As they released a 164-page blistering report on longstanding misconduct by Chicago police, top officials of the U.S. Department of Justice pledged to work cooperatively with Chicago officials to push for reform.
“Our report makes clear that there is still considerable work to be done, work that will require federal partnership and independent oversight,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at a news conference announcing the report Friday.
The stinging report found that the city’s police department tolerated racially discriminatory conduct and engaged in a “pattern or practice” of using excessive force. The Justice Department during the Obama administration has documented such abuses in cities as varied as Baltimore, Cleveland, and Ferguson, Missouri, as the first step to consent decrees that get departments to commit to reform under the watchful eye of federal monitors.
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But whether the department’s report on Chicago leads similarly to a consent decree is uncertain.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights office, announced at the news conference that they had come to a joint agreement on necessary steps, intended to lead to a consent decree. The officials said that they will continue to negotiate a legally binding agreement to reform the problems identified in the 13-month Justice Department review.
Just three days ago, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general said at his confirmation hearing that he is hesitant to support the use of consent decrees, objecting to the Justice Department branding whole departments as flawed because of acts by a small number of officers.
On Friday, Emanuel said the city is pledged to adopt reforms, and Lynch said the department will continue its work even as the leadership changes.
The newly released report, which included an analysis of hundreds of force incidents, found years of misconduct ranging from officers shooting at suspects who posed no immediate threat to using aggressive, non-lethal force against children and civilians in mental health crises.
Poor training is in part to blame, according to the report: Just one in six of the recent police academy graduates the Justice Department interviewed “came close” to correctly describing when force can legally be used. Inadequate supervision, staffing, and the city’s notorious “code of silence” were found to compound that issue: Complaints of misconduct — as well as officer cover-ups — were routinely left uninvestigated.
“Given the numerous use-of-force incidents without video evidence,” the report stated, “the pattern of unreasonable force is likely even more widespread than we were able to discern through our investigation.”
The report is the result of a review by a team from the department headquarters in Washington that was launched in December 2015, after the release of the video showing police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting to death teenager Laquan McDonald set off a wave of community protests about police tactics.
The department has been embroiled in controversy in recent years as videos and news reports documented shootings of unarmed black civilians by police, officers’ use of stop-and-frisk was called into question by the American Civil Liberties Union, and as more torture allegations have surfaced about officers under the command of disgraced former Police Commander Jon Burge.
On Thursday, Attorney General Lynch was in Baltimore, where the department signed a 227-page consent decree that was based on findings in a Justice Department report released last August that documented widespread department problems there.
“These lawsuits undermine the respect of police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity of law and fairness,” Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), Trump’s designee for attorney general, said at his confirmation hearing Tuesday. Sessions also said that lawsuits can end up punishing entire departments over the misconduct of a few officers.
On Friday, Lynch said despite leadership changes, career attorneys in her department will continue to negotiate terms of a consent decree with Emanuel, the Chicago police department, and local residents.
“That work is carried on regardless of who sits at the top of the Justice Department,” she said.
Despite recent efforts to improve the city’s policing — including commitments to improve police training and the launch of a body-camera pilot program — the Justice Department concluded it’s unlikely Chicago will solve its longstanding problems without a consent decree.
“Together, an independent monitor and court decree will make it much more certain that Chicago is finally able to eliminate patterns of unconstitutional conduct, and can bolster community confidence to make policing in Chicago more effective and less dangerous,” the report said.
Speaking with Injustice Watch this week, Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who specializes in civil rights and police accountability, agreed: City officials, he said, lack political will to make significant policy changes “without the hammer, without the scrutiny, without the pressure” of federal oversight.
Asked about his reform efforts should Sessions stop a consent decree, Emanuel said he plans to work with the new Justice Department. He avoided answering the question of whether or not police department reforms would require federal funding, in light of the president-elect’s vow to cut off funds from cities that do not cooperate with federal agents on immigration enforcement.
“We’re going to negotiate (the consent decree),” he said, “I can’t negotiate for (Sessions). But we’re going to be at the table.”
In the meantime, he said local officials will continue on their current “road to reform.” Police superintendent Eddie Johnson, promoted to lead the department in the wake of the release of the video showing McDonald’s shooting, said police have “already taken significant steps to address issues raised in Department of Justice report.”
Those steps, Johnson said, include training on de-escalation and mitigating the use of force, certifying more officers in crisis intervention, overhauling the department’s promotions system, and taking public comments on a new use of force policy.
Former U.S. attorney, Sergio Acosta told Injustice Watch that whoever becomes the next assistant attorney general for civil rights will help chart the path for the next Justice Department. “That person will bring his or her own approach to enforcing the civil rights laws,” Acosta said.
Still, the waning time left in the Obama administration has left many law enforcement experts doubting this week that a consent decree will be worked out for Chicago. “I think with the timing, it didn’t work for that to be the case in Chicago,” said Wesley Skogan, a Northwestern University political science professor who is an expert in policing and crime policy, in an interview before the news conference.
A consent decree does not guarantee that a police department will change, but experts say that in recent years the agreements have signaled a willingness to take reform seriously.
The city of Cleveland, for example, agreed out of court years ago to take steps to address complaints of excessive force; but in 2015, after the Justice Department reported “starkly similar” findings, the city and the Justice Department entered into a sweeping consent decree.
Even so, Futterman said, the Justice Department report will serve as a tool for community members to demand change. “Powerful findings issued by the Department of Justice, those are also things that can and should be enforced by the people of Chicago, and should be the metrics by which (the Emanuel) administration and by which the police can be held to account,” he said.
Among the Justice Department’s findings:
- Black and Latino communities in Chicago “live not only with higher crime, but also with more instances of police abuse,” use-of-force data show.
- Officers embark on “tactically unsound and unnecessary” foot pursuits that often result in shooting at vehicles and people without reason.
- Officers in multiple instances “unnecessarily exposed innocent bystanders to deadly risks.” One case involved three officers who, while driving civilian witnesses to an assault investigation, stopped to confront a group of suspected gunmen and opened fire while the witnesses sat in the back seat.
- Some officers use non-lethal force in unnecessary situations, treating Tasers as a “tool of convenience, with insufficient concern or cognizance that it is a weapon with inherent risks that inflicts significant pain.”
- The department’s pattern or practice of unlawful force extends to children engaged in non-criminal or minor criminal conduct.
- Inefficient crisis-intervention training has led to officers using force against civilians in crisis where it could have been avoided.
- It appears, the report stated, that “officers have been instructed on the language they should use to justify force.”
- Police culture and city policies make investigating misconduct difficult, allowing unconstitutional practices to continue.
This story has been updated with comments from Department of Justice and Chicago officials, and details of the report.