt. Johnson said that some of the findings in the report “are difficult to read” and that “unconstitutional policing has no place in the CPD or the city of Chicago.”
Johnson said the department will be hiring more officers and promoting more detectives, sergeants and lieutenants over the next two years.
“We’re going to continue to enhance transparency by equipping every police officer on regular beat patrol with a body-worn camera by the end of this year,” Johnson said. “We will forge meaningful partnerships with the public by launching a new community policing pilot before spring.”
The report — concluding a federal investigation that began in December 2015 — alleges widespread and repeated violations of the Constitution. It slams the police department for failing to investigate most use-of-force cases and whitewashing the cases it does open. Interviews of officers involved in shootings and other incidents is done in a way to get information that helps the officer rather than getting at the truth, the report says.
Inadequate steps are taken to prevent officers from covering up misconduct, and discipline is “haphazard” and “unpredictable,” according to the report.
“One CPD sergeant told us that, ‘if someone comes forward as a whistleblower in the Department, they are dead on the street,'” the report states. “When officers falsify reports and affirmatively lie in interviews and testimony, this goes well beyond any passive code of silence; it constitutes a deliberate, fundamental, and corrosive violation of CPD policy that must be dealt with independently and without reservation if the City and CPD are genuine in their efforts to have a functioning system of accountability.”
The Justice Department also concludes that Chicago police lack the training and practices to de-escalate volatile situations — which leads to shootings that may have been preventable and puts cops in danger. The department provides “insufficient support for officer wellness and safety,” the report finds.
The use of excessive force by Chicago police disproportionately affects black and Hispanic communities, the report says, which breeds distrust.
But the report also stressed that the police department and city government have already taken steps toward reform. It noted that the former agency for investigating police shootings — the Independent Police Review Authority — has been replaced by the new Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which is now releasing videos and other records from police shootings within 90 days of the incident. The report also highlights the department’s plans to expand the use of police body cameras across the city.
Attorney General Lynch said the federal government and city officials have signed an “agreement in principle” to keep negotiating what comes next. The Justice Department currently has agreements in place with 20 different law enforcement agencies, including 15 consent decrees.
The federal investigation was launched after the court-ordered release of the video showing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being shot 16 times by Officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014. After the video prompted outrage, including public demonstrations, Emanuel fired police Supt. Garry McCarthy and began announcing reforms to the department. Van Dyke was charged with murder.
The McDonald video was a “tipping point” in exposing deep-rooted problems in the police department, according to the Justice Department. And in the year since, gun violence has exploded in Chicago to levels not seen in two decades — concentrated in a few predominantly black, impoverished neighborhoods on the South and West Sides where distrust of police has become its own devastating problem.
“The City and CPD acknowledge that this trust has been broken, despite the diligent efforts and brave actions of countless CPD officers,” the report states. “It has been broken by systems that have allowed CPD officers who violate the law to escape accountability.”
The report was based on police and IPRA records — including written policies, orders and investigative files from more than 170 police-involved shootings — as well as ride-alongs with police, meetings with community members and police union leaders, and interviews with more than 340 officers.
McCarthy wasn’t among those interviewed. “Attempts were made to reach former Supt. McCarthy but he was not available,” Lynch said.
Not so, said McCarthy. “That’s a lie,” he implored. “With all the investigative resources of the federal government, they can’t find me here in River North?”
Some civil rights advocacy groups said the report was long past due.
“These findings are not new,” said Karen Sheely of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. “Today must be a wake-up call to change how Chicago is policed. There can be no more tinkering around the edges.”
Regardless of whether they lead to a consent decree, the DOJ’s findings are sure to make their way into civil claims filed against CPD at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. Emanuel will also be under heavy pressure politically to implement the findings and restore public trust shattered by the McDonald video.
Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo said he initially looked at the report “in a more favorable light” because of its heavy focus on training, technology, equipment and promotional reform. But, he soured quickly when he heard about the allegations of “systemic violations of civil rights and abuse by the police” that, he believes, mirrors an “anti-police” narrative.
Contributing: Fran Spielman, Tina Sfondeles, Frank Main