Justice Department Agreement With CPD Faces Challenges

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch address findings in the Department of Justice report on the CPD. Photo: Mary L. Datcher

Justice Department Agreement With CPD Faces Challenges

The agreement to negotiate a consent decree has been signed and the findings are out, but will the Chicago Police Department finally change its ways?

It’s a concern that’s on the mind of Chicago’s Black leaders and activists who are watching the department ‘s next move after the city negotiated a court-enforced consent decree that has the potential to change the practices and culture of Chicago police in ways not seen before. But as the Senate prepares to confirm conservative Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as the new U.S. attorney general, there are concerns the CPD agreement will have little impact on a department that’s in desperate need of reform.

There are 21 police departments in the country who are currently under consent decrees after years of committing civil rights violations. Most of them were signed during President Barack Obama’s administration, a historic record for the DOJ.

Session has publicly expressed his opposition to consent decrees. The Republican has said that he will “clean house” at the Justice Department if he is confirmed as attorney general. Civil Rights leaders are concerned that he will less likely enforce consent decrees if he heads the nation’s highest law enforcement division.

Consent decrees in other cities have produced mixed results, but once they have expired, there is little accountability in making sure police departments keep such reforms in place.

In Chicago, an “Agreement in Principle” to implement reforms was reached  Jan. 13 after Mayor Rahm Emanuel signed a document once the DOJ released a blistering 164-page report that concluded what Black leaders have been saying all along: that the city’s law enforcement is racially biased and used excessive force on minorities for decades.

DOJ Chicago press conference. Photo: Mary L. Datcher/Chicago Defender
DOJ Chicago press conference. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Sharon Fairley and CPD Supt. Eddie Johnson in attendance. Photo: Mary L. Datcher/Chicago Defender

The findings were presented at a packed press conference at the Dirksen Federal Building where Emanuel and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson stood quietly as U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the Chicago Police violated the constitutional rights of civilians and engaged “in a pattern  of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.”

As the findings were being presented, activists staged a demonstration outside the building shouting “No Justice, No Peace!”

The report came as Chicago kicked off the three-day Martin Luther King holiday weekend. The damning report adds more worries for Superintendent Johnson, who heads a department that is plagued with low morale as senseless shootings continue to rock the city.

The 13-month investigation reportedly was one of the largest of its kind in U.S. history. Launched after a dash cam video was released showing Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times, the investigation of the 12,000-member police force included trips to all 22 of the force’s districts. Federal officials interviewed 1,000 community residents and more than 90 community organizations. Thousands of CPD documents, including policies and procedures, training materials, investigative and disciplinary files were examined. The investigation went as far back as 2011.

Despite the large scope of the investigation, some leaders were worried that the probe was rushed. Lynch wanted to complete the investigation before she leaves office as President-elect Donald Trump puts a new attorney general in place. Lynch, who was sworn in as attorney general the day of shooting victim Freddie Gray’s funeral on April 29, 2015, announced her findings one day after she traveled to Baltimore where city officials signed a consent decree after an investigation found similar civil violations in the police department there.

While the investigation ends months of speculation, it vindicates Chicago’s Black leaders who had been calling for federal investigation into the police department long before the McDonald scandal broke. Emanuel initially labeled the investigation as “misguided,” but reversed course as anger and suspicions of a cover-up at City Hall intensified.

Many wanted the controversial police detention facility at Homan Square to be part of the probe because of alleged human-rights abuses. However, the facility was left out of the investigation for unknown reasons.

Fleeing Suspects Shot

According to the report, Chicago police officers shot and used Tasers on fleeing suspects who posed no threat. They also used excessive force against juveniles, the report states. Another finding said officers used force to retaliate against and punish individuals. Officers also shot at vehicles without justification, according to the DOJ report.

Vanita Gupta is the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General and head of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice. Photo: Mary L. Datcher/Chicago Defender
Vanita Gupta is the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General and head of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice. Photo: Mary L. Datcher/Chicago Defender

In addition, the report concluded that officers failed to accurately document and review police officers’ use of force. Officers were also cited for failing to de-escalate situations or use crisis intervention techniques to reduce the need for force.

The report said in some cases, officers initiated foot pursuits without a reason for believing the person had committed a serious crime. “In these cases, the act of fleeing alone was sufficient to trigger a pursuit ending in gunfire, sometimes fatal,” the report concluded. “During subsequent review, almost without exception, officers’ reports in these events were accepted at face value, even where there was contrary evidence.”

The report also cited a case where a man had been walking down a residential street with a friend when officers drove up, shined a light on him and ordered him to freeze because he had been fidgeting with his waistband. When the man fled, three officers chased him and began shooting during the pursuit. They unleashed 45 rounds of bullets and several struck and killed the man. The officers claimed the man fired at them during the pursuit, but no gun was ever found on the victim.

In the Black community, the story is a familiar one in recent police shootings where officers killed the suspect who they claimed had a weapon that was never found. In two of the most recent cases, the officers were stripped of their police powers and placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. One of the officers, John Poulus, shot and killed two unarmed suspects in separate cases where no gun was ever found.

“The failures we identified in our findings – that we heard about from residents and officers alike – have deeply eroded community trust,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division. “But today is a moment of opportunity, where we begin to move from identifying problems to developing solutions. I know our findings can lead to reform and rebuild community-police trust because we’ve seen it happen in community after community around the country over the past 20 years.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel address a room full of press on DOJ CPD findings. Photo: Mary L. Datcher
Mayor Rahm Emanuel address a room full of press on DOJ CPD findings. Photo: Mary L. Datcher

The findings reinforced another report that was released last year. The report, by the Police Accountability Task Force, concluded that the CPD was infested with racism and that sweeping reforms were needed to correct years of racial bias.

While Lynch praised Emanuel’s own reforms to change the police department, the report said more training was needed to correct the problems.

“These are some serious problems, and they bear serious consequences for all Chicagoans.” Lynch said. “The system and policies that fail ordinary citizens also fail the majority of CPD Officers who risk their lives every day to serve and protect the people of Chicago.”

To clean up the department and correct longstanding problems, the DOJ and the City of Chicago agreed in negotiate a  court-enforced consent decree.

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