Chicago police have violated the constitutional rights of residents for years, permitting racial bias against blacks, using excessive force and shooting people who did not pose immediate threats, the Justice Department announced Friday after a yearlong investigation.
The practices endanger civilians and officers, cause avoidable injuries and deaths and erode community trust that is “the cornerstone of public safety,” said Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division.
The report concluded that the pattern was attributable to “systemic deficiencies” within the department and the city, including insufficient training and a failure to hold bad officers accountable for misconduct.
The findings come just days before a change in administration, from a White House that strongly backed the federal review process to president-elect Donald Trump’s, whose commitment to the system is unclear.
The Justice Department began investigating the nation’s third-largest police force in December 2015 after the release of dashcam video showing a white police officer shooting a black teenager named Laquan McDonald, who was hit 16 times as he walked away holding a small folded knife. The video of the 2014 shooting, which the city fought to keep secret, inspired large protests and cost the city’s police commissioner his job.
The city paid more than a half billion dollars to pay or settle claims of police misconduct since 2004, but police did not conduct disciplinary investigations in half of those cases, according to the federal report. Of 409 police shootings that happened over a five-year period, police found only two were unjustified.
The Justice Department criticized the city for setting up barriers to getting to the bottom of police misconduct, including provisions in union agreements, a failure to investigate anonymous complaints or those submitted without a supporting affidavit and a “pervasive coverup culture.”
It said witnesses and accused officers were frequently never interviewed at all, that evidence went uncollected and that witnesses were routinely coached by union lawyers — “a dynamic neither we nor our law enforcement experts had seen to nearly such an extent in other agencies.”
“The procedures surrounding investigations allow for ample opportunity for collusion among officers and are devoid of any rules prohibiting such co-ordination,” the report said.
When discipline is imposed, according to the report, it’s often for behaviour that’s less serious than what triggered the investigation in the first place.
Under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department has conducted 25 civil rights investigations of police departments, including in Cleveland, Baltimore and Seattle. The release of a report is one step in a long process that, in recent years, has typically led to talks between the Justice Department and a city, followed by an agreed upon reform plan that’s enforceable by a federal judge.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the report lays “the groundwork for the difficult but necessary work of building a stronger, safer, and more united Chicago for all who call it home.”
Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general, expressed ambivalence at his confirmation hearing this week about the federal review process. He said he was concerned that broad investigations of police departments risk smearing an entire agency and harming officer morale.
The perception that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel badly mishandled the McDonald shooting hurt the former Obama chief of staff politically, and he may feel pressure to address many of the Justice Department’s findings to restore his political fortunes.
The Chicago department, with 12,000 officers, has long had a reputation for brutality, particularly in minority communities. The most notorious example was Jon Burge, a commander of a detective unit on the South Side. Burge and his men beat, suffocated and used electric shock for decades starting in the 1970s to get black men to confess to crimes they did not commit.
The McDonald video, which showed officer Jason Van Dyke continuing to shoot the teen even after he slumped to the ground, provoked widespread outrage. It was not until the day the video was released, which was more than a year after the shooting, that Van Dyke was charged with murder. He has pleaded not guilty. Police reports of the shooting later suggested a possible coverup by other officers who were at the scene.