After a 13-month investigation of the Chicago Police Department, the U.S. Department of Justice announced its findings Friday. In a 164-page report, the DOJ revealed that Chicago police officers have systematically engaged in unconstitutional and unreasonable use of force over the course of the last four years. These patterns include shooting at and using Tasers on suspects who don’t present a threat, shooting at vehicles, using force “to retaliate against and punish individuals,” and using excessive force on juveniles. The DOJ did not, however, uncover a “pattern or practice” of racially discriminatory policing in Chicago.
Contributing to the persistent use-of-force problems, according to the DOJ, are officers’ failure to deescalate situations and use crisis intervention methods; officers’ tendency to use “tactics that unnecessarily endanger [them] and result in avoidable shootings and other uses of force”; and a failure on the part of the department to properly document and review officers’ uses of force.
The probe also found that the city has failed to investigate the majority of police misconduct cases that it’s required by law to investigate.
In addition to these main findings, the DOJ uncovered other problems within CPD that, while serious, didn’t rise to the level of a “pattern or practice” of constitutional violations within the department as a whole, in the view of investigators. These included: inadequate training and supervision for officers, including using a “decades-old video” for use-of-force training that had “guidance inconsistent with current law and CPD policy”; insufficient support for officers’ wellness and safety; inadequate data collection; a lack of transparency in the promotional system; and a “failure to adequately address racially discriminatory conduct by officers . . . and the corrosive effect on police legitimacy of excessive force, which falls most heavily on Chicago’s communities of color.”
“To Chicago’s credit the city has not been standing still since we announced our investigation,” outgoing U.S. attorney general Loretta Lynch said at a press conference Friday morning, where she was joined by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, DOJ Civil Rights Division head Vanita Gupta, CPD superintendent Eddie Johnson, and U.S. attorney Zachary Fardon. “Chicago has taken a number of encouraging steps, but there’s still considerable work to be done.” The DOJ investigation began in December 2015, shortly after the city released graphic footage of officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times.
Over the course of its investigation, DOJ officials visited all of the city’s 22 police districts, went on 60 ride-alongs with officers, and interviewed 340 department members and 23 members of the Independent Police Review Authority. They reviewed thousands of department documents and analyzed a “randomized, representative sample of force reports” for shootings and other incidents that occurred between January 2011 and April 2016. The DOJ also heard from CPD command members, 90 community groups, more than 1,000 citizens, and 11 “independent subject-matter experts.”
At the press conference, both federal and city officials stressed that many of the report’s recommendations came directly from police officers who felt they lacked proper training and support from the department.
While many hoped that the investigation would result in a legally binding consent decree between the city and the federal government to implement police reforms, the DOJ and the city emerged only with an “agreement in principle.” This document represents the city’s acknowledgment and acceptance of the DOJ’s findings and sets up a framework to proceed to consent degree negotiations. These could take many more months, however. If established, a consent decree would mandate reforms enforceable by a federal court and be overseen by an independent monitor.
The report notes that “notwithstanding the City’s recent efforts to address the broad problems within the Chicago Police Department, it is not likely to be successful in doing so without a consent decree with independent monitoring.”
Over the course of the Obama presidency, the DOJ has established consent decrees over police departments in nine different cities, including Cleveland and Ferguson, Missouri. Nationwide there are currently 40 agreements for police reform between the DOJ and local law enforcement agencies. The latest consent decree, issued in Baltimore, was announced Thursday, five months after the DOJ released the results of its investigation there.
It is widely believed that under the Trump administration the DOJ will step away from aggressive civil rights investigations of police departments. At his Senate confirmation hearing this week, Alabama senator Jeff Sessions voiced skepticism about the benefits and necessity of consent decrees to pressure police departments to reform.
“It’s a difficult thing for a city to be sued by the DOJ and be told that your police department is systemically failing to serve the people of the city,” Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “They often feel forced to agree to a consent decree just to remove that stigma and there are difficulties there.” Sessions also reportedly told Illinois U.S. senator Dick Durbin that he wasn’t aware that Chicago was under investigation by the DOJ.
Critics of federal oversight of police departments often cite the heavy local costs of undertaking reforms and paying independent monitors to oversee them. When the city of Ferguson tried to backpedal on some of the conditions of its consent decree citing a lack of funding, however, the DOJ committed to helping it find grants to pay for the necessary changes. In Oakland, on the other hand, a consent decree in place since 2003 has cost the city more than $13 million even as misconduct scandals continue to plague the police department.
With the incoming changes at the White House and DOJ, it seems unlikely that the federal agency will push for a consent decree with Chicago or help the city finance reforms if needed. Lynch reassured reporters that the DOJ career staff not subject to political appointments will remain committed to negotiations with Chicago. Emanuel, meanwhile, stressed that locally led reform efforts will continue with or without federal involvement: “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,” he said. “As we move forward, there are questions about what the next administration will do in Washington, but we know with certainty what we will do in the city of Chicago. We will commit to a path of reform, because that is the path of progress.”
Read the full DOJ report here:
Correction: An earlier version of this post gave the wrong start date for the DOJ’s consent decree with Oakland. That agreement has been in place since 2003.