Chicago police force is overly aggressive, scathing report finds
CHICAGO >> A blistering report by the Justice Department described far-reaching failures throughout the Chicago Police Department, saying excessive force was rampant, rarely challenged and chiefly aimed at African-Americans and Latinos.
The report, unveiled Friday after a 13-month investigation, forced a public reckoning for a police department with a legacy of corruption and abuse. It came as the department grapples with skyrocketing violence in Chicago, where murders are at a 20-year high, and a deep lack of trust among the city’s residents.
Over 161 pages the investigation laid out, in chilling detail, unchecked aggressions: an officer pointing a gun at teenagers on bicycles suspected of trespassing; officers using a Taser on an unarmed, naked 65-year-old woman with mental illness; officers purposely dropping off young gang members in rival territory.
The department’s missteps go well beyond the officers on patrol, the report said. After officers used excessive force, their actions were practically condoned by supervisors, who rarely question their behavior. One commander interviewed by the Justice Department said that he could not recall ever suggesting that officers’ use of force be investigated further.
The investigation is the latest of a police department by the Justice Department, which had rushed to complete its findings in both Chicago and Baltimore before the expiration of President Barack Obama’s term. The administration has made expansive use of investigations amid a wrenching national debate over race and policing. Chicago is among nearly two dozen cities — including Cleveland; Ferguson, Mo.; and Seattle — where the Justice Department has pushed for wholesale changes to police practices.
But under the administration of President-elect Donald Trump, the enforcement of the Justice Department’s agreement with Chicago officials is uncertain. Trump’s attorney general nominee, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, has said he believes the Obama administration’s tactics have gone too far and unfairly maligned officers. He has also spoken against the court-enforced settlements, known as consent decrees, that usually result from investigations like the one in Chicago.
With its report, the Justice Department put the city’s problems on the record and set in motion negotiations on a consent decree, a process that the new administration could embrace or abandon. Mayor Rahm Emanuel said city officials were committed to correcting the faults found by investigators and would pursue a consent decree regardless of who is leading the Justice Department.
Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch presented the report at the federal courthouse in downtown Chicago, alongside Emanuel, who laid out the steps the city had committed to take to remedy the problems, and Zachary T. Fardon, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.
Lynch said the Justice Department had reviewed thousands of documents, conducted extensive interviews and discovered widespread evidence that the Police Department was sorely in need of reform. It does not train officers properly, fails to properly collect and analyze data, and has little support from the community, the report said.
“The systems and policies that fail ordinary citizens also fail the vast majority of Chicago Police Department officers who risk their lives every day to serve and protect the people of Chicago,” Lynch said.
Emanuel acknowledged there had already been decades of complaints and past pledges for change, but he called the report “a moment of truth for the city.”
The report described a broad lack of oversight within the department. In some cases, officers reported that they had used force such as punching in order to restrain combative suspects, but video evidence reviewed by investigators frequently showed that use of force was unnecessary.
“We found that officers engage in tactically unsound and unnecessary foot pursuits, and that these foot pursuits too often end with officers unreasonably shooting someone — including unarmed individuals,” the report said. “We found that officers shoot at vehicles without justification and in contradiction to CPD policy. We found further that officers exhibit poor discipline when discharging their weapons and engage in tactics that endanger themselves and public safety, including failing to await backup when they safely could and should; using unsound tactics in approaching vehicles; and using their own vehicles in a manner that is dangerous.”
Chicago’s police superintendent, Eddie Johnson, said that some findings were “difficult to read” and that he wanted to expand training and mentoring for officers. “While I’m optimistic and hopeful about the direction that we’re heading in,” Johnson said, “I’m realistic about the fact that there is much, much, much more work that needs to be done.”
Leaders of the union that represents rank-and-file officers questioned the timing of the report and the speed with which the investigation was conducted.
“What also remains to be seen is whether or not the report might be considered compromised, or incomplete as a result of rushing to get it out before the presidential inauguration,” the union said in a statement.
Several activists said the findings were unsurprising but welcome. They urged sweeping reforms to the Police Department but expressed little confidence that they would take place.
“The decision that DOJ made today, I said it a long time ago: That the system is corrupt,” said Dorothy Holmes, whose son was killed by a Chicago officer in 2014. “We want accountability. We want these officers charged as criminals, as they would charge one of us with something.”
The inquiry was spurred by the city’s reluctant release of a chilling video in 2015 — more than a year after it was filmed — that showed a white police officer shooting a young black man, Laquan McDonald, 16 times.
Friday’s Justice Department report laid out missteps not just by Chicago police officers, but by their supervisors as well. Above, police officers watch as demonstrators walk through the Loop in downtown Chicago during protests against Chicago police tactics.