A sprawling federal investigation into the Chicago police found that officers engage “in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force,” part of larger, ingrained failures in how the department trains officers and reviews misconduct, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch announced Friday.
The Justice Department released a scathing 164-page report elaborating on how police officers in the country’s third-biggest city use force, “including deadly force, that is unreasonable” as well as unconstitutional.
This report is the culmination of a 13-month investigation into the Chicago Police Department, one launched amid a firestorm prompted by video footage of a white officer fatally shooting a black teenager.
Federal investigators excoriated the department and city officials alike for what they called “systemic deficiencies.” They said their inquiry found that the Chicago police force did not provide officers with proper guidance for using force, did not properly investigate improper uses of force and did not hold officers accountable for such incidents. Investigators also faulted the city’s methods of handling officer discipline, saying that process “lacks integrity.”
Vanita Gupta, head of the department’s Civil Rights Division, said that Chicago officers were found to have shot people who posed no immediate threat and shocked people with Tasers simply for not following verbal commands.
During the probe, investigators said they found cases where children were subjected to force for minor issues, including a 16-year-old girl hit with a baton and then shocked with a Taser for not leaving school when she was found carrying a cellphone. In another case described in the report, an officer “forcibly handcuffed a 12-year-old Latino boy” riding his bicycle near his father and refused to explain why.
Gupta faulted the department for inadequate training, saying it used decades-old videos that provided guidance inconsistent with current law and even the department’s own policies. She also described Chicago’s accountability system as “broken,” with officers rarely being held accountable for their misdeeds.
“In Chicago and around the country, reform cannot and will not happen overnight,” Gupta said at the news conference Friday.
Lynch said that the Justice Department’s investigation found that there is “considerable work to be done” to reform the Chicago police force, which will require independent oversight. As a result, she said the Justice Department would begin negotiations with city officials to enter a court-enforceable consent decree. She was joined at the news conference by Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) and Eddie Johnson, the police superintendent.
Authorities also released an agreement, signed Friday by Emanuel and Gupta, that commits the city to further reforms. Gupta said career lawyers would begin negotiating a consent decree that would put court authority behind that agreement, similar to the order just announced in Baltimore on Thursday.
Both announcements, in Baltimore and Chicago, arrive in the twilight of the Obama administration. Under Obama, the Justice Department has aggressively pursued investigations of police departments to probe for civil rights violations and is seeking to cement that legacy before President-elect Donald Trump, who long portrayed himself as a staunch friend of law enforcement, takes office.
Trump’s nominee to replace Lynch, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), has publicly been critical of such decrees, but the attorney general said she expected the agreement would live on beyond this presidential administration.
“Yes, the top people at the Department of Justice move on, but this agreement is not dependent on one, or two, or three people,” she said.
Speaking on Capitol Hill during his confirmation hearing this week, Sessions suggested that entire departments filled with good officers could be tarred by the work of individuals and was critical of lawsuits that force reforms.
“These lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness, and we need to be careful before we do that,” Sessions said. He would not commit to leaving unchanged agreements that are in place when he takes over, though he said he would enforce them until changes are made.
Lynch did acknowledge that the agreement in many ways would require the buy-in of local authorities. Emmanuel also acknowledged that there were questions were surrounding what the next administration would do, but said he knew with “certainty” what Chicago’s path would be.
“We will continue on the path of reform, because that is the path of progress,” he said. Emanuel later added, “We’re going to continue to work with that new Justice Department.”
Emanuel said he has not spoken directly with the Trump transition team about the matter. “No, because I’ve been working on the report,” he said.
The Justice Department began its Chicago investigation in December 2015, just weeks after authorities in the city released video footage showing an officer fatally shooting Laquan McDonald, a black 17-year-old.
This dashboard-camera recording, withheld for more than a year by city officials, showed Officer Jason Van Dyke firing 16 shots into McDonald, some after the teenager had already crumpled to the ground, despite initial accounts that the teenager had lunged at the officer. The video unleashed a torrent of anger on the streets of Chicago, which became the latest in a series of cities that boiled over in recent years after a fatal encounter involving police.
