Scathing DOJ report on Chicago police finds pattern of excessive force

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By Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY

A scathing Justice Department investigation concluded that the Chicago Police Department is beset by widespread racial bias, a pattern of excessive force, poor training and feckless oversight of officers accused of misconduct.

The finding issued Friday came as the Justice Department and the city of Chicago issued “a statement of agreement” to find remedies to improve policing in the nation’s third-largest city and repair a shattered public trust.

“Sadly, our thorough investigation into the Chicago Police Department found that far too many residents of this proud city have not received that kind of policing,” said Attorney General Loretta Lynch in announcing the findings.”The resulting deficit in trust and accountability is not just bad for residents – it’s also bad for dedicated police officers trying to do their jobs safely and effectively.”

The probe in Chicago was launched in December 2015 following the court-ordered release of chilling video that showed a white officer, Jason Van Dyke, fire 16 shots at 17-year-old Laquan McDonald as he appeared to be running away from police during a pursuit.

The video — and the city’s decision to pitch a legal battle to keep it out of public view — as well as the fact that it took 400 days for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office to file murder charges against Van Dyke lead to widespread public outrage and weeks of protests in Chicago. Van Dyke is awaiting trial.

After reviewing CPD data, the DOJ found that officers used force nearly 10 times more in incidents involving black suspects than they did against white suspects. African-Americans were the subject of 80% of all CPD firearm uses and 81% of all Taser contact-stun uses between January 2011 and April 2016. In incidents in which use of force was used against a minor, 83% of the incidents involved black children and 14% involved Latino children during that time period, the report notes.

“These data strongly support what we repeatedly and consistently heard from both law enforcement and community sources: Chicago’s black and Latino communities live not only with higher crime, but also with more instances of police abuse,” according to the DOJ report. “Starting from a young age, black and Latino people, especially those living in Chicago’s most challenged neighborhoods, have a vastly different experience with police than do white people. These negative, often tragic, interactions form the basis of minority communities’ distrust of police.”

The investigation also reviewed 203 officer-involved shooting incidents in the last five years in which at least one person was shot. DOJ concluded that CPD often engages “in dangerous and unnecessary foot pursuits and other unsound tactics that result in CPD shooting people, including those who are unarmed.” In some cases, the Justice Department found officers initiated foot pursuits without a basis for believing the person had committed a serious crime.

“We found many circumstances in which officers’ accounts of force incidents were later discredited, in whole or part, by video evidence,” the report notes. “Given the numerous use-of-force incidents without video evidence…the pattern of unreasonable force is likely even more widespread than we were able to discern through our investigation.”

A major factor contributing to the excessive use of force is poor training, according to the Justice Department report.

At the city police academy, DOJ officials observed that cops-in-training were shown a video made decades earlier, which was inconsistent with current law and the department’s policies. When investigators interviewed recruits who recently graduated from the academy only one in six “came close to properly articulating the legal standard for use of force.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the findings described in the report “sobering.”

“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. “I want to be clear, the Chicago Police Department and the City of Chicago is already on the road to reform, and there are no U-Turns on that road.”

The Justice Department rushed to conclude its 13-month-long investigation as President Obama prepares to leave office next week, and President-elect Donald Trump — who has vowed to lead a more police-friendly administration — is set to take the reins.

With the findings, DOJ and Chicago also announced they have committed to negotiating a consent decree, which would require an independent-monitoring to certify that the city is taking agreed upon steps to solve problems within the department.

But it’s unclear what, if any, action the Trump administration will take to follow up on the findings of the probe.

Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, expressed concerns during his Senate confirmation hearing this week that consent decrees “can undermine respect for police officers.” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Sessions, in private conversations, declined to commit to following through on recommendations in the report.

Further complicating matters, Trump also has pledged cancel all funding to so-called sanctuary cities. Chicago is one of dozens of cities across the U.S. that in some way limits their cooperation with federal immigration enforcement agents. Emanuel has vowed that Chicago will remain a sanctuary city.

Even before the McDonald case, the police department’s image had been tarnished in the African-American community by allegations of cops torturing and beating suspects and carrying out a disproportionate number of street stops of African-American and Latino men.

Police brutality cases cost the city more than $600 million in settlements and legal costs since 2004. In 2015, Emanuel announced a $5.5 million reparations package to victims of former police commander Jon Burge, who from the early 1970s to early 1990s was accused of overseeing the torture and beating of dozens of mostly African-American suspects.

Emanuel initially resisted calls for a Justice probe of the city’s police department, but later relented. After the fallout following the release of the McDonald video, Emanuel apologized for the city’s handling of the situation, and vowed to improve transparency and restore the public trust.

He convened a Police Accountability Task Force, which in April issued a report that called on the department to “acknowledge its racist history and overhaul its handling of excessive force allegations.” The task force also recommended more than 100 reforms.

Emanuel and the city council have embraced several of the task force’s recommendations — including launching mandatory training for officers on de-escalating volatile situations, requiring 40 hours of mental health training for police officers and making it city policy to release all video of police-involved shootings within 60 to 90 days of an incident.

During Obama’s eight years in office, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Office conducted 25 pattern-or-practice investigations of police departments throughout the country.

On Thursday, the Justice Department and the city of Baltimore announced they agreed to terms of consent decree, a court-monitored agreement that mandates the city implement a series of reforms of the city’s police department.

The Justice Department found widespread issues with unconstitutional policing in Baltimore after it opened a probe there following the controversial death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man whose death while in Baltimore Police Department custody spurred violent protests in the city.

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