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Finally, the Federal Government Is Investigating the Notoriously Brutal Chicago Police Department

The Department of Justice probe comes less than two weeks after the release of the graphic video of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being shot 16 times.
December 7, 2015, 4:45pm

Photo via Flickr user Mobilus In Mobili

Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Monday announced that the Department of Justice will conduct a civil rights investigation of Chicago police after nearly two weeks of turmoil over dash-cam videos depicting the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald at the hands of a local cop.

Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke has been charged with first-degree murder for McDonald's killing after he shot the teenager 16 times on October 20, 2014. Now CPD will be the subject of an extensive probe to determine if it unfairly targets communities of color and violates the Constitution and federal law, the latest American police department to see federal scrutiny after a year defined by police killings and the Black Lives Matter movement.


In Chicago's case, the investigation has been an awfully long time coming—with questionable practices going back decades in a city that remains extremely racially divided.

"What we are looking at is whether, as a systemic matter, the (Chicago) police department engages in policing practices that violate the constitution," Lynch told reporters Monday.

We know from past DOJ investigations in cities like Cleveland, Albuquerque, and Los Angeles a bit about what how this will play out. The feds are going to be looking for evidence that minorities are unfairly targeted by Chicago cops; that such targeting is a "pattern of practice," as the official term goes. They will also be looking into Chicago cops' use of force policy to determine what, if anything, needs to change.

In some ways, it's stunning that it took the graphic video of McDonald's death to invite federal attention to one of America's more notorious policing forces. Earlier this year, the Chicago City Council agreed to pay $5 million to the victims of Jon Burge, a former CPD commander who allegedly oversaw a torture program to elicit confessions and gather other information from suspects in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly young black men.

Not until a reporter uncovered Burge's actions in an obscure court case did the commander face even of a whiff of accountability. He was never charged in relation to the torture allegations, but Burge did get sentenced to four and a half years in prison for obstruction of justice and perjury. Most estimates suggest the city has doled out around $100 million in settlements related to Burge's practices.


More recently, an active CPD commander was accused of putting a gun in a suspected drug dealer's mouth. That allegation is now being handled in court, and the commander, Glenn Evans, has been taken off the streets. Just last week, the city agreed to pay a freelance photographer $100,000 for taking a beating at the hands of Evans during the 2012 NATO protests.

Then came the McDonald video. Mayor Rahm Emanuel for months had said its release would screw up the federal and local investigations into the teen's brutal killing, not to mention the investigation still being conducted by Chicago's Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA). But a judge disagreed and forced the city to release the footage, which it did two weeks ago.

It was as bad as everyone thought it might be.

Emanuel quickly forced the resignation of Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, the first sacrificial lamb in this sordid saga. And on Sunday night, IPRA chief administrator and former big shot in the Chicago office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Scott Ando, also resigned.

If you don't think Emanuel played a heavy-handed role in Ando's decision, you don't know Chicago.

Last week, prior to Ando's "decision," Emanuel announced the creation of a police accountability task force. The mayor tapped Lori Lightfoot to head the group. Lightfoot is the former chief administrator of the now-defunct Office of Professional Standards (OPS).


And here's where history begins to repeat itself: OPS, a division of the Chicago Police Department, was disbanded in 2007 "in response to concerns about how allegations of police misconduct were being investigated," according to IPRA's website.

OPS was replaced by IPRA, which has found just one of 258 non-fatal and 116 fatal police shootings to not have been justified, according to WBEZ-Chicago. Then, last week, Emanuel created a new task force that will ostensibly look into how the city handles investigations of police shootings and claims of misconduct. To bring the OPS/IPRA debacle full circle, Emanuel chose Lightfoot, the former head of OPS, to head the new body.

He might instead have picked Lorenzo Davis, a former CPD commander with 23 years at the department who's now a whistleblower against IPRA after being fired by the agency for refusing to reverse his findings that three police shootings were unjustified.

"I say that it's all a deceptive practice," Davis told me last week following the announcement of the new local task force. He was in a jovial mood, after years of work thinking that perhaps things are beginning to change in Chicago. He is hopeful that the police accountability he's been advocating for may soon actually take place.

Of course, that remains to be seen, and even now that there's federal attention squarely on the city, it will take time for any changes to be enacted.


"After every officer-involved shooting in Chicago, IPRA will investigate. But it's dropped down a black hole and you don't know anything about it, and maybe it's two or three years later that IPRA releases its findings quietly on its website with no names of the victims, no names of the police," Davis said. "It's a big game."

The heads currently rolling in Chicago are directly related to the DOJ announcement and the release of the McDonald death video. But McDonald was just one of 19 men killed by the Chicago Police Department in 2014. So far this year there have been seven, according to media reports.

Over the past year and a half I've investigated all of those 19 deaths in an attempt to determine whether or not they were justified—and many of them apparently were. Others, however, are harder to make sense of. Regardless, the team of DOJ investigators tasked with digging into the practices of the Chicago Police Department may find things related to the 19 arrest-related deaths from 2014 that I, and many others, have not.

With the increased scrutiny of the department, and the thousands of questions inundating Chicago police coming from local and national media outlets, an active-duty police sergeant who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the heat surrounding his employers just hopes the good cops are separated from bad.

"Please do your best to take it easy on us. (Politicians) have careers to protect; bad cops exist," he wrote in an email. "There are 12,000 of us though. I've spent my professional life trying to serve, and serve better. If it makes you feel any better about us cops, I'm wholly ignored by my agency."

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