The recording has continued to reverberate in the city. Not long after it was made public, the Justice Department announced that it would begin what is known as a “pattern or practice investigation” into the police department. Emanuel, facing intense criticism, ousted Garry F. McCarthy as police superintendent, while voters decisively dismissed Anita Alvarez, the prosecutor in the case, in an election that highlighted the McDonald shooting.
Emanuel also created a task force to review how the Chicago police handled accountability, training and oversight, and the group released a highly critical report last year, describing the McDonald video as a tipping point giving “voice to long-simmering anger.”
In what some viewed as a prelude to the Justice Department’s findings, the task force’s report described repeatedly hearing from people who felt some police officers are racist and said the police force’s own data “gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.”
Chicago officials have vowed to pursue police reforms and increased transparency, and have also announced plans to beef up the policing ranks as the city confronts an explosion of bloodshed and just saw its deadliest year in two decades. Johnson, the police superintendent, has called for Van Dyke and four other officers to be fired over the episode, accusing them all of lying about the shooting. Van Dyke was arrested and charged with murder the day the McDonald footage was released.
McCarthy, Johnson’s predecessor, had criticized the Justice Department before the report was released and said investigators never contacted him. Asked about that on Friday, Lynch said that investigators had tried but he was “unavailable,” although she did not elaborate.
Reached after the news conference, McCarthy declined to discuss the contents of the report — saying he still had to review it with his lawyer — but disputed that Justice Department investigators attempted to reach him.
“That is a lie,” McCarthy said. “With all the investigative resources of the federal government, they couldn’t find me here, in River North, which is a neighborhood in Chicago. That is absurd.”
Dean C. Angelo Sr., president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, did not respond to a message seeking comment Friday.
During the news conference Johnson, a longtime veteran of the department who was named McCarthy’s replacement last year, said “some of the findings in the report are difficult to read.” But he also said that many of the problems had already been identified and officials were working to correct them.
“Quite simply, as a department, we need to do better, and you have my promise, and commitment, that we will do better,” Johnson said.
Distrust remains an issue between police officers and residents in Chicago. In a poll taken last year, 1 in 3 residents said the city’s police officers were doing an excellent or good job; far fewer black residents (12 percent) felt that way then white residents (47 percent) or Hispanic residents (37 percent).
“The Chicago Urban League believes that the report must be viewed as a milestone,” Shari Runner, president and chief executive of the group, said in a statement. “It is verification of the worst of what we’ve been and continue to be, but offers a viable path to what we want to become.”
While Emanuel had initially resisted calls for a federal civil rights investigation, calling it “misguided,” he relented and said that he would welcome such a probe and pledged complete cooperation.
The Justice Department can investigate and force systemic changes on local police departments and sue them if they do not comply. This authority was given to the federal agency in 1994, when Congress acted in the wake of the 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers and subsequent unrest following the acquittal of the officers involved.
During the Obama administration, the Civil Rights Division has opened 25 investigations into law enforcement agencies, according to the Justice Department. Probes have found patterns of excessive force used in police departments including Portland, Ore., Cleveland, Albuquerque, New Orleans, Seattle and Puerto Rico, among others.
The Chicago probe was among the the largest pattern and practices investigations in the Justice Department’s history, involving a force that has 12,000 officers, trailing only the New York police force among local law enforcement agencies.
The announcement in Chicago came the same day that Justice Department officials also said that the Philadelphia Police Department was making “tremendous progress” in implementing findings from an assessment last year examining how officers use deadly force there.
A day before Lynch spoke in Chicago, she had traveled to Baltimore for officials to outline efforts to revamp policing there. Baltimore’s agreement on reforms came after the Justice Department released, last year, a blistering report accusing the city of discriminatory policies targeting black residents.
The probes in Chicago and Baltimore were launched during a period of acute tension nationwide, coming amid heated protests sparked by the deaths, usually of black men or boys, during encounters with police.
Angelo, the head of Chicago’s police union, has said he was concerned federal investigators were rushing to finish the probe before Trump’s inauguration. When asked Friday about the timing of the report’s release, Lynch noted the investigation had begun more than a year ago, though she acknowledged lawyers had worked “quickly” to bring it to fruition.
“This is not a political process, this is an investigative process,” Lynch said.
This story has been updated since it was first published at 9:06 a.m